Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.
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Matt will be in New York giving a talk at the New York Academy of Sciences on the evening of
19 May. Speaking about `How prosperity evolves' and selling books.
Feel free to spread the word.
Seth Roberts has read three new books about
how emperors are often more naked than people tell them they are.
I've read two of those books and had much the same reaction. The
trust-the-experts inertia of the financial markets described by
Michael Lewis in The Big Short is much like that in the climate
debate described by Andrew Montford in The Hockey Stick Illusion.
Roberts's third book is about Bernie Madoff.
I call these books The Emperor's New
Clothes Trilogy. Their broad lesson:Sometimes the "best
people" aren't right. Sometimes there's a point of view from which
they're glaringly wrong. The Hockey Stick Illusion is
about how Stephen McIntyre found this point of view. In No One
Would Listen Markopolos found this point of view. In The Big Short
several people found this point of view.
In Monty Python's immortal words:
Read this, taken from Roger Crowley's brilliant book Empires of the Sea:
Everyone employed chained labour --
captured slaves, convicts, and, in the Christian ships, paupers so
destitute they sold themselves to the galley captains. It was these
wretches, chained three or four to a foot-wide bench, who made sea
wars possible. Their sole function was to work themselves to death.
Shackled hand and foot, excreting where they sat, fed on meagre
quantities of black biscuits, and so thirsty they were sometimes
driven to drink seawater, galley slaves led lives bitter and
John Brockman's Edge site has lots of short essay-lets on what the ash cloud
episode means. Maybe because of the way it was reported in the
USA, remarkably few of the commentaries seem to get that it was a
huge buearucratic over-reaction to a theoretical model and based on
a zero-tolerance approach to ash that makes no sense. And it caused
real economic and emtoional pain.
No coincidence that the models were built for radioactivity.
Ash, chemicals, fallout and heat are things which are not linear in
their risk. That is to say, a very low dose is not slightly more
dangerous than no dose. It's no more dangerous. This is not true of
burglars and smallpox viruses.
Here's my contribution to the Edge collection:
The always perceptive Indur Goklany has turned his attention to
IPAT, the formula by which some environmentalists insist that
human impact (I) gets worse if population (P), affluence (A) or
technology (T) increases. This simple formula has become highly
influential, but it fails to explain why human well being keeps
increasing as P, A and T climb ever higher:
Tantalising clues have been emerging for some time from human
genomes that Neanderthals may have contributed a few genes to
posterity after all. That `we' mated with `them' occasionally.
The clues come in the form of widely differing DNA sequences
that seem to converge on common ancestors that lived long before
modern human beings came out of Africa 80,000 years ago or so.
There is good reason to be cautious -- it is possible that it
just means lots of very distantly Africans joined the migration --
but now it seems a tipping point is being reached in the debate.
The latest study of 600 microsatellite (fingerprint) sequences from
2,000 people is being interpreted as evidence of two separate
episodes of genetic mixing between Neanderthals (or
heidelbergensis) and ex-African `moderns'. SeeNeanderthals may have interbred with
David Brooks in the New York Times has news of a
contrarian finding about the internet:
Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the
Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than
old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association - like meeting
people at work, at church or through community groups. You're more
likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own
I am no expert on jet engines, but my suspicions from the very
beginning that the European authorities were over-reacting to
Iceland's ash cloud are hardening with every day. Of course flying
into an actual ash plume is dangerous, but that does not make a
well dispersed haze of ash dangerous.
It now turns out Europe's reaction was more extreme than
America's would have been. And airlines are increasingly calling
the bluff of the aviation authorities by doing test flights.
Politicians have been characteristically slow and useless. See here:
The International Air Transport
Association...expressed its "dissatisfaction with how governments
have managed it, with no risk assessment, no consultation, no
coordination, and no leadership"
Bishop Hill is doing a great job of following
the various inquiries into the climate emails.
The unthoroughness, biased membership and gullibility of the
Oxburgh and Russell inquiries has the effect on a lukewarmer like
me of driving me further into the sceptical camp. If the case for
man made global warming needs this much flagrant whitewashing, then
maybe, I begin to think, the exaggerations and mistakes are not
just the result of sloppiness, but are part of a deliberate attempt
to camouflage the truth to keep the gravy train on the track. If
the science was any good then it could stand proper scrutiny.
As Christpher Booker writes:
One of the themes in my forthcoming book is that there are huge
vested interests trying to prevent good news reaching the public.
That is to say, in the ruthless free-market struggle that goes on
between pressure groups for media attention and funds, nobody likes
to have it said that `their' problem is not urgent and getting
The lengths that acid rain alarmists in the EPA went to to
prevent the result of the NAPAP study reaching Congress before
crucial votes in the early 1990s is well documented, and this was when this
phenomenon first dawned on me. But now I see it everywhere.
Journalists rarely challenge pressure groups' claims of urgency
and deterioration, because those are the two things that get
editors' attention, too.
The sky's bright blue right now, which is weird because I am
looking up through a 5,000-metre thick plume of volcanic ash from
Iceland. This has stopped all flights in the UK air space and much
of northern Europe.
(As somebody quipped on the radio, `Dear Iceland, we said send
So there are no vapour condensation trails from jets, which
prompts the thought: did anybody ever figure out what con trails do
to the climate?
A scientist does a study of how Arctic seabirds die. It's not a
bad idea: die they do, but not from the usual diseases and
predators that kill birds in more temperate zones. So what does
He pores over thousands of records from birdwatchers in the
Arctic and concludes that weather-related events kill a lot of
them. Fulmars run into cliffs in fog, Murres get buried in
landslides when cliffs collapse. Birds get swept away in
storms. And so on.
Now the scientist has two options. He can say in a paper that a
lot of Arctic birds die due to `factors related to weather' and
bask in perpetual obscurity. Or he can slip in, just before the
word `weather', the phrase `climate and'.
Please look at these four objects below
I will have a lot to say in The Rational Optimist about
It's an easy trap, to think that the past was better or more
free than the present. It's not hard to show that the past was
poorer for most people, but was it more free?
Conservatives and libertarians often like to imply that life was
better in the old days, because the weight of bureaucratic
government rested lighter on people's shoulders, but
even socialists like Rousseau, Engels or William Morris
used to hark back to noble savagery, egalitarian peasantry or
Merrie medieval England before the Norman yoke for their golden
age. Back in the golden age itself, Hesiod was complaining that
things were worse than they used to be.
The thing about tightly coordinated flocks of birds is that they
can't work by top-down planning and they can't be anarchic
free-for-alls either. Now comes news that they are in between:
there is no single leader but some birds are more influential than
others in which way the flock turns.
Here's what the researchers, led by Dr Dora Biro of
The authors say that a hierarchical
arrangement may foster more flexible and efficient decision-making
compared with that of singly led or egalitarian groups. In future
studies, the scientists plan to investigate whether leaders are
better navigators, and whether hierarchies persist in larger groups
and in other types of social animal. "If it's true that there's an
evolutionary advantage to making decisions in this way, then
there's absolutely a reason to assume that it could have evolved in
other species too," Biro says.
Science is not the cataloguing of facts or the
accumulation of knowledge. It is the production of ignorance.
Scientists are in the business of finding new seams of
As Jennifer Doudna at U C Berkeley puts it in Erika Check
Hayden's Nature article about the tenth anniversary of the
first draft of the human genome sequence:
"The more we know, the more we realize
there is to know."
Unintentionally hilarious juxtaposition of remarks in an article
by the climate scientist James Hansen:
This is not the 17th century, when
"beliefs" trumped science, forcing Galileo to recant his
understanding of the solar system
David Brooks on why America's future is
In sum, the U.S. is on the verge of a
demographic, economic and social revival, built on its historic
strengths. The U.S. has always been good at disruptive change. It's
always excelled at decentralized community-building. It's always
had that moral materialism that creates meaning-rich products.
Surely a country with this much going for it is not going to wait
around passively and let a rotten political culture drag it
The Telegraph: Missing link between man and apes found.
The Sunday Times: Fossil from cave is a 'missing link'
From Maggie Koerth Baker at boingboing.net, a fascinating
how fresh and wondrous electricity seemed to Americans in 1916.
Pity she spoils it by an attempt at finding the cloud in the silver
lining at the end.
Centralized electricity changed energy
production from a difficult, in-home process that kept the messy
by-products of progress literally in your face, into something
magical that happened when you threw a switch. The choking smoke
was still there, but not at your house. There was still heavy labor
involved, but it wasn't done by you or your children. For the first
time, people were able to pretend that their standard of living was
provided, free of downsides, by little elves that lived in the
wall. All benefit, no detriment. Action without consequences. In
other words, this is the point where everybody went a little bit
The beauty is that this is still happening in parts of Africa
and Asia. A report on the Philippines estimated that
each family derives $108 a month in benefits from
connecting to the electricity grid - cheaper lighting ($37),
cheaper radio and television ($19), more years in education ($20),
time saving ($24) and business productivity ($8). As the
miracle of electricity reaches a village, people inhale less smoke,
read more school books, cut down fewer trees and find time to do
other things that earn them more money.
Breathless reporting last week of a new estimate of Greenland's
It's higher than it was before:
"The changes on the Greenland ice sheet are happening fast, and
we are definitely losing more ice mass than we had anticipated,"
says study co-author Isabella Velicogna of the University of
A fine analysis by Ted Nordhaus and Michael
Shellenberger of the way that climate science has been
distorted by environmentalism. They write:
"The result has been an ever-escalating
set of demands on climate science, with greens and their allies
often attempting to represent climate science as apocalyptic,
imminent, and certain, in no small part so that they could
characterize all resistance as corrupt, anti-scientific,
short-sighted, or ignorant. Greens pushed climate scientists to
become outspoken advocates of action to address global
warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise
were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate
scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and
misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the
Those of us who love science - the habit of licensed curiosity,
not the bureaucratic machine - have been increasingly dismayed by
the way that its high priests have been behaving over the climate
issue: trying to politicize, propagandise and polarize where
they should be questioning, debating and being awkward. The most
shocking thing to me about 'Climategate' was not the emails, but
the any-excuse-will-do reaction to them from the scientific
Chiffchaffs are the first summer visitors to arrive, around here
at least, and their distinctive song is hard to miss, and one day
near the vernal equinox suddenly there they are. I have
written down the date in my diary most years since 1990. Last night
I went back through the diaries and collated the data. It's hardly
scientific, but notice there is absolutely no sign of a drift
towards earlier arrival: if anything the reverse.
Yet here is whatThe Telegraph says:
Woke to find the newspapers all claiming a new "species" of
human being discovered in central Asia. Here's the Guardian:
"The finding suggests an undocumented human species lived
alongside Neanderthals and early modern humans in parts
of Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago."
Leave aside the fact that it's just a bone from a little finger,
leave aside the fact that they have only sequenced
some mitochondrial DNA, not nuclear DNA. Assume, for the
sake of argument, that they have ruled out contamination. Applaud -
as we should - the achievement of recovering DNA from the fossil
and sequencing it.
So Man flu is not a myth, because testosterone
inhibits the immune response.
This has been known to biologists for ages. In The Red Queen, I challenged readers to explain
why bodies should be designed that way: why set up an immune system
in such a way that it gets hindered by normal hormonal action? I
still find it baffling. Over the years readers took up my challenge
and wrote to me. They still do. Their answers nearly always boil
down to a version of this: to weed out weedy males. That is to say,
if males cannot both keep their testosterone levels up
and resist disease they don't deserve to contribute to posterity's
Trouble is, like all group selectionist arguments, it's
vulnerable to the evolutionary free rider. Along comes a mutant
animal that breaks the link between testosterone and illness and
hey presto it can breed away to its gonads' content, propagating
its subprime genes as if they were triple A.
Very nice piece ofrational optimism
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