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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My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal
"It's strange that I could become a professional athlete," said the Australian winner of this summer's Tour de France, Cadel Evans. "Physically, I was completely unsuitable for almost all Australian school sports. Nearly all Australian school sports require speed and/or size."
Belatedly, here is last week's Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal.
I once had a soft spot for the yeti, known in my youth as the "abominable snowman." As a teenager I avidly devoured stories of hairy bipeds glimpsed through snowstorms, strange cries echoing across glaciers, or enigmatic footprints in the snow. Slowly it dawned on me that the testimony was unreliable, the ecology implausible, the demography impossible and the lack of specimens conclusive.
I heartily recommend a new book called "And the Band Played On" by Christopher Ward, a friend of mine. It's a best-seller already in the UK. It's about his grandfather, who was the violinist in the band that played as the Titanic sank. But it's not about the sinking, but about what happened afterwards, and in particular the feud that broke about between the violinist's father and his pregnant fiancee's family. It's an astonishing tale of fraud, hoaxes, lawsuits, imprisonment and cruelty that would make a fiction writer blush at having exaggerated.
But, for the purposes of this website, what struck this rational optimist most was the examples of how non-good were the good old days. A world in which a ship's musician has to buy his own uniform on credit, to be deducted from his wages, is not very nice. But a world in which those wages were stopped by his employer at 2.20am on 14 April 1912 is shockingly awful. And a world in which his father then receives a letter pointing out that the wages having been stopped, there is still a sum owing for the uniform buttons, which the father should settle by return -- takes the biscuit. This was also a world in which a seventeen year old girl who devised a cruel hoax to get revenge on her father and stepmother was imprisoned in a brutal jail awaiting trial for deception. Yet I suspect Scotland in 1912 was a lot kinder than it was in 1812 or 1712.
Next time the Archbishop of Canterbury or some pontificating busybody tells me the world is getting worse because people are so much more selfish these days, I will suggest they read this book.
The Scientific Alliance newsletter has an interesting update on GM food. The public no longer feels the visceral fear of these crops that they did 13 years ago, even in Europe. But finding ways for politicians to climb off their high horses, without upsetting their masters in the Big Green organisations, is not proving easier. Here are three extracts:
Many farmers seem to like GM crops. Only 15 years after they were first commercialised, 148 million hectares were sown with biotech seeds around the world in 2010, a 10% increase over the previous year. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (www.isaaa.org), 15.4 million individual farmers grew GM crops, over 90% of them in developing countries. This is not unexpected: agriculture has evolved over the centuries by farmers trying and adopting new technology if they see a benefit. Crop biotechnology is just one more step on the road, and certainly not the last...
This anti-biotech activity has firm roots in the broader environmentalist and anti-globalisation movements. For most of the public, crop biotechnology is generally now a non-issue, and greater availability of GM crops - without taking away the critical element of choice - would be unlikely to cause a real furore in many countries, except amongst the activist minority. But that relies on governments taking the scientific advice of EFSA and allowing more approvals...
Update: I failed to make clear that negative numbers in the drought severity index implies worse droughts. The two findings below contradict each other. Here is another "greening", of the Sahel:
Here's (belatedly) a piece I published in the Times last week.
British Gas is putting up the cost of heating and lighting the average home by up to 18 per cent, or about £200 a year. Indignation at its profiteering is understandable. But that can only be a part of the story: the combined profits of the big six energy supply companies amount to less than 1.5 per cent of your energy bill, according to the regulator, Ofgem.
My l atest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on 3D printing:
Serendipity works in curious ways. Earlier this month, on the day before I read news of the successful implanting of a synthetic windpipe grown with a patient's own cells, I happened to have lunch with a civil engineer who told me about the first use of a 3-D printer to print structures in concrete. The two technologies are very different, but as I read more about each, I soon found an eerie convergence.
Mark Lynas's new book The God Species contains a few pages that dispute my account of ocean acidification in particular. Mark kindly alerted me to this and asked for my reaction. The result was an exchange, which Mark has put up on his blog here, which I mirror here. I thank Mark for taking my arguments seriously and suggesting an exchange of ideas.
Lynas: In my book The God Species I take science writer Matt Ridley to task for downplaying the dangers of ocean acidification. He responded via email, and I to him. Here is the exchange. Matt's final short responses are also included, indented as 'Ridley2′. Square brackets are mine, for clarification.
Ridley: You say [in The God Species]: "Why not just admit candidly that whilst the human advance has been amazing and hugely beneficial, it has also had serious environmental impacts?" Answer: I do. Human beings have serious environmental impacts. I say so and I do not deny them. For example: "Take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution, silt, nutrient runoff and fishing - especially the harvesting of herbivorous fishes that otherwise keep reefs clean of algae." From megafaunal extinction to alteration of the composition of the atmosphere, I detail lots of changes wrought by humans. On both climate change and ocean acidification, I accept a human alteration of the environment as real. What I argue with is whether the negative impacts are always as great as claimed or the positive ones always as small as claimed. That's quite different from not admitting that there are impacts, serious and otherwise.
Brian Eno, the musician and writer, is more positive as a result of reading The Rational Optimist:
"That kind of marks the change I've felt in the past year or two. I wouldn't end an album like that now," he says. Drums Between the Bells has a loose, funky feel; it ends with the words, "Everything will be all right". Eno's new-found positivity - partly sparked by eco-thinker and Eno friend Stewart Brand's book Whole Earth Discipline and popular science writer Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist - boils down to a belief that we've never had it so good.
"Cultures have a tendency to be pessimistic. The whole of the history of humanity is people going, 'It's all going to fall apart, my God it's looking terrible, we're not going to survive for another 20 years.' But, in fact, on average things have actually been getting better for thousands of years. It's like you're playing roulette in the casino and you keep winning and you think I've got to stop, this is not going to carry on. Well, it has been carrying on, by and large. Most of us in this country live a hundred times better lives than we would have done 100 years ago. So things are getting exponentially better for us, and we can't believe our luck, so there's a tendency to say, 'It can't go on'."
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the strange phenomenon of contagious cancer in dogs and Tasmanian devils, and whether it could happen to us. Elizabeth Murchison is speaking about this at the TED Global meeting in Edinburgh next week.
Frank Dikotter's fine -- and vital -- book on Mao's Great famine won the Samuel Johnson prize. But you can see a short film and a discussion about my book on the BBC Culture showhere(from minute 17.17 onwards). It's an honour to have made it to the shortlist.
Nic Lewis's discovery of a statistical alteration applied by the IPCC lends strong support to lukwarming
As most people know, I am a lukewarmer -- somebody who accepts carbon dioxide's full greenhouse potential, but does not accept the much more dubious evidence for net positive feedbacks on top, and who therefore thinks that a temperatuire rise of more than 2C in this century is unlikely.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Driving home the other day it occurred to me that almost none of the greenery I could see-trees, garden shrubs, grass shoulders on the highway-was going to be used by humans for food, fuel, clothing or shelter.
New evidence has been published that the Great Barrier Reef is not in trouble from climate change. The effects of bleaching are short-lived and reversible. When I said this in my book, I was patronised from a great height by a bunch of marine biologists in New Scientist. Will they, and New Scientist, now apologise? As I keep saying, coral reefs are indeed under threat from man-made problems -- pollution, overfishing, run-off, but climate change is the least of their worries. Here's the abstract of Osborne et al's paper in PLOS One:
Coral reef ecosystems worldwide are under pressure from chronic and acute stressors that threaten their continued existence. Most obvious among changes to reefs is loss of hard coral cover, but a precise multi-scale estimate of coral cover dynamics for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is currently lacking. Monitoring data collected annually from fixed sites at 47 reefs across 1300 km of the GBR indicate that overall regional coral cover was stable (averaging 29% and ranging from 23% to 33% cover across years) with no net decline between 1995 and 2009. Subregional trends (10-100 km) in hard coral were diverse with some being very dynamic and others changing little. Coral cover increased in six subregions and decreased in seven subregions. Persistent decline of corals occurred in one subregion for hard coral and Acroporidae and in four subregions in non-Acroporidae families. Change in Acroporidae accounted for 68% of change in hard coral. Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) outbreaks and storm damage were responsible for more coral loss during this period than either bleaching or disease despite two mass bleaching events and an increase in the incidence of coral disease. While the limited data for the GBR prior to the 1980's suggests that coral cover was higher than in our survey, we found no evidence of consistent, system-wide decline in coral cover since 1995. Instead, fluctuations in coral cover at subregional scales (10-100 km), driven mostly by changes in fast-growing Acroporidae, occurred as a result of localized disturbance events and subsequent recovery.
Here's what i wrote in my book.
Walter Russell Mead is always worth reading. Now he has written a two-part essay on Al Gore and the climate debate (part one; part two) that is, I think, very perceptive. It is angry, hard-hitting, and I don't agree with everything in it, but it somehow gets to to the core of the issue in a way that so much other commentary has not. This is the sort of old-fashioned polemic from somebody with historical perspective that has been lacking on this subject. Here's his conclusion:
The green movement's core tactic is not to "hide the decline" or otherwise to cook the books of science. Its core tactic to cloak a comically absurd, impossibly complex and obviously impractical political program in the authority of science. Let anyone attack the cretinous and rickety construct of policies, trade-offs, offsets and bribes by which the greens plan to govern the world economy in the twenty first century, and they attack you as an anti-science bigot.
The Rational Optimist is one of 13 books long-listed for the Royal Society Book prize for science books. If I make it to the shortlist, this will be my fifth time on this shortlist. (I have yet to win, though!)
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on cancer and evolution by natural selection:
Last week the American Cancer Society reported that death rates from cancer are falling steadily, at an annual rate of about 1.9% in men and 1.5% in women. A study published this week by the University of Colorado found that most seniors who died after being diagnosed with breast cancer actually lived long enough to have died of something else.
Prevention explains much of the decline in cancer fatalities, especially the drop in smoking. As for treatment, the most promising new options harness the very force that makes cancer so stubbornly virulent in the first place: evolution.
Here is an op-ed I wrote for today's Australian newspaper:
POLLYANNA is a fool; Cassandra was wise. As a self-proclaimed "rational optimist" who argues that the world has been getting better for most people and that the future is likely to be better still, I am up against a deep prejudice towards pessimism that dominates the intelligentsia. As John Stuart Mill put it, "not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage".
What is more, pessimism has become a hallmark of the Left, chiefly because it justifies activism. Once upon a time conservatives lamented the way the world had gone to the dogs since the golden age (and some still do), while socialists championed growth, technology and innovation to liberate the working class.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on how the future turns out:
Last month a crash dummy flew to 5,000 feet above ground level in a personal jet pack. The inventor, New Zealander Glenn Martin, has spent decades on the project and is ready to start selling the device for $100,000 each next year. The gasoline-driven machine can stay aloft for 30 minutes, thanks to what is, in effect, a pair of large leaf-blowers. A parachute provides partial reassurance if something should go wrong.
Mr. Martin's achievement is a reminder that, though we often underestimate the progress of a technology, sometimes we overestimate it. Back in the 1950s it seemed almost obvious that by the 21st century jet packs would be ubiquitous and routine aids to travel. They featured in sci-fi novels and comics and television series like "Lost in Space." A time-traveler who arrived from that era might be impressed by our Internet and mobile phones but amazed at our lack of working jet packs.
The Rational Optimist has been short-listed for the Samuel Johnson prize for the best non-fiction book of 2010.
From Andrew Bolt:
One German organic farm has killed twice as many people as the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Gulf Oil spill combined.
My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street Journal is about the precautionary principle as exemplified by the German e coli outbreak, which has now killed 29. Less precaution about new technology might have meant fewer deaths:
A technology that might have prevented contaminated produce from infecting thousands of Germans with E. coli was vetoed-by Germany-11 years ago for use in the European Union. Irradiating food with high-voltage electrons is a process that can kill bacteria on or in solid objects, just as pasteurization can kill them in liquid foods.
I have an article in The Conversation, an Australian idea forum:
I missed this news last month. For the second time in history, human beings have eradicated a disease altogether. This time it is rinderpest, which people cannot get, only cattle so it's not such big news as smallpox or (soon?) polio.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about what happens when hoaxers own up and nobody believes them. In the interest of space, I had to leave on the cutting room floor my favourite, though fictional, example. In The Life of Brian, Brian insists he is not the Messiah. A woman in the crowd then shouts: ``Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!''
Here's the column:
I have written the following review of Tim Harford's book Adapt, for Nature magazine:
Charles Darwin's big idea - that blind trial and error can progressively build a powerful simulacrum of purposeful design - got pigeonholed under biology. Yet it always had wider implications in economics, technology and culture. Darwin probably drew some elements of his bottom-up thinking from the political philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment, notably Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Biology is now returning the favour.
Books such as Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From (Allen Lane, 2010), Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants (Viking Books, 2010) and Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009) are suffused with concepts from natural selection, as is my own, The Rational Optimist (Fourth Estate, 2010). Tim Harford's Adapt follows this tradition, focusing on the key role of failure - the 'error' in trial and error - in economic and social progress.
I have the following op-ed in today's Times:
Oxfam's chief executive, Dame Barbara Stocking, claimed this week in a BBC interview that there will "absolutely not be enough food" to feed the world's population in a few decades' time.
Such certainty about the future is remarkable, so I downloaded Oxfam's new "report" with interest. Once I got past the fundraising banners, I found a series of assertions that there is a food crisis caused by failures of government "to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest, which means that companies, interest groups and elites are able to plunder resources and to redirect flows of finance, knowledge, and food". Oxfam is calling for "a new global governance" - effectively the nationalisation of the world food system.
A recent paper in the journal Nature concluded that species extinction caused by habitat loss is happening less than half as fast as usually estimated. The normal method for calculating rates of extinction assumes that doomed species merely cling temporarily to a shrunken patch of habitat, on their way to disappearing (an idea called "extinction debt"). Apparently, this isn't the case: Although a larger patch of habitat has more species in it, shrinking a patch does not lead to a proportional rate of species loss.
According to the authors of the study, the biologists Stephen Hubbell and Fangliang He, estimates of extinction rates based on the usual method are "almost always much higher than those actually observed." Though you need a big patch of forest to attract a rare species, you do not need such a big patch to retain it once it is there. Mr. Hubbell added: "The method has got to be revised. It is not right."
I sent this letter to the Financial Times:
Sir, Gideon Rachman ("In defence of gloomy columnists", May 24) is right to point out that terrible blips will still happen in an improving world. Another way of making the same point is that good news tends to be gradual, incremental and barely visible, while bad news almost by definition comes in sudden, newsworthy lumps: wars, crashes, disasters, epidemics. It is impossible to see a field of wheat growing, but easy to see it washed away by a flood.
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