Please note that this blog no longer accepts comments (there was
too much spam coming in!). If you're reading this blog and want to
respond then please use the contact form on the site.
You can also follow me on twitter.
My Times column on what might happen if the
British election prouces a messy result:
had a bad dream. It was April 2016. The country
was tumbling into a constitutional crisis, dragging the Queen into
a gathering storm in the week of her 90th birthday. The financial
markets were hammering the pound and threatening a bond strike as
the deficit rose and growth faltered. Jean-Claude Juncker,
president of the European Commission, said he feared that Britain
had become ungovernable.
It had begun with the election. The Conservatives had won the
most seats, 290 to Labour’s 260. But with only 26 Lib Dems in the
Commons, the Tories were unable to form a workable coalition, and
with Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander gone there was no appetite for
it anyway, not when David Cameron would have to rely also on Ukip
or the Ulster Unionists to get bills through parliament. So Mr
Cameron had formed a minority government, but could not carry a
Queen’s speech and lost a vote of confidence.
My column in The Times on British transport
By the time HS2 is fully operational in 2033, more
than a quarter of all cars on our roads will be fully autonomous,
according to a forecast by the consultants KPMG. That may well make
fast trains less urgent, and decongested motorways more so. The
economic case for HS2 is fragile enough before taking future
driverless cars into account.
Last week on the very same day that a House of Lords committee
savaged the economic case for the HS2 railway
— costing £50 billion with contingency — another report by KPMG, for the Society of Motor
Manufacturers and Traders, estimated the potential benefits to
Britain of driverless cars at £51 billion. Per year.
My Times column on carbon capture:
Carbon dioxide is not the most urgent problem
facing humanity, compared with war, extremism, poverty and disease.
But most presidents, popes and film stars think it is, so I must be
wrong. For the purposes of this article let’s assume they are
right. What’s the best way of solving the problem?
Whichever party wins the election will be legally committed to
cutting our carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. About
90 per cent of Britain’s total energy still comes from fossil fuels
and bio-energy, both of which produce carbon dioxide. The expansion
of nuclear, wind and solar is not going nearly fast enough, because
electricity comprises just one third of our energy use. If we are
to decarbonise transport and heating too, we will have to switch to
electric cars, and electric radiators, which means generating three
times as much electricity. Only aeroplanes would be left using
The environmental movement has advanced three arguments in
recent years for giving up fossil fuels: (1) that we will soon run
out of them anyway; (2) that alternative sources of energy will
price them out of the marketplace; and (3) that we cannot afford
the climate consequences of burning them.
These days, not one of the three arguments is looking very
healthy. In fact, a more realistic assessment of our energy and
environmental situation suggests that, for decades to come, we will
continue to rely overwhelmingly on the fossil fuels that have
contributed so dramatically to the world’s prosperity and
In 2013, about 87% of the energy that
the world consumed came from fossil fuels, a figure
that—remarkably—was unchanged from 10 years before. This roughly
divides into three categories of fuel and three categories of use:
oil used mainly for transport, gas used mainly for heating, and
coal used mainly for electricity.
My Times column on farm yields and land
If something drops out of the news, it usually
means it is going well. Mad cow disease killed nobody last year;
Mozambique and Angola are growing their economies at a furious
lick; the Somerset levels are not flooded this winter. There were
only two localised famines last year — in South Sudan and the
Central African Republic — both caused by conflict, rather than
drought or population pressure. That’s because the feeding of the
world is going so well it’s not news.
New figures from the United Nations’ Food and
Agriculture Organisation show that the world’s cereal harvest,
which provides more than half of the calories that humans eat,
broke a new record last year at 2.54 billion tonnes — an
astonishing 20 per cent higher than ten years ago. Thanks to better
techniques and seeds, the world’s farmers (of which I declare I am
one, in a mostly hands-off way) have provided a growing population
with more food per head, year after year, largely without
cultivating extra land or using extra water or chemicals.
My latest column in The Times:
The latest report into Jimmy Savile’s astonishing freedom
to roam the wards of Stoke Mandeville hospital will not lead to the
end of the National Health Service. Nor will the forthcoming report that apparently finds a
“systemic cover-up” of the unnecessary deaths of babies and mothers
at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust
between 2004 and 2013. The NHS itself will survive these scandals,
as it survived the Mid Staffordshire hospitals scandal of
2005-2008. The immortality of large public-sector monopolies is a
Likewise, although the Jimmy Savile affair has caused crises and
resignations at the BBC, nobody for a moment believed that the BBC
itself would close. But why not exactly? Private firms that get
into this much trouble generally do vanish, by takeover or
bankruptcy. Castlebeck, the company that ran the Winterbourne View
care home where scandalous treatment was exposed in 2011, went into
administration two years later. Pollypeck, Enron and Barings no
My Times column on free trade:
An American friend recently sent me a gift as a
thank you for a weekend’s hospitality. It arrived in the form of a
card from the Post Office telling me to pay a hefty sum of tax
before the item itself (a wooden bowl) could be delivered. Had my
friend been Scottish or French or from the next village there would
have been no charge. What business has government putting a tariff
barrier between two friends?
Last week the Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps delivered a passionate defence of free trade
of the kind that used to come from the radicals in the days of the
Corn Laws but these days is rarely heard from any part of the
political spectrum. Crucially, he took the perspective of the
consumer, not the producer.
My Times column on Britain's impending decision
to allow mitochondrial donation:
Tomorrow’s vote in the House of Commons on whether
to allow mitochondrial donation has at least flushed out the
churches. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches have decided that
it is not acceptable to let a handful of desperate families apply
to the authorities to be allowed to have their own children free of
the risk of rare mitochondrial conditions that, in the words of one
parent, “strip our children of the skills they have learnt and tire
their organs one by one until they fail”.
What conceivable greater moral good overrides the need of such
families? I suspect some clerics have gone no further into the
science behind this than the headline “Three-parent children”, and
said “Yuk!” If so, they have been horribly misled. There has rarely
been a more inaccurate phrase.
My review of the book Cryptocurrency appeared in the Times:
When the internet started, few guessed how it would develop. I
remember reviewing a string of books in the early 1990s arguing
that it would lead to atomised and isolated lives, cut off from
social contact. Social media put paid to that.
So it is rash to suggest just what the internet has in store for
us next. But it is also rash to think we can expect merely more of
what we have now. The internet is young and it is now evolving in a
virtually autonomous fashion with startling surprises in store. If
forced to make a (rash) guess, I would hazard that the next big
thing is going to be spawned by bitcoin, or rather the “blockchain”
technology behind bitcoin: cutting out the middleman in all forms
My recent column in The Times is on wildlife
On the day last week that the House of Commons was
debating a private member’s bill dealing with bats in churches,
conservationists were starting to eliminate rats from the island of South
Georgia by dropping poisoned bait from helicopters. Two very
different facets of wildlife conservation: the bats stand for
preservation of pristine nature from human interference; the rats
for active intervention to manage nature in the interests of other
wildlife. Which is better value for money?
Bats love roosting in churches, but those who love bats and
those who love churches are increasingly at loggerheads. Bat pee
has damaged many of the brasses in British churches, and stained or
eroded precious medieval monuments and paintings. Expensive
restoration work is often undone in a matter of months by
Edge.org has an annual question to which 190 people are invited
to respond. This year it is "What do you think of machines
that think?" and the answer I gave is below:
What I think about machines that think is that we are all
missing the point still. The true transforming genius of human
intelligence is not individual thinking at all but collective,
collaborative and distributed intelligence—the fact that (as
Leonard Reed pointed out) it takes thousands of different people to
make a pencil, not one of whom knows how to make a pencil. What
transformed the human race into a world-dominating technium was not
some change in human heads, but a change between them: the
invention of exchange and specialisation. It was a network
My Times column on genetic modification of
The European Parliament votes tomorrow on whether
to let countries decide their own policies on growing genetically
modified crops. The vote would allow countries such as Britain to
press ahead because of hard evidence that such crops are good for
the environment, good for consumers and good for farmers; and let
countries such as Austria continue to ban the things despite such
evidence. It’s an alliance of the rational with the superstitious
against the bureaucratic.
Indeed, the untold story is that it was a triumph of subtle
diplomacy by Owen Paterson — the Eurosceptic former environment
minister who knows how to work the Brussels system. Having gone out
on a limb to support GM crops in two hard-hitting speeches in 2013,
he was approached by his Spanish counterpart who was desperate to
unclog the interminable Brussels approval process for new
In December, I omitted to post my Times column on
government IT and digital policy:
The travel chaos last Friday was a reminder of
just how much life depends on Big Software doing its job. The
air-traffic control centre at Swanwick was six years late and
hundreds of millions over budget when it opened in 2002 in shiny
new offices, but with software still based on an upgraded, old
system. Unnoticed and unsung, however, this government may actually
have found a way to bring the horrid history of big, public IT projects to
My Times column on cancer, luck and good
If we could prevent or cure all cancer, what would
we die of? The new year has begun with a war of words over whether
cancer is mostly bad luck, as suggested by a new study from Johns Hopkins
School of Medicine, and over whether it’s a good way to die,
compared with the alternatives, as suggested by Dr Richard Smith, a former editor
of the BMJ.
My Times column is on the UK's high standard of
living and social freedoms:
Years ending in 15 (or 65) have often been good
ones to be British. In January, we celebrate 750 years since Simon
de Montfort first summoned Parliament to Westminster. In June, we
mark the 800th anniversary of making kings subject to the law in
Magna Carta. Three days later it’s off to Waterloo for the 200th
birthday of the battle.
There’s more. In October, we cry God for Harry, England and St
George, and beat the French again at the 600th anniversary of
Agincourt. November, for those with any fireworks left, marks the
300th anniversary of arguably the last battle fought on English
soil — at Preston, where the Old Pretender’s last hopes died.
I have had enquiries about my interest in coal mining, and am
happy to make the following statement:
The following has been on my website since its inception:
“I have a financial interest in coal mining on my family's land.
The details are commercially confidential, but I have always been
careful to disclose that I have this interest in my writing when it
is relevant; I am proud that the coal mining on my land contributes
to the local and national economy; and that my income from coal is
not subsidized and not a drain on the economy through raising
energy prices. I deliberately do not argue directly for the
interests of the modern coal industry and I consistently champion
the development of gas reserves, which is a far bigger threat to
the coal-mining industry than renewable energy can ever be. So I
consistently argue against my own financial interest.”
My column in the Times, with post-scripts:
As somebody who has championed science all his
career, carrying a lot of water for the profession against its
critics on many issues, I am losing faith. Recent examples of bias
and corruption in science are bad enough. What’s worse is the
reluctance of scientific leaders to criticise the bad apples.
Science as a philosophy is in good health; science as an
institution increasingly stinks.
My column in The Times:
The Civil Aviation Authority is concerned that
pilots are becoming too reliant on automation and are increasingly
out of practice in what to do when the autopilot cannot cope. We
now know that a fatal Air France crash in the Atlantic in 2009 was
caused by confused co-pilots reacting wrongly when the autopilot
disengaged during turbulence. They put the nose of the plane up
instead of down.
But there is another way to see that incident: the pilot was
asleep at the time, having spent his time in Rio sightseeing with
his girlfriend instead of sleeping. When roused as the plane
stalled, he woke slowly and reacted too groggily to correct the
co-pilots’ mistakes. Human frailty crashed the plane, not mistakes
My column in the Times:
My Times column on the little-changed political
institutions of London:
Two hundred and ninety years ago a novelist, spy,
tradesman and bankrupt named Daniel Defoe began publishing his account of A Tour Thro’ the Whole
Island of Great Britain. A book out this week by the
distinguished sociologist WG Runciman imagines what Defoe would
make of the island if he were to take his tour again today. His title gives away the
conclusion: Very Different, But Much the Same.
For all the astonishing changes that would boggle Defoe’s mind —
aeroplanes, toilets, motorways, telephones, cameras, pensions, the
internet, religious diversity, vaccines, working women, electricity
and vastly higher living standards especially for the poor — he
would be just as amazed at the things that have not changed.
My Times column is on a disagreement between
Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins about evolution:
I find it magnificent that a difference of opinion
about the origin of ants between two retired evolutionary
biologists, one in his eighties and one in his seventies, has made
the news. On television, the Harvard biologist EO Wilson called the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins a
“journalist”, this being apparently the lowest of insults in the
world of science; it was taken as such.
My Times column:
A confession: I voted for the Green Party in 1979 – one of less
than 40,000 people in the whole country who did so. It was then
called the Ecology Party and I knew the local candidate in Oxford,
which is some excuse. But mainly I wanted to save the planet, and
thought the greater good should trump self interest. I was
definitely on the moral high ground. Or was I? Hold that
The latest opinion polls show that the Green Party is doing to
the Liberal Democrats what UKIP is doing to the Conservatives, and
could even relegate the LibDems to fifth place in next year’s
general election in terms of vote share. Peter Kellner of Yougov
has analysed today’s typical Green voter and found
that she is almost a mirror image of the UKIP voter. Where UKIP
voters are older, maler, more working class, less educated and more
religious than the average voter, Green voters are younger,
femaler, posher, much better educated and less religious than the
My Times column is on the World Health
Organisation's odd priorities: its early complacency about ebola,
while it attacks a new technology that saves the lives of smokers
by getting them off tobacco, and obsesses about climate change:
Is there a connection between ebola and
e-cigarettes?I don’t mean to imply that vaping has caused the
epidemic in west Africa. But the World Health Organisation (WHO)
now has serious questions to answer about its months of complacency
over ebola. WHO’s director-general, Margaret Chan, made a speech
only two weeks ago implying that tobacco control and the fight
against e-cigarettes is a more important issue.
My Times column on the faling oil price:
So ingrained is the bad-news bias of the
intelligentsia that the plummeting price of oil has mostly been
discussed in terms of its negative effect on the budgets of oil
producers, both countries and companies. We are allowed to rejoice
only to the extent that we think it is a good thing that the
Venezuelan, Russian and Iranian regimes are most at risk, which
My Times column on Ebola:
It is not often I find myself agreeing with
apocalyptic warnings, but the west African ebola epidemic deserves
hyperbole right now.
My Times column on how banning neo-nicotinoid
pesticides is proving counter-productive for bees:
The European Union’s addiction to the
precautionary principle — which says in effect that the risks of
new technologies must be measured against perfection, not against
the risks of existing technologies — has caused many perverse
policy decisions. It may now have produced a result that has proved
so utterly foot-shooting, so swiftly, that even Eurocrats might
notice the environmental disaster they have created.
My Times column on who started bitcoin and what
Amid the hurly-burly of war, disease and politics,
you might be forgiven for not paying much attention to bitcoin, the
electronic form of money favoured by radical libertarians and drug
dealers. Yet it is possible that when the history of these days
comes to be written, bitcoin’s story will loom large. Unnoticed
except by the tech-obsessed, the technology behind bitcoin may be
slowly giving birth to a brave new world, with eventual
implications well beyond money.
So argues a new book (Bitcoin:
The Future of Money?) by the financial commentator and
comedian Dominic Frisby. He makes the case that it is just possible
that bitcoin and its rivals — known as altcoins — and the
“blockchain” technology that lies behind them have the potential to
spark a radical decentralisation of society itself. They could
change the way governments finance themselves, make banks redundant
and transform the ways companies are run. In the words of Jeff
Garzik, a bitcoin developer, bitcoin could be “the biggest thing
since the internet — a catalyst for change in all areas of our
My review of Steven Johnson's book How We Got To Now appeared in the Times:
The meteorologist Edward Lorenz famously asked, in the title of
a lecture in 1972: “does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil
set off a tornado in Texas?”, and the phrase “the butterfly effect”
entered the language. If Steven Johnson’s book How We
Got to Nowcatches on — and it deserves to — then the
“humming bird effect” will also become common parlance.
My Times column on English devolution following
the Scottish independence referendum:
As part of the 1 per cent of England’s population
that lives north of Hadrian’s Wall, I have found the past few weeks
more than usually intriguing. It was fascinating to find that
nearly everybody in the media seems to think the wall is the
Scottish border; some news takes 1,500 years to reach the
metropolis. And we northeasterners have been banging on for decades
about the unfairness of the Barnett formula, which guarantees
£1,600 extra in public spending per Scottish head per year, so it’s
nice to see the rest of England waking up to that one, too.
My recent Times column argued that the alleged healing
of the ozone layer is exaggerated, but so was the impact of the
ozone hole over Antarctica:
The ozone layer is healing. Or so said the news
last week. Thanks to a treaty signed in Montreal in 1989 to get rid
of refrigerant chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the
planet’s stratospheric sunscreen has at last begun thickening
again. Planetary disaster has been averted by politics.
My op-ed in the Wall Street Journal addresses the
latest explanations for the "pause" in global warming and their
implications. I have responded to an ill-informed critique of the
On Sept. 23 the United Nations will host a party for world
leaders in New York to pledge urgent action against climate change.
Yet leaders from China, India and Germany have already announced
that they won't attend the summit and others are likely to follow,
leaving President Obama looking a bit lonely. Could it be that they
no longer regard it as an urgent threat that some time later in
this century the air may get a bit warmer?
My Times column last week was on the historical
roots of government:
Nobody seems to agree whether Islamic State is
best described as a gang of criminals, a terrorist organisation or
a religious movement. It clearly has a bit of all three. But don’t
forget that it aspires, for better or worse, to be a government. A
brutal, bigoted and murderous government, its appeal is at least
partly that it seems capable of imposing its version of “order” on
the territory it controls, however briefly. It reminds us that the
origin and defining characteristic of all government is that it is
an organisation with a monopoly on violence.
My recent Times column was on the stagnation of European
economic growth rates:
The financial crisis was supposed to have
discredited the “Anglo-Saxon” model of economic management as
surely as the fall of the Berlin wall discredited communism. Yet
last week’s numbers on economic growth show emphatically the
opposite. The British economy is up 3.2 per cent in a year, having
generated an astonishing 820,000 jobs. We are behaving more like
Canada, Australia and America than Europe.
If you think one year is too short, consider that (as David Smith pointed out in the Sunday Times)
Britain’s GDP is now 30 per cent higher than it was in 1999,
whereas Germany, France and Italy are just 18 per cent, 17 per cent
and 3 per cent more prosperous respectively. For all Britain’s huge
debt burden, high taxes and chronic problems, we do still seem to
be able to grow the economy. Thank heavens we stayed out of the
The Times carried my article arguing that things are still going
well for the world as a whole even in a month of war, terror and
disease. I have illustrated it with two superb charts from ourworldindata.org, a website being developed
by the talented Max Roser.
Is this the most ghastly silly season ever? August 2014 has
brought rich pickings for doom-mongers. From Gaza to Liberia, from
Donetsk to Sinjar, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse — conquest,
war, famine and death — are thundering across the planet, leaving
havoc in their wake. And (to paraphrase Henry V), at their heels,
leashed in like hounds, debt, despair and hatred crouch for
employment. Is there any hope for humankind?
My column in the Times on 11th August:
Tomorrow sees the start of the red grouse shooting
season, a sport under attack as never before, with a petition to
ban it, and campaigns to get supermarkets to stop selling grouse
As somebody who lives in the rural north and knows the issue at
first hand, I am in no doubt that the opponents of grouse shooting
have it backwards. On both economic and ecological grounds, the
shooting of grouse is the best conservation practice for the
heathery hills of Britain. If it were to cease, most
conservationists agree that not only would curlews, lapwings and
golden plover become much scarcer, even locally extinct, but much
heather moorland would be lost to forest, bracken, overgrazing or
As you may know by now, I am a serial debunker of
alarm and it usually serves me in good stead. On the threat posed
by diseases, I’ve been resolutely sceptical of exaggerated scares
about bird flu and I once won a bet that mad cow disease would
never claim more than 100 human lives a year when some “experts”
were forecasting tens of thousands (it peaked at 28 in 2000). I’ve
drawn attention to the steadily falling mortality from malaria and
I have a piece in the latest Spectator on the
tercentenary of King George I:
My recent essay in the Wall Street Journal
discusses how to prioritise development aid:
In September next year, the United Nations plans to choose a
list of development goals for the world to meet by the year 2030.
What aspirations should it set for this global campaign to improve
the lot of the poor, and how should it choose them?
My Times Column explores why renewable energy has
been so disappointing.
On Saturday my train was diverted by engineering
works near Doncaster. We trundled past some shiny new freight
wagons decorated with a slogan: “Drax — powering tomorrow: carrying
sustainable biomass for cost-effective renewable power”.
Serendipitously, I was at that moment reading a report by the chief scientist at the
Department of Energy and Climate Change on the burning of wood in
Yorkshire power stations such as Drax. And I was feeling
A year ago I wrote in these pages that it made no sense for
the consumer to subsidise the burning of American wood in place of
coal, since wood produces more carbon dioxide for each
kilowatt-hour of electricity. The forests being harvested would
take four to ten decades to regrow, and this is the precise period
over which we are supposed to expect dangerous global warming to
emerge. It makes no sense to steal beetles’ lunch, transport it
halfway round the world, burning diesel as you do so, and charge
hard-pressed consumers double the price for the power it
My Times column is on religion in schools:
We now know from Peter Clarke’s report, published today but
leaked last week, that there was indeed “co-ordinated, deliberate
and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive
Islamist ethos into some schools” in Birmingham.
Whistleblowers first approached the British Humanist Association
in January with such allegations, weeks before the appearance of
the Trojan Horse letter. The BHA (of which I should declare I am a
“distinguished supporter” though I’ve never done much to deserve
this accolade) properly passed on the information to the Department
My Times column tackles the misleading metaphor of the slippery
Who first thought up the metaphor of the slippery
slope? It’s a persistent meme, invoked in many a debate about
ethics, not least over the assisted dying bill for which I expect
to vote in the House of Lords on Friday. But in practice, ethical
slopes are not slippery; if anything they are sometimes too
My Times column on the BBC's unbalanced
The BBC’s behaviour grows ever more bizarre.
Committed by charter to balanced reporting, it has now decided
formally that it was wrong to allow balance in a debate between
rival guesses about the future. In rebuking itself for having had
the gall to interview Nigel Lawson on the Today programme about
climate change earlier this year, it issued a statement containing
this gem: “Lord Lawson’s views are not supported by the evidence
from computer modelling and scientific research.”
The evidence from computer modelling? The phrase is an oxymoron.
A model cannot, by definition, provide evidence: it can provide a
prediction to test against real evidence. In the debate in
question, Lord Lawson said two things: it was not possible to
attribute last winter’s heavy rain to climate change with any
certainty, and the global surface temperature has not warmed in the
past 15 to 17 years. He was right about both, as his debate
opponent, Sir Brian Hoskins, confirmed.
Here's a version of the article I published in the Financial Post this
week with added links:
The debate over climate change is horribly polarized. From the
way it is conducted, you would think that only two positions are
possible: that the whole thing is a hoax or that catastrophe is
inevitable. In fact there is room for lots of intermediate
positions, including the view I hold, which is that man-made
climate change is real but not likely to do much harm, let alone
prove to be the greatest crisis facing humankind this century.
My Times column was on when property rights
are too strong; though in other cases they are too weak.
The government is consulting on whether to amend
the law so that you cannot stop a gas or geothermal company from
drilling a horizontal well a mile beneath your house, though you
can get paid for it. Lord Jenkin of Roding last week pointed out
that, under the common law, ownership of your plot reaches “up to
Heaven and down to Hades”. Is the government justified in weakening
this aspect of your property rights below a depth of 300
My Times column on inequality:
There was a row last week between the “rock star
economist” Thomas Piketty and Chris Giles of theFinancial
Times over statistics on inequalities in wealth — in this
country in particular. When the dust settled, the upshot seemed to
be that in Britain wealth inequality probably did inch up between
1980 and 2010, but not by as much as Piketty had claimed, though it
depends on which data sets you trust.
Well, knock me down with a feather. You mean to say that during
three decades when the government encouraged asset bubbles in house
prices; gave tax breaks to pensions; lightly taxed wealthy
non-doms; poured money into farm subsidies; and severely restricted
the supply of land for housing, pushing up the premium earned by
planning permission for development, the wealthy owners of capital
saw their relative wealth increase slightly? Well, I’ll be
My Times column is on the eradication of diseases
and the resurrection fo extinct species. Both interferences with
nature would be a good thing.
The World Health Organisation’s annual assembly
decided on Saturday evening not to set a date to destroy the last
two remaining samples of smallpox virus kept in secure laboratories
in Atlanta and Novosibirsk. Smallpox, being a virus, does not
really count as a living species. But the prospect of the
deliberate extinction of some harmful species is getting closer. Be
in no doubt — it would be an unambiguously good thing.
Smallpox was eradicated outside laboratories in 1977, when Ali
Maow Maalin recovered from the disease in Merca, Somalia (he died
last year of malaria). Until now researchers have wanted to keep
the virus alive in the laboratory just in case they need to study
it further. Pretty well everybody now agrees that the risk of
keeping the virus is greater than the risk of not keeping it.
Remember that the last case of smallpox was the death of Janet
Parker, a medical photographer, in Birmingham in 1978, who caught
it from a laboratory.
My Times column on the politics of liberty:
As the Ukip campaign ploughs steadily farther off
the rails into the anti-immigrant bushes, in search presumably of
former British National Party voters, it becomes ever easier for
small-government, classical liberals — like me — to resist its
allure. Nigel Farage once advocated flat taxes, drug
decriminalisation and spending cuts. Now his party has dropped the
flat tax, opposes zero-hours contracts, is hostile to gay marriage
and talks about subsidising farmers and growing the defence
Meanwhile, the Conservative party has probably never been so
socially tolerant, or the Labour party so socially reactionary, as
they are today. Is a great realignment possible, with the old
Gladstonian coalition of economic free-marketers and social
liberals gradually re-emerging, with Labour, Ukip, the Greens and
the Lib Dems left appealing to those who fear change?
My Times column on the implications of genetic
evolution since races diverged:
Is it necessary to believe that racial differences
are small and skin-deep in order not to be a racist? For the first
half of the last century, science generally exaggerated stereotypes
of racial difference in behaviour and assumed that they were innate
and immutable. For the second half, science generally asserted that
there were no differences — save the obvious, visible ones — and
used this argument to combat prejudice.
Yet that second premise is becoming increasingly untenable in
the genomic era as more details emerge of human genetic diversity.
We will have to justify equal treatment using something other than
identity of nature. Fortunately, it’s easily done.
My Thunderer column in the Times on the bullying
of a distinguished climate scientist for having the temerity to
advise those who doubt the speed of climate change:
[update: links repaired below]
Lennart Bengtsson is about as distinguished as
climate scientists get. His decision two weeks ago to join the
academic advisory board (on which I also sit, unremunerated) of
Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation was greeted with
fury by many fellow climate scientists. Now in a McCarthyite move —
his analogy — they have bullied him into resigning by refusing to
collaborate with him unless he leaves.
My Times column on the Lucky Planet theory:
We may be unique and alone in the Universe, not
because we are special but because we are lucky. By “we”, I mean
not just the human race, but intelligent life itself. A fascinating
book published last week has changed my mind about this mighty
question, and I would like to change yours. The key argument
concerns the Moon, which makes it an appropriate topic for a bank
David Waltham, of Royal Holloway, University of London, is the
author of the very readable Lucky Planet, which argues that the Earth
is probably rare, perhaps even unique, as planets go. He is also a
self-confessed “moon bore” who has made important discoveries about
how the Moon formed.
My Times column is on the relationshio between
science and technology, especially in the UK:
The chancellor, George Osborne, made a speech on science in Cambridge last
week in which he contrasted Britain’s “extraordinary”
scientific achievements with “our historic weakness when it comes
to translating those scientific achievements into commercial gain”.
It’s a recurring complaint in British science policy that we
discover things, then others make money out of them.
Britain’s astonishing ability to gather scientific firsts — we
are second only to the US in Nobel prizes — shows no sign of
abating. We have won 88 scientific Nobel prizes, 115 if you add
economics, literature and peace. This includes 12 in the past ten
years and at least one in each of the past five years. But we filed
fewer patents last year than the US, Japan, Germany, France, China
or South Korea, and we have seen many British discoveries
commercialised by others: graphene, DNA sequencing, the worldwide
web, to name a few. So yes, we are good at science but bad at
founding new industries.
My Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal on
resources and why they get more abundant, not less:
How many times have you heard that we humans are "using up" the
world's resources, "running out" of oil, "reaching the limits" of
the atmosphere's capacity to cope with pollution or "approaching
the carrying capacity" of the land's ability to support a greater
population? The assumption behind all such statements is that there
is a fixed amount of stuff—metals, oil, clean air, land—and that we
risk exhausting it through our consumption.
"We are using 50% more resources than the Earth can sustainably
produce, and unless we change course, that number will grow fast—by
2030, even two planets will not be enough," says Jim Leape, director general of the World
Wide Fund for Nature International (formerly the World Wildlife
My Times column is on economic projections for the
In the past 50 years, world per capita income
roughly trebled in real terms, corrected for inflation. If it
continues at this rate (and globally the great recession of recent
years was a mere blip) then it will be nine times as high in 2100
as it was in 2000, at which point the average person in the world
will be earning three times as much as the average Briton earns
I make this point partly to cheer you up on Easter Monday about
the prospects for your great-grandchildren, partly to start
thinking about what that world will be like if it were to happen,
and partly to challenge those who say with confidence that the
future will be calamitous because of climate change or
environmental degradation. The curious thing is that they only
predict disaster by assuming great enrichment. But perversely, the
more enrichment they predict, the greater the chance (they also
predict) that we will solve our environmental problems.
My column in last week's Times was on the rise in
employment, reforms to welfare and the productivity puzzle in
Successful innovations are sometimes low-tech:
corrugated iron, for example, or the word “OK”. In this vein, as
Iain Duncan Smith will say in a speech today in South London, a
single piece of paper seems to be making quite a difference to
Britain’s unemployment problem. It’s called the “claimant
commitment” and it has been rolling out to job centres since
October last year; by the end of this month it will be
My review for The Times of James Lovelock's new
book, A Rough Ride to the Future.
This book reveals that James Lovelock, at 94, has not lost his
sparkling intelligence, his lucid prose style, or his cheerful
humanity. May Gaia grant that we all have such talents in our tenth
decades, because the inventor of gadgets and eco-visionary has
lived long enough to recant some of the less sensible views he
espoused in his eighties.
My Spectator article on the IPCC's new emphasis
Nigel Lawson was right after all. Ever since the Centre for
Policy Studies lecture in 2006 that launched the former chancellor
on his late career as a critic of global warming policy, Lord
Lawson has been stressing the need to adapt to climate change,
rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it.
Until now, the official line has been largely to ignore adaptation
and focus instead on ‘mitigation’ — the misleading term for
preventing carbon dioxide emissions.
That has now changed. The received wisdom on global warming,
published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was
updated this week. The newspapers were, as always, full of stories
about scientists being even more certain of environmental
Armageddon. But the document itself revealed a far more striking story: it emphasised, again and again, the need to adapt
to climate change. Even in the main text of the press release that
accompanied the report, the word ‘adaptation’ occurred ten times,
the word ‘mitigation’ not at all.
My review of William Easterly's book The Tyranny of Experts for The Times:
Imagine, writes the economist William Easterly, that in 2010
more than 20,000 farmers in rural Ohio had been forced from their
land by soldiers, their cows slaughtered, their harvest torched and
one of their sons killed — all to make way for a British forestry
project, financed and promoted by the World Bank. Imagine that when
the story broke, the World Bank promised an investigation that
My Times column is on the missing airliner and
The tragic disappearance of all 239 people on
board flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean has one really peculiar
feature to it: none of the possible explanations is remotely
plausible, yet one of them must be true.
The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
will shortly publish the second part of its latest report, on the
likely impact of climate change. Government representatives are
meeting with scientists in Japan to sex up—sorry, rewrite—a summary
of the scientists' accounts of storms, droughts and diseases to
come. But the actual report, known as AR5-WGII, is less frightening than its predecessor seven
The 2007 report was riddled with errors about Himalayan
glaciers, the Amazon rain forest, African agriculture, water
shortages and other matters, all of which erred in the direction of
alarm. This led to a critical appraisal of the report-writing
process from a council of national science academies, some of whose
recommendations were simply ignored.
Others, however, hit home. According to leaks, this time the
full report is much more cautious and vague about
worsening cyclones, changes in rainfall, climate-change refugees,
and the overall cost of global warming.
My Times column is on technology and jobs:
Bill Gates voiced a thought in a speech last week
that is increasingly troubling America’s technical elite — that
technology is about to make many, many people redundant. Advances
in software, he said, will reduce demand for jobs, substituting
robots for drivers, waiters or nurses.
The last time that I was in Silicon Valley I found the
tech-heads fretting about this in direct proportion to their
optimism about technology. That is to say, the more excited they
are that the “singularity” is near — the moment when computers
become so clever at making themselves even cleverer that the
process accelerates to infinity — the more worried they are that
there will be mass unemployment as a result.
My book review for The Times of William Easterly's new book "The
Tyranny of Experts"
My Times column is on malaria, TB and Aids -- all
in steady decline, a fact that officials and journalists seem
reluctant to report:
There’s a tendency among public officials and
journalists, when they discuss disease, to dress good news up as
bad. My favourite example was a BBC website headline from 2004 when
mortality from the human form of mad-cow disease, which had been
falling for two years, rose from 16 to 17 cases: “Figures show rise
in vCJD deaths” wailed the headline. (The incidence fell to eight
the next year and zero by 2012, unreported.) Talk about grasping at
straws of pessimism.
My Times column is on harm reduction, Swedish
snus and e-cigarettes:
Is this the end of smoking? Not if the bureaucrats
can help it.
Sweden’s reputation for solving policy problems,
from education to banking, is all the rage. The Swedes are also ahead of
the rest of Europe in tackling smoking. They have by far the fewest
smokers per head of population of all EU countries. Lung cancer
mortality in Swedish men over 35 is less than
half the British rate.
This is my column in the Times this week. I have added
some updates in the text and below.
In the old days we would have drowned a witch to
stop the floods. These days the Green Party, Greenpeace and Ed
Miliband demand we purge the climate sceptics. No insult is too
strong for sceptics these days: they are “wilfully ignorant” (Ed Davey), “headless
chickens” (the Prince of Wales) or “flat-earthers” (Lord Krebs), with “diplomas in idiocy” (one of my
fellow Times columnists).
My recent Times column on new discoveries in the
history of our species:
It is somehow appropriate that the 850,000-year-old footprints found on a beach in
Norfolk last May, and announced last week, have since been washed
away. Why? Because the ephemeral nature of that extraordinary
discovery underlines the ever-changing nature of scientific
knowledge. Science is not a catalogue of known facts; it is the
discovery of new forms of ignorance.
For those who thought they knew the history of the human
species, the past few years have been especially humbling. There
has been a torrent of surprising discoveries that has washed away
an awful lot of what we thought we knew, leaving behind both much
more knowledge and many more questions.
My Times column this week was on the facts behind the
The Swedish data impresario Hans Rosling recently asked some British people to estimate
the average number of births per woman in Bangladesh and gave them
four possible answers. Just 12 per cent got the right answer (2.5),
whereas 25 per cent of chimpanzees would have got it right if the
answers had been written on four bananas from which they could
choose one at random. Remarkably, university-educated Britons did
worse, not better, than non-graduates. It is not so much what you
don’t know as what you know that isn’t so.
Hold that thought while I introduce you to Tom Perkins, the
Silicon Valley venture capitalist and former husband of the crime
writer Danielle Steel, who stirred up fury in America when he wrote to The Wall Street
Journal last month complaining about a rising tide of hatred
against the very rich, and indirectly but crassly comparing it to
Kristallnacht. A few days later President Obama used his State of
the Union speech to take aim at inequality. In this country, too,
inequality is one thing that much rankles with most people, as the
50 per cent tax rate row reveals.
This is Stephen McIntyre’s response to me, commenting on the
letters from Professor Keith Briffa to the Times in response to my
column on the widespread problem of withheld adverse data. It makes
very clear that my account was accurate, that my account was
mischaracterized by Professor Briffa in serious ways, and that
nothing in his letters refutes my original claim that had a key
dataset not been ignored, a very much less striking result would
have been published. Professor Briffa now says he was reprocessing
the data, but in 2009 he said “we simply did not consider these
data at this time”. Neither explanation fits the known facts
I therefore stand by my story.
My original intention in mentioning this example, chosen from
many in climate science of the same phenomenon, was to draw
attention to the fact that non-publication of adverse data is not a
problem confined to the pharmaceutical industry, but also occurs in
government-funded, policy-relevant areas of academic science.
My recent Times column was on human monogamy:
The tragic death of an Indian minister’s wife and the overdose
of a French president’s “wife” give a startling insight into the
misery that infidelity causes in a monogamous society. In cultures
like India and France, it is just not possible for men to reap the
sexual rewards that usually attend arrival at the top of society.
President Zuma of South Africa has four wives and 20 children,
while one Nigerian preacher is said to have 86 wives. Chinese
emperors used to complain of their relentless sexual duties. Why
As China’s one-child policy comes officially to an
end, it is time to write the epitaph on this horrible experiment —
part of the blame for which lies, surprisingly, in the West and
with green, rather than red, philosophy. The policy has left China
with a demographic headache: in the mid-2020s its workforce will
plummet by 10 million a year, while the number of the elderly rises
at a similar rate.
The difficulty and cruelty of enforcing a one-child policy was
borne out by two stories last week. The Chinese film director Zhang
Yimou, who directed the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony in 2008,
has been fined more than £700,000 for having
three children, while another young woman has come forward with her story (from only two
years ago) of being held down and forced to have an abortion at
seven months when her second pregnancy was detected by the
It has been a crime in China to remove an intra-uterine device
inserted at the behest of the authorities, and a village can be
punished for not reporting an illegally pregnant inhabitant.
My Times column is on the dangers of omitting
Perhaps it should be called Tamiflugate. Yet the
doubts reported by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee
last week go well beyond the possible waste of nearly half a
billion pounds on a flu drug that might not be much better than
paracetamol. All sorts of science are contaminated with the problem
of cherry-picked data.
The Tamiflu tale is that some years ago the pharmaceutical
company Roche produced evidence that persuaded the World Health
Organisation that Tamiflu was effective against flu, and
governments such as ours began stockpiling the drug in readiness
for a pandemic. But then a Japanese scientist pointed out that most
of the clinical trials on the drug had not been published. It
appears that the unpublished ones generally showed less impressive
results than the published ones.
My Times column of 30 December 2013:
It was only five years ago that “Anglo-Saxon”
economics was discredited and finished. Continental or Chinese
capitalism, dirigiste and heavily regulated, was the future. Yet
here’s the Centre for Economics and Business Research last week
saying that Britain is on course to remain the sixth or seventh
biggest economy until 2028, by when it is poised to pass Germany,
mainly for demographic reasons. Three others of the top ten will be
its former colonies: the US, India and Canada.
Even today, of the IMF’s top ten countries by per capita income,
four are part of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — the United States,
Canada, Australia and Singapore, (Hong Kong would be there too if
it were a country). Apart from Switzerland, all of the others are
small city- or petro-states: San Marino, Brunei, Qatar, Luxembourg,
Norway. It appears that we ain’t dead yet.
My Times column, December 23, 2013:
There is a common thread running through many
recent stories: paedophilia at Caldicott prep school and in modern Rochdale, the murders of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and by Sergeant Alexander Blackman in Afghanistan, perhaps
even segregation of student audiences and
opposition to the badger cull. The link is that people are left
stranded by changing moral standards, because morality is always
My Times column on how earthlings communicate
with life in space:
The Hubble telescope has revealed that Europa, a
moon of Jupiter, has fountains of water vapour near one of its
poles, which means its ocean might not always be hermetically
sealed by miles-thick ice, as previously assumed.
Europa’s huge ocean, being probably liquid beneath the ice, has
long been the place in space thought most favourable to life, so
the prospect of sampling this Jovian pond for bugs comes a little
closer. My concern is a touch more mundane. Who’s in charge of
the response down here when we do find life in space?
My recent speech in the House of Lords on the dangers of too
much regulatory precaution over electronic cigarettes has sparked a
huge amount of interest among "vapers". I am reprinting the speech
here as a blog:
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Astor, on securing this
debate. It is an issue of much greater importance than the sparse
attendance might imply and one that is growing in importance. I
have no interest to declare in electronic cigarettes: I dislike
smoking and have never done it. I have only once tried a puff on an
e-cigarette, which did nothing for me. I am interested in this
issue as a counterproductive application of the precautionary
principle. I should say that I am indebted to Ian Gregory of
Centaurus Communications for some of the facts and figures that I
will cite shortly.
There are, at the moment, about 1 million people in this country
using electronic cigarettes, and there has been an eightfold
increase in the past year in the number of people using them to try
to quit smoking. Already, 15% of ex-smokers have tried them, and
they have overtaken nicotine patches and other approaches to
become the top method of quitting in a very short time. The
majority of those who use electronic cigarettes to try to quit
smoking say that they are successful.
My fellow Times writer the
cricketer Ed Smith posed me a very good question the other day. How
many of the people born in the world in 1756 could have become
Mozart? (My answer, by the way, was four.) So here’s a similar
question: how many Britons born in 1964, if educated at Eton and
Balliol, could have achieved what Boris Johnson has achieved? It’s
clearly not all of them; it’s probably not one; but it’s not a big
My point? There is little doubt that Boris Johnson is a highly
intelligent man, notwithstanding his inability to cope with a radio
ambush of IQ test questions, and that he would be a highly
intelligent man even if he had not gone to Eton and Balliol —
barring extreme deprivation or injury.
The recent burst of interest in IQ, sparked first by Dominic
Cummings (Michael Gove’s adviser), and then by Boris, has been
encouraging in one sense. As Robert Plomin, probably the world’s
leading expert on the genetics of intelligence, put it to me, there
used to be a kneejerk reaction along the lines of “you can’t
measure intelligence”, or “it couldn’t possibly be genetic”. This
time the tone is more like: “Of course, there is some genetic
influence on intelligence but . . .”
My Times column was on the likely effect of weaker
oil and gas prices on competitiveness:
The Chancellor is to knock £50 off the average
energy bill by replacing some green levies with general taxation
and extending the timescale for rolling out others. On the face of
it, the possibility that global energy prices may start to fall
over the next few years might seem like good political news for
him, and some of the chicken entrails do seem to be pointing in
that direction. There is, however, a political danger to George
Osborne in such trends .
For Government strategists reeling from the twin blows of Ed
Miliband’s economically illiterate but politically astute promise
of an energy bill freeze and the energy companies’ price hikes, the
prospect of lower wholesale energy prices might seem heaven sent.
But in many ways it only exacerbates their problems, for the
Government is right now fixing the prices we will have to pay for
nuclear, wind and biomass power for decades to come. And it is
fixing those prices at quite a high level.
My Times column is on immigration:
It looks as if David Cameron is determined not to
emulate Tony Blair over European immigration. Faced with opinion
polls showing that tightening immigration is top of the list of
concerns that voters want the Prime Minister to negotiate with
Europe, he is going to fight to keep a Romanian and Bulgarian
influx out as Mr Blair did not for Poles in 2004. It is the ideal
ground for him to pick a fight with Brussels.
One reason is that he now has more political cover on the issue
of immigration. It is no longer nearly as “right wing” an issue as
it once was, though popular enough with UKIP voters. Migration as a
political issue seems itself to be migrating across the political
spectrum from right to centre, if not left. Where once any kind of
opposition to immigration was seen by left-wing parties and the BBC
as just a proxy for racism, increasingly it is now a subject for
After my recent visit to Australia I wrote the diary column in the Australian edition of the
I flew from London into Sydney, then Melbourne, to make three
dinner speeches in a row. Through nerves I never finished the main
course of three dinners. Pity, because in my experience Australian
food is as fine as anywhere in the world: fresher than American,
more orientally influenced than France and more imaginative than
Britain. That was certainly not true the first time I visited
Australia 37 years ago, when I slept in youth hostels and Ansett
Pioneer buses, and ate rib-eye steaks for breakfast. I still
remember with horror the moment I realized I had left my wallet on
a park bench in Alice Springs, dazed after 31 hours on a bus. I
went back and it was still there, wet from a lawn sprinkler.
Like Britain, Australia’s been confronting the costs of climate
policies. The Abbott government has begun to deal with them
robustly, whereas in Britain we are still in denial. Our opposition
leader Ed Miliband has promised to “freeze” energy bills for two
years if he gets into power – a threat that probably caused
companies to push them up now -- even though it was he as Energy
and Climate Change secretary who did most to load green levies on
to consumers. Conservatively it looks like his Climate Act of 2008,
with its targets for carbon emission cuts, will cost us £300
billion by 2030 in subsidies to renewable energy, in the cost of
connecting wind farms to the grid, in VAT, in costs of insulation
and new domestic appliances, and in the effect of all this on
prices of goods in the shops. If people are upset about the cost of
energy now, they will be furious by the election in 2015. I don’t
like to say “I told you so”, but I did, in my maiden speech in the
House of Lords in May: “One reason why we in this country are
falling behind the growth of the rest of the world is that in
recent years we have had a policy of deliberately driving up the
price of energy.” David Cameron should take note that Tony Abbott
is the first world leader elected by a landslide after expressing
open skepticism about the exaggerated claims of imminent and
dangerous climate change. Nor can greens argue that the issue was
peripheral. The carbon tax was what won Mr Abbott his party’s
leadership, and it was front and central in the election campaign.
More and more politicians will be finding out that defending green
levies on energy bills is more of an electoral liability than
doubting dangerous climate change.
I have the following letter in the Guardian (online).
While preaching to others to be accurate, John Abraham is
himself inaccurate in his critique of me (
Global warming and business reporting – can business news
organizations achieve less than zero?, 18 November,
theguardian.com). In correcting one mistake he made – by changing
3.6C to 3.6F – you only exacerbate the problem. Far from it being
"unbelievable" that up to 3.6F of warming will be beneficial, this
is actually the conclusion of those studies that have addressed the
issue, as confirmed in recent surveys by Professor Richard Tol. Mr
Abraham may not agree with those studies, but in that case he is
departing from the consensus and should give reasons rather than
merely stating that he finds them unbelievable. Rather than shoot
the messenger, he should invite readers to read Professor Tol's
most recent paper. It is published in an excellent book edited by
Bjørn Lomborg entitled How Much Have Global Problems Cost the
As for Andrew Dessler's critique of my remarks about feedback by
water vapour and clouds, his actual words confirm that I am right
that these issues are still in doubt, as confirmed by the latest
report from the IPCC. Most of your readers are probably unaware of
the fact that doubling carbon dioxide in itself only produces a
modest warming effect of about 1.2C and that to get dangerous
warming requires feedbacks from water vapour, clouds and other
phenomena for which the evidence is far more doubtful. This is an
area of honest disagreement between commentators, so it is
misleading of Mr Abraham to shoot the messenger again.
My review of Gregory Zuckerman's book The Frackers appeared in The Times on 23
In the long tradition of serendipitous mistakes that led to
great discoveries, we can now add a key moment in 1997. Nick
Steinsberger, an engineer with Mitchell Energy, was supervising the
hydraulic fracturing of a gas well near Fort Worth, Texas, when he
noticed that the gel and chemicals in the “fracking fluid” were not
mixing properly. So the stuff being pumped underground to crack the
rock was too watery, not as gel-like as it should be.
Steinsberger noticed something else, though. Despite the mistake
in mixing the fracking fluid, the well was producing a respectable
amount of gas. Over a beer at a baseball game a few weeks later he
mentioned it to a friend from a rival company who said they had had
good results with watery fracks elsewhere. Steinsberger attempted
to persuade his bosses to try removing nearly all the chemicals
from the fluid and using mostly water. They thought he was mad
since everybody knew that, while water might open cracks in
sandstone, in clay-containing shale it would seal them shut as the
I know very little about what is being discussed
inside the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the
Chinese Communist party, which started at the weekend. The meeting
is being held in secret — although one of the subjects to be
discussed is said to be greater government transparency. About all
we know is that “unprecedented” economic and social reforms are
being discussed, including such things as rural property rights.
But, to judge by a new wave of Mao worship, persecution of
dissidents and reinforced censorship, political reform is less
likely than economic.
In other words, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to
continue pulling off the trick that has served it ever since Deng
Xiaoping defeated the Gang of Four: more economic freedom combined
with less political freedom. The people can choose any good or
service they want — except their government. In many ways it has
worked extremely well. In 1978 Maoism had left the country horribly
poor: more than half the people of China tried to live on less than
a dollar a day. Over the next nine years per capita income doubled,
then doubled again over the nine years after that.
Many a left-leaning Western politician has been heard to muse
about how much better we would grow if only we directed the market
economy with the single-mindedness of the Chinese Communist Party.
In the same way many a right-leaning Western politician has long
admired the Singapore of Lee Kwan Yew on the same grounds. See,
they mutter, a paternalistic government is best at generating
This morning’s brief strike by the Fire Brigades
Union, like the one last Friday evening, will, I suspect, mostly
serve to remind those who work in the private sector just how well
remunerated many in the public sector still are. The union objects
to the raising of the retirement age from 55 to 60, on a generous
final-salary pension scheme, with good job security. These are
conditions few of those who work for private firms or for
themselves can even dream of.
In my case, as somebody always on the look-out for
under-reported good news stories, it also served to alert me to
just how dramatic the fall in “demand” for firefighters has been.
Intrigued by the strike, I looked up the numbers and found to my amazement that in
2011, compared with just a decade before, firefighters attended 48
per cent fewer fires overall; 39 per cent fewer building fires; 44
per cent fewer minor outdoor fires; 24 per cent fewer road-traffic
collisions; 8 per cent fewer floods — and 40 per cent fewer
incidents overall. The decline has if anything accelerated since
That is to say, during a period when the population and the
number of buildings grew, we needed to call the fire brigade much,
much less. Most important of all, the number of people dying in
fires in the home has fallen by 60 per cent compared with the
1980s. The credit for these benign changes goes at least partly to
technology — fire-retardant materials, self-extinguishing
cigarettes, smoke alarms, sprinklers, alarms on cookers — much of
which was driven by sensible regulation. Fewer open fires and fewer
people smoking, especially indoors, must have helped too. There is
little doubt that rules about such things have saved lives, as even
most libertarians must concede.
My Times article on the storm that was to hit
Britain on 28 October. In the event, four or five people died.
Disruption to transport lasted only a few days.
If you are reading this with the hatches battened
down, it may not be much comfort to know that 2013 has been an
unusually quiet year for big storms. For the first time in 45 years
no hurricane above Category 1 has made landfall from the Atlantic
by this date, and only two in that category, confounding an
official US government forecast of six to nine hurricanes in the
Atlantic, three to five of which would be big. Even if the last
month of the hurricane season is bad, it will have been a quiet
My Times article:
The real problem with nuclear power is the scale of it. After
decades of cost inflation, driven mostly by regulations to redouble
safety, 1600 megawatt monsters cost so much and take so long to
build that only governments can afford to borrow the money to build
them. Since Britain borrowing £14 billion extra is not really an
option, then we have to find somebody else’s nationalized industry
to do it, and guarantee high returns, as if it were a big PFI
My Spectator cover story on the net benefits of climate
I will post rebuttals to the articles that criticised this piece
My Times column tackles an egregious example of
regulation doing more harm than good:
Should shampoo be classified as a medicine and prescribed by
doctors? It can, after all, cause harm: it can sting your eyes and
a recent study found traces of carcinogens in 98 shampoo
products. Sure, shampoo can clean hair if used responsibly. But
what’s to stop cowboy shampoo makers selling dangerous shampoo to
the young? Far too many shampoo manufacturers try to glamorize
their product. Time for the state to step in.
My recent Times column on Moore's Law, technological progress
and economic growth:
The law that has changed our lives most in the
past 50 years may be about to be repealed, even though it was never
even on the statute book. I am referring to Moore’s Law, which
decrees — well, observes — that a given amount of computing power
halves in cost every two years.
Robert Colwell, the former chief architect at Intel and head of
something with a very long name in the US Government (honestly,
you’d turn the page if I spelt it out, though now I’ve taken up
even more space not telling you; maybe I will put it at the end),
made a speech recently saying that in less than a
decade, Moore’s Law will come to a halt.
My regular Times column from 26th September
Hypocrisy can be a beautiful thing when done well.
To go, as Ed Miliband has done, within four years, from being the
minister insisting that energy prices must rise — so uncompetitive
green energy producers can be enticed to supply power — to being
the opposition leader calling for energy prices to be frozen is a
breathtaking double axel that would make Torvill and Dean
Remember this is the very architect of our current energy
policy, the man who steered the suicidally expensive Climate Change
Act through Parliament; the man who even this week pledged to
decarbonise the entire British economy (not just the electricity
sector) by 2030, meaning that nobody will be permitted to heat
their house with gas.
My review in The Times of Bill Bryson's fine book, "One
The summer of 1927 in the United States seems at first glance an
odd subject for a book. We all know what happened in 1914, or 1929,
but what’s so special about the 86th anniversary of one summer in
one country? You can see the London publishers scratching their
heads when Bill Bryson’s pitch arrived. Who was Jack Dempsey
anyway? Is Babe Ruth a woman or a child? Isn’t Calvin Coolidge a
cartoon character? Did Herbert Hoover invent the vacuum cleaner? Is
Sacco and Vanzetti a department store? Charles Lindbergh: ah, we
know who he is.
Actually, it’s a brilliant idea for a book, because Bryson now
had the excuse to do what he does best: tell little biographies of
historical figures, recount stories, paint word pictures and make
witty asides. The result is a gripping slice of history with all
sorts of reverberant echoes of today.
My Times column on how the world's oldest people
are getting younger:
The two oldest men in the world died recently.
Jiroemon Kimura, a 116-year-old, died in June in Japan after
becoming the oldest man yet recorded. His successor Salustiano
Sanchez, aged 112 and born in Spain, died last week in New York
State. That leaves just two men in the world known to
be over 110, compared with 58 women (19 of whom are Japanese, 20
American). By contrast there are now half a million people over
100, and the number is growing at 7 per cent a year.
For all the continuing improvements in average life expectancy,
the maximum age of human beings seems to be stuck. It’s still very
difficult even for women to get to 110 and the number of people who
reach 115 seems if anything to be falling. According to Professor
Stephen Coles, of the Gerontology Research Group at University of
California, Los Angeles, your probability of dying each year shoots
up to 50 per cent once you reach 110 and 70 per cent at 115.
My article in the Review section of the Wall
Later this month, a long-awaited event that last happened in
2007 will recur. Like a returning comet, it will be taken to
portend ominous happenings. I refer to the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change's (IPCC) "fifth assessment report," part of which
will be published on Sept. 27.
There have already been leaks from this 31-page document, which
summarizes 1,914 pages of scientific discussion, but thanks to a
senior climate scientist, I have had a glimpse of the key
prediction at the heart of the document. The big news is that, for
the first time since these reports started coming out in 1990, the
new one dials back the alarm. It states that the temperature rise
we can expect as a result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide
is lower than the IPPC thought in 2007.
My tribute to Ronald Coase, who has died aged 102,
in The Times:
It’s not often that the ideas of a 102-year-old
have as much relevance to the future as the past. But the death
this week of Ronald Coase, one of the world’s most cited
economists, comes at a time when there is lively debate about the
very issue he raised: why neither markets nor government are
Belatedly, here is my Times column from last week
on the case of David Miranda's detention at Heathrow airport:
I am not usually an indecisive person who sees
both sides of a question. But the case of Edward Snowden, Glenn
Greenwald and David Miranda versus the British and US governments
has me swinging like a weathervane in a squall between liberty and
security. I can persuade myself one minute that a despicable
tyranny is being gradually visited upon us by a self-serving
nomenclatura and the next that proportionate measures were taken by
the authorities to protect British citizens from irresponsible
crimes perpetrated by self-appointed publicity seekers.
Such indecisiveness does not seem to afflict most of my fellow
columnists elsewhere in the media. Sometimes, however, it is
necessary to stick up for indecision. On behalf of those of us
struggling to decide where justice lies, let me follow Boswell and
“throw our conversation into [this] journal in the form of a
My Times column on the environmental effects of
fracking and wind power:
It was the American senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once
said: “You are entitled to your opinions, but not to your own
facts.” In the debate over shale gas – I refuse to call it the
fracking debate since fracking has been happening in this country
for decades – the opponents do seem to be astonishingly cavalier
with the facts.
Here are five things that they keep saying which are just not
true. First, that shale gas production has polluted aquifers in the
United States. Second, that it releases more methane than other
forms of gas production. Third, that it uses a worryingly large
amount of water. Fourth, that it uses hundreds of toxic chemicals.
Fifth, that it causes damaging earthquakes.
Belated posting of my recent Times column on golden rice with links:
It was over harlequin ducks that we bonded. Ten
years ago, at a meeting in Monterey, California, to celebrate the
50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, I bumped
into the German biologist Ingo Potrykus watching harlequin ducks in
the harbour before breakfast. Shared enthusiasm for bird watching
broke the ice.
I knew of him, of course. He had been on the cover of Time magazine
for potentially solving one of the world’s great humanitarian
challenges. Four years before, with his colleague Peter Beyer, he
had added three genes to the 30,000 in rice to help to prevent
vitamin A deficiency, one of the most preventable causes of
morbidity and mortality in poor countries with rice-dominated
diets. They had done it for nothing, persuading companies to waive
their patents, so that they could give the rice seeds away free. It
was a purely humanitarian impulse.
This is an article about a railway, but it begins
with a wall; bear with me. I live not far from the line of
Hadrian’s Wall and I often take visitors to marvel at its almost
1,900-year-old stones. That the Romans could build 80 miles of
dressed stone fortification, 15ft high and 9ft wide, over crags and
bogs with a small fort every mile, is indeed a marvel. It was one
of Rome’s most expensive projects.
Yet I often ask visitors as they marvel: did it work? The answer
is no. The Roman garrison was too strung out to defend the whole
thing at once. Within 30 years it had been successfully attacked by
the barbarians; within 40 it had been abandoned for a new wall in
Scotland; when that did not work and Hadrian’s Wall became the
boundary again, it was overrun by barbarians several times. Did it
exclude or pacify the tribes of northern Britain? I doubt it.
Tomorrow the House of Lords gives a second reading
to Lord Sharkey’s Bill to pardon Alan Turing, the mathematician,
computer pioneer and code-cracking hero of the Second World
In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for being gay (he had reported a
burglary to the police and made it no secret that the burglar was a
friend of his consensual lover). Convicted of “gross indecency” he
was offered prison or oestrogen injections to reduce his libido; he
chose the latter but then committed suicide at the age of 41.
Part of the problem was that some time towards the end of the
first decade of the 21st century it became clear that the Earth's
average temperature just was not consistently rising any more,
however many "adjustments" were made to the thermometer records,
let alone rising anything like as rapidly as all the models
So those who made their living from alarm, and by then there
were lots, switched tactics and began to jump on any unusual
weather event, whether it was a storm, a drought, a blizzard or a
flood, and blame it on man-made carbon dioxide emissions. This
proved a rewarding tactic, because people - egged on by journalists
- have an inexhaustible appetite for believing in the
vindictiveness of the weather gods. The fossil fuel industry was
inserted in the place of Zeus as the scapegoat of choice.
(Scientists are the priests.)
The fact that people have short memories about weather events is
what enables this game to be played. The long Australian drought of
2001-7, the Brisbane floods of 2009-10 and the angry summer of
2012-13 stand out in people's minds. People are reluctant to put
them down to chance. Even here in mild England, people are always
saying "I have never known it so
cold/hot/mild/windy/wet/dry/changeable as it is this year". One
Christmas I noticed the seasons had been pretty average all year,
neither too dry nor too wet nor too cold nor too warm. "I have
never known it so average," I said to somebody. I got a baffled
look. Nobody ever calls the weather normal.
My column in The Times on healthcare costs:
Babies got cheaper this week. Twice. First, Belgian scientists announced that their
new method has the potential to cut the costs of some in-vitro
fertilisation treatments from £5,000 to below £200. Their cut-price
recipe requires little more than baking soda and lemon juice in
place of purified carbon dioxide gas to maintain acidity when
growing an embryo in a lab before implanting it.
Second, a baby called Connor was born after 13
of his parents’ embryos had their genomes analysed using
next-generation DNA-sequencing techniques in an Oxford laboratory.
Only three of the embryos were found to have the right chromosome
number, and one of these “normal” embryos was then implanted in his
mother. This new approach, made possible by the rapidly falling
cost of DNA sequencing, promises to cut the number of failures
during IVF, reducing both cost and heartache.
My latest (and last) Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Last week a friend chided me for not agreeing with the
scientific consensus that climate change is likely to be dangerous.
I responded that, according to polls, the "consensus" about climate
change only extends to the propositions that it has been happening
and is partly man-made, both of which I readily agree with.
Forecasts show huge uncertainty.
Besides, science does not respect consensus. There was once
widespread agreement about phlogiston (a nonexistent element said
to be a crucial part of combustion), eugenics, the impossibility of
continental drift, the idea that genes were made of protein (not
DNA) and stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and so forth—all of
which proved false. Science, Richard Feyman once said, is "the
belief in the ignorance of experts.
I have an article in Spiked! on the the tyranny of
This summer at TED Global in Edinburgh, a lively networking
conference, there was a talk on one of the true and terrible
scourges of the modern world. This is a bit of a theme for TED. The
same scourge was bravely but mercilessly exposed at TED Global
three years ago in Oxford and nine years ago at the ur-TED itself
in California. All three talks went down well with the hip folk who
attend TED meetings. They nodded in agreement that this scourge
must end, and soon.
The scourge in question? The thing that deserved as prominent a
castigation as disease and poverty and tyranny? Too much choice.
Yes, the pressing and urgent issue we face is that when we enter a
supermarket, we find tens of brands of cereal and it is making us –
wait for it – anxious. Oh woe.
Exciting as Britain’s latest shale gas estimate is
— 47 years’ supply or more — it pales beside what is happening in
the United States. There shale gas is old hat; the shale oil
revolution is proving a world changer, promising not just lower oil
prices worldwide, but geopolitical ripples as America weans itself
off oil imports and perhaps loses interest in the Middle East.
One of the pioneers of the shale gas revolution, Chris Wright,
of Liberty Resources, was in Britain last month. It was he and his
colleagues at Pinnacle Technologies who reinvented hydraulic
fracturing in the late 1990s in a way that unlocked the vast
petroleum resources in shale. Within seven years the Barnett shale,
in and around Forth Worth, Texas, was producing half as much gas as
the whole of Britain consumes. And the Barnett proved to be a baby
compared with other shales.
Preventing cancer is proving a lot easier than
curing it. The announcement that the NHS will fund five-year
courses of the drugs tamoxifen or raloxifene for healthy women who
are genetically predisposed to get breast and ovarian cancer is
overdue. The US has been doing “chemo-prevention” for some time and
clinical trials have confirmed that the benefits comfortably
outweigh the side-effects. Tens of thousands of deaths a year could
This is another incremental advance in the prevention of cancer
that began with the gradual recognition (resisted, ironically, by
some of those fighting pesticides in the late 1950s) that tobacco
smoke was a chief cause of lung cancer. Mainly thanks to such
prevention, along with early diagnosis, surgery and some
treatments, deaths from cancer, adjusted for age, are falling.
The economist Arthur Laffer is reputed to have drawn his famous
curve—showing that beyond a certain point higher taxes generate
lower revenue—on a paper napkin at a dinner with Dick Cheney
and Donald Rumsfeld in the Washington Hotel in
Another economist, Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University,
last year drew a similar curve on a virtual napkin to
argue that, beyond a certain point, greater protection for
intellectual property causes less innovation. He thinks that U.S.
patent law is well beyond that optimal point.
Last week the Supreme Court came out against the patenting of
genes, on the grounds that they are discoveries, not inventions,
though it did allow that edited copies of the DNA of a breast
cancer gene should be seen as invented diagnostic tools. Dr.
Tabarrok thinks that decision and other recent rulings are nudging
patent law back in the right direction after a protectionist drift
in the 1980s and '90s.
My column in the Times on 20 June 2013:
In the Energy Bill going through Parliament there
is allowance for generous subsidy for a huge push towards burning
wood to produce electricity. It’s already happening. Drax power
station in Yorkshire has converted one of its boilers to burn wood
pellets instead of coal; soon three of its six boilers will be
doing this and the power station will then be receiving north of
half a billion pounds a year in subsidy. By 2020, the Government
estimates, up to 11 per cent of our generating capacity will be
from burning wood.
My article in the Times on 13 June 2013
‘We are as gods and have to get good at it,” the
Californian ecologist and writer Stewart Brand said recently.
Worldwide there has been a sea change in the ecological profession.
These days most ecologists recognise that there is no such thing as
a pristine wilderness and that the best biodiversity is produced by
active management to control some species and encourage others.
My Times column here.
I have a confession to make. Last week I held a
meeting with representatives of three organisations and offered to
raise an issue for them in the House of Lords. They claimed they
were charities seeking a smidgin of funding to push forward
promising research on a squirrel-pox vaccine, which might help to
save the red squirrel from extinction in this country.
Now I begin to wonder if these three charming people were
actually disguised investigative reporters who were trying to add
my name to that of my three fellow peers who were splashed over the
front page of The Sunday Times. Or perhaps they were
from a front for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. (Tony Blair
apparently spoke at an event hosted by a front for the latter.) I
never checked their credentials or frisked them for hidden
My Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Journal is on abiogenic methane
Coal, oil and gas are "fossil" fuels, right? They are derived
from ancient life-forms and are nonrenewable, stored energy,
extracted from prehistoric sunlight. In the case of coal and most
oil, this is obviously true: You can find fossil tree trunks and
leaves in coal seams and chemicals in oil that come from
But there's increasing doubt about whether all
natural gas (which is 90% methane) comes from fermented fossil
microbes. Some of it may be made by chemical processes deep within
the earth. If so, the implications could be profound for the
climate and energy debates.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on a surprising discovery about antibodies and
the immune system:
It isn't often that an entire field of medical science gets
turned on its head. But it is becoming clear that immunology is
undergoing a big rethink thanks to the discovery that antibodies,
which combat viruses, work not just outside cells but inside them
as well. The star of this new view is a protein molecule called
Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that the body fights
off infection in two separate ways. First is the adaptive immune
system, which works outside the cell. It generates antibodies to
intercept specific invaders, locking onto them like a tracking
missile and preventing them from entering the cell. A second line
of defense, the innate immune system, operates within the cell; it
is like an expansive air-defense network, blasting away at all
Update: I have added a reply to a critic of the article
I have an article in the Times on the implications of a new
estimate of climate sensitivity:
There is little doubt that the damage being done by
climate-change policies currently exceeds the damage being done by
climate change, and will for several decades yet. Hunger,
rainforest destruction, excess cold-weather deaths and reduced
economic growth are all exacerbated by the rush to biomass and
wind. These dwarf any possible effects of worse weather, for which
there is still no actual evidence anyway: recent droughts, floods
and storms are within historic variability.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on infleunza:
Here we go again. A new bird-flu virus in China, the H7N9
strain, is spreading alarm. It has infected about 130 people and
killed more than 30. Every time this happens, some journalists
compete to foment fear, ably assisted by cautious but worried
scientists, and then tell the world to keep calm. We need a new way
to talk about the risk of a flu pandemic, because the overwhelming
probability is that this virus will kill people, yes, but not in
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on life in space:
A provocative calculation by two biologists suggests that life
might have arrived on Earth fully formed—at least in microbe
Alexei Sharov of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore
and Richard Gordon of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in
Panacea, Fla., plotted the genome size of different kinds of
organisms against their presumed date of origin. Armed with just
five data points they concluded that genome complexity doubles
every 376 million years in a sort of geological version of Moore's
Law of progress in computers.
I have a column in the Times on bitcoins and their
implications for private money
Bitcoins — a form of digital private money — shot
up in value from $90 to $260 each after Cypriot bank accounts were
raided by the State, then plunged last week before recovering some
of their value. These gyrations are symptoms of a bubble. Just as
with tulip bulbs or dotcom shares, there will probably be a
bursting. All markets in assets that can be hoarded and resold — as
opposed to those in goods for consumption — suffer from bubbles.
Money is no different; and a new currency is rather like a new
Yet it would be a mistake to write off Bitcoins as just another
bubble. People are clearly keen on new forms of money safe from the
confiscation and inflation that looks increasingly inevitable as
governments try to escape their debts. Bitcoins pose a fundamental
question: will some form of private money replace the kind minted
and printed by governments?
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on junk DNA and on the messed up genome of the
The usually placid world of molecular biology has been riven
with two fierce disputes recently. Although apparently separate,
the two conflagrations are converging.
The first row concerns the phrase "junk DNA." Coined in
1972 by the geneticist Susumu Ohno, it is an attempt to explain
why vast stretches of animal genomes, far more in some species than
in others, seem to serve no purpose. Genes of all kinds and their
control sequences make up maybe 9% of the human genome at the very
most. The rest may be nonfunctional "junk," mainly there because it
is good at getting itself duplicated. Yet the phrase has always
caused a surprising amount of offense. Reports of the discrediting
of junk-DNA theory have been frequent.
I wrote The Spectator diary column this week:
We’ve discovered that we own an island. But dreams of
independence and tax-havenry evaporate when we try to picnic there
on Easter Sunday: we watch it submerge slowly beneath the incoming
tide. It’s a barnacle-encrusted rock, about the size of a tennis
court, just off the beach at Cambois, north of Blyth, which for
some reason ended up belonging to my ancestor rather than the
Crown. Now there’s a plan for a subsidy-fired biomass power station
nearby that will burn wood (and money) while pretending to save the
planet. The outlet pipes will go under our rock and we are due
modest compensation. As usual, it’s us landowners who benefit from
renewable energy while working people bear the cost: up the coast
are the chimneys of the country’s largest aluminium smelter —
killed, along with hundreds of jobs, by the government’s unilateral
carbon-floor price in force from this week.
There were dead puffins on the beach, as there have been all
along the east coast. This cold spring has hit them hard. Some
puffin colonies have been doing badly in recent years, after
booming in the 1990s, but contrary to the predictions of global
warming, it’s not the more southerly colonies that have suffered
most. The same is true of guillemots, kittiwakes and sandwich
terns: northern colonies are declining.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
A new study by Dirk Helbing at ETH Zurich in
Switzerland and colleagues has modeled the emergence of “nice”
behavior in idealized human beings. It’s done by computer, using
the famous “prisoner’s dilemma” game, in which a prisoner has to
decide between cooperating with a comrade to get a mutual reward or
avoiding a punishment by being the first of the two to defect to
the other side. The Zurich team found that so long as players in
the game stay near their (modeled) parents, the birth of a nice guy
predisposed to cooperate can trigger “a cascade” of generous
This is a version of an article I published in The Times on 27
The east wind could cut tungsten; the daffodils are weeks
behind; the first chiffchaffs are late. It’s a cold spring and the
two things everybody seems to agree upon are that there’s something
weird about the weather, and it’s our fault. Both are almost
I have published the following article in the Newcastle Journal
Obsidian was once one of humankind's most sought-after
materials, the "rich man's flint" of the stone-age world. This
black volcanic glass fragments into lethally sharp, tough blades
that, even after the invention of bronze, made it literally a
Because sources of obsidian are few and far between, obsidian
artifacts are considered some of the earliest evidence of commerce:
Long-distance movement of obsidian, even hundreds of thousands of
years ago, suggests the early stirring of true trade.
I have the following article in the Times on 15 March:
Move over shale gas, here comes methane hydrate. (Perhaps.) On
Tuesday the Japanese government’s drilling ship Chikyu started
flaring off gas from a hole drilled into a solid deposit of methane
and ice, 300 metres beneath the seabed under 1000 metres of water,
30 miles off the Japanese coast.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall
Street Journal is on the prospect of de-extinction, especially the
Extinct species are gone forever. Or are they? For some time now
the dream of re-creating something like a mammoth from its DNA has
been floating about on the fringes of the scientific world (and in
movies like "Jurassic Park") without being taken seriously.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about what happened to the cology of North
America after the asteroid impact of 66 million years ago:
Last week, just as a meteorite exploded over Russia, I used this
space for an email to Charles Darwin, wherever he is. I told him
about the now overwhelming evidence for an asteroid impact having
caused the extinction of dinosaurs. I thought he would be
interested because it is a striking exception to his
"uniformitarian" assumption that, in the past, evolution was shaped
by the same forces still operating on Earth today.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, published
the day after a big asteroid missed the earth by 17,000 miles and a
smaller one blew out windows in Russia, is about the huge one that
extinguished the dinosaurs just over 66 million years ago:
The future has a richer past than the past did. By this I mean
that one of the great benefits of modern science is that it
enriches our knowledge of the past. Imagine how thrilled Charles
Darwin would have been to learn this week that it's now all but
certain that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an
asteroid (much bigger than the one that missed us this week)
slamming into Mexico about 66,038,000 years ago. In fact, I might
send him an email to explain.
It's not a race, exactly, but there's an intriguing uncertainty
about whether a former U.S. president or a software magnate will
cause the next deliberate extinction of a species in the wild.
Will Jimmy Carter eradicate Guinea worm
before Bill Gates eradicates polio?
It is more than a third of a century since a human disease was
extinguished. The last case of smallpox was in 1977, and in those
days health experts expected other diseases to follow smallpox
quickly into oblivion. Polio has repeatedly disappointed campaigners by
hanging on, though it now affects less than 1% as many people as at
its peak in the 1950s.
The generosity of Bill Gates has done much to speed the decline
of polio, and he and most experts now see its end within six years
at most. India, 10 years ago the worst-affected country, has been
polio-free since 2011, and only three countries still host the
virus: Pakistan, Afghanistan and especially Nigeria. Though the
murder of nine polio vaccinators in Pakistan by Islamists in
December was a tragic setback, last year there were just 222 new
polio cases world-wide.
My latest Mind and Matter column is on the
esoteric topic of insect navigation:
A friend who once studied courtship in dung beetles alerted me
last week to a discovery. On moonless nights, African scarab
beetles, which roll balls of dung, can use the Milky Way to
navigate in fairly straight lines away from dung piles, thus
avoiding other dung beetles keen to steal their dung balls. "Now
this is real science, simple, fascinating and completely
wonderful," enthused my friend.
Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden and her colleagues put
dung beetles inside a planetarium at Wits University in South
Africa with a pile of dung, and with or without little caps over
their eyes. The results of the beetles' peregrinations clearly showed that being able to see the
stars keeps the beetles relatively straight, even if just the Milky
Way is projected overhead without other stars. This is the first
demonstration of star navigation by insects and of Milky Way
navigation by any animal.
Here's my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
A war within anthropology over the causes of war itself seems to
be reaching resolution. The great ethnographer of the
gardener-hunter Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, Napoleon Chagnon,
has long been battling colleagues over whether men in prestate
societies go to war over protein or women. Next month he'll publish a memoir, "Noble Savages," detailing
(as the subtitle puts it) "My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes-the
Yanomamo and the Anthropologists." This is a good time to look back
at how his argument has fared.
Not only is the capacity for forming large social networks in
monkeys partly genetic, but some of the genes that affect this
ability may now be known. So suggests a new study of an isolated
population of free-living macaques on an island off Puerto
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and
Rockefeller and Harvard universities have found a new method of
editing DNA with great precision. This and another new technique
mean that scientists can now go into a cell, find a particular
sequence in the genome and change that sequence by a single
Just to get your mind around this feat, imagine taking about
5,000 different novels and reprinting them in normal font size on
23 very long cotton ribbons. Since each word takes up about half an
inch, the ribbons, placed end to end, would stretch for roughly
three million miles-120 times around the world. But to be a bit
more realistic, twist and tangle the ribbons so much that they only
go around the planet once.
One of the books written on your ribbons is "A Tale of Two
Cities," but you don't even know which ribbon it is on, let
alone where on that ribbon. Your task is to find the
clauses "It was the beast of times, it was the worst of times" and
correct the misprint.
Well done, Mark Lynas, for changing his mind over genetically
Here's Mark Lynas on those who still oppose GM
food: "I look forward to their opening up an honest and
self-critical debate on this, rather than attacking others like
myself who challenge green orthodoxy where it likely harms society
and the environment."
Here's Mark Lynas on wind power: "Matt Ridley's
massive Spectator anti-wind rant seems completely fact-free. Any
references to back this up, @mattwridley?" [There
were scores of facts and references, starting with my assertion
that wind power provides 0.3% of the UK's total energy, a fact that
Lynas challenged, then called specious, then conceded].
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on the greening of the planet:
Did you know that the Earth is getting greener, quite literally?
Satellites are now confirming that the amount of green vegetation
on the planet has been increasing for three decades. This will be
news to those accustomed to alarming tales about deforestation,
overdevelopment and ecosystem destruction.
I have an op-ed in the Times on how even a global
optimist can foresee absolute as well as relative decline for
Europe if it continues to emulate the Ming Empire:
A "rational optimist" like me thinks the world
will go on getting better for most people at a record rate, not
because I have a temperamental or ideological bent to good cheer
but because of the data. Poverty, hunger, population growth rates,
inequality, and mortality from violence, disease and weather - all
continue to plummet on a global scale.
But a global optimist can still be a regional pessimist. When
asked what I am pessimistic about, I usually reply: bureaucracy and
superstition. Using those two tools, we Europeans seem intent on
making our future as bad as we can. Like mandarins at the court of
the Ming emperors or viziers at the court of Abbasid caliphs, our
masters seem determined to turn relative into absolute decline. It
is entirely possible that ten years from now the world as a whole
will be 50 per cent richer, but Europeans will be 50 per cent
What better subject for the origin of a new year than the origin
of life itself? A new paper claims to have nailed down at last
the conditions, location and path by which life started, slicing
through two Gordian knots.
Knot No. 1 is the chick-and-egg problem of energy. Living things
burn energy at a furious rate to stay alive. Every time a bacterium
divides, it uses up 50 times its own mass of energy-currency
molecules (called ATP)-and that's with efficient and specialized
modern protein machinery to do the job. When starting out, life
would have been a far more wasteful process, needing more energy,
yet would have had none of its modern machinery to harness or store
Knot No. 2 is entropy. Life uses energy to make order out of
chaos. So the putative location preferred by previous
evolutionists-Alexander Oparin's primordial soup in Charles
Darwin's "warm little pond" with a little lightning-is just too
unconstrained: Life would just keep dissolving away before it got
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on peak farmland, a more plausible prediction
than peak oil.
It's a brave scientist who dares to announce the turning point
of a trend, the top of a graph. A paper published this week does just that,
persuasively arguing that a centurieslong trend is about to
reverse: the use of land for farming. The authors write: "We are
confident that we stand on the peak of cropland use, gazing at a
wide expanse of land that will be spared for Nature."
I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the
subject of climate sensitivity.
1. The article
latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Last week saw a 50th-anniversary celebration in Stockholm of the
Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA's structure. That structure
instantly revealed a key secret of life: that an infinitely
recombinable sequence of four chemical bases, pairing with each
other in two ways, explains life's ability to grow and copy itself.
Appropriately, two pairs of people made the discovery: James Watson
and Francis Crick in Cambridge, England; and Maurice Wilkins and
Rosalind Franklin in London.
But there was a fifth person, who's often forgotten in the
telling of the tale: Raymond Gosling. He at last tells part of his
own tale in some of the sidebar annotations of a remarkable new
book, "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix,"
edited by Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski. The book's text is Dr.
Watson's original and brilliant novelistic account of how the
discovery was made, but Drs. Gann and Witkowski have added photos,
extracts of letters and footnotes to fill out the picture, in the
process vindicating almost all of Watson's characterizations.
The Times published the following article by me last week. I
have inserted updates to clarify one issue.
On 1 June this year a Mr Andrew Noakes was having lunch in Shropshire when "I thought I
heard something. The sound only went on for a few seconds and then
it stopped. There was no shaking cutlery or furniture." It was a
natural earthquake, bigger than the ones caused by fracking in
Lancashire last year. Worldwide there are a million a year of a
similar size. Very few are even noticed. A magnitude 2.3 tremor is
to a dangerous earthquake as a tiny stream is to the Amazon: the
same sort of thing but much less likely to drown you.
By contrast, an earthquake that was 180 million times more
energetic killed 80,000 people in 2008 in Sichuan. We now know it
was almost certainly man-made, or at least man-triggered. The
Zipingpu reservoir, designed to generate hydro-electric power, had
been filled with water shortly before the fault beneath it
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on stem cells:
The chief medical ambition of those who study stem cells has
always been that the cells would be used to repair and regenerate
damaged tissue. That's still a long way off, despite rapid progress
exemplified by the presentation of the Nobel Prize next week to
Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University for a key stem-cell
breakthrough. But there's another, less well known application of
stem cells that is already delivering results: disease
Dr. Yamanaka used a retrovirus to insert four genes into a mouse
cell to return it to a "pluripotent" state-capable of turning into
almost any kind of cell. Last month a team at Johns Hopkins
University and the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research,
using a version of Dr. Yamanaka's technique, successfully grew nerve cells from a patient suffering from
a rare disease called Riley-Day syndrome, which is linked to early
mortality, seizures and other symptoms and caused by a fault in one
And if cutting carbon emissions is what floats your boat, you
will like shale gas even more. The advent of cheap gas, by
displacing coal from electricity generation, has drastically cut
America's carbon dioxide emissions back to levels last seen in the
early 1990s; per capita emissions are now lower than in the 1960s.
(See charts here and here.) Britain's subsidised dash for renewable
energy has had no such result: wind power is still making a trivial
contribution to total energy use (0.4 per cent) while most
renewable energy comes from wood, the highest-carbon fuel of
My latest Mind and Matter column is on Ray Kurzweil's
When an IBM computer program called Deep Blue defeated
Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, wise folk opined that since chess
was just a game of logic, this was neither significant nor
surprising. Mastering the subtleties of human language, including
similes, puns and humor, would remain far beyond the reach of a
Last year another IBM program, Watson, triumphed at just these
challenges by winning "Jeopardy!" (Sample achievement: Watson
worked out that a long, tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie
topping was a "meringue harangue.") So is it time to take seriously
the prospect of artificial intelligence emulating human
My review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's new book in
the Wall Street Journal:
You don't need a physics degree to ride a bicycle. Nor, Nassim
Nicholas Taleb realized one day, do traders need to understand the
mathematical theorems of options trading to trade options. Instead
traders discover "heuristics," or rules of thumb, by trial and
error. These are then formalized by academics into theorems and
taught to new generations of traders, who become slaves to theory,
ignore their own common sense and end by blowing up the system. In
a neat echo of its own thesis, Mr. Taleb's paper making this point
sat unpublished for seven years while academic reviewers tried to
alter it to fit their prejudices.
I have an opinion article in The Times today:
Never has an undercover video sting delighted its victims more.
A Greenpeace investigation has caught some Tory MPs scheming to
save the countryside from wind farms and cut ordinary people's
energy bills while Lib Dems, Guardian writers and
Greenpeace activists defend subsidies for fat-cat capitalists and
rich landowners with their snouts in the wind-farm trough. Said
Tories will be inundated with fan mail.
Yet, for all the furore wind power generates, the bald truth is
that it is an irrelevance. Its contribution to cutting carbon
dioxide emissions is at best a statistical asterisk. As Professor
Gordon Hughes, of the University of Edinburgh, has shown, if wind
ever does make a significant contribution to energy capacity its
intermittent nature would require a wasteful "spinning" back-up of
gas-fired power stations, so it would still make no difference to
emissions or might make them worse.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on the connection between our interest in
relative inequality and the theory of sexual selection:
Evolution by sexual selection is an idea that goes back to
Charles Darwin. He had little doubt that it explained much about
human beings, and modern biologists generally agree. One of them
has even put a figure on it, concluding that some 54.8% of
selection in human beings is effectively caused by reproduction of
the sexiest rather than survival of the fittest.
Some years ago, the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in
his book "The Mating Mind" explored the notion that since human
males woo their mates with art, poetry, music and humor, as well as
with brawn, much of the expansion of our brain may have been
My latest Mind and Matter column is on the origin
of vision in animals and a vindication for Darwin:
Until recently it was possible, even plausible, to think that
the faculty of vision had originated several times during the
course of animal evolution. New research suggests not: vision arose
only once and earlier than expected, before 700 million years
Davide Pisani and colleagues from the National University of
Ireland have traced the ancestry of the three kinds of
"opsin" protein that animals use, in combination with a pigment, to
detect light. By comparing the genome sequences of sponges,
jellyfish and other animals, they tracked the origin of opsins back
to the common ancestor of all animals except sponges, but including
a flat, shapeless thing called a placozoan. Some time after 755
million years ago, the common ancestor of ourselves and the
placozoa duplicated a gene and changed one of the copies into a
I have an
article in this week's Spectator about ash trees and exotic
I'm pessimistic about the ash trees. It seems unlikely that a
fungus that killed 90 per cent of Denmark's trees and spreads by
air will not be devastating here, too. There is a glimmer of hope
in the fact that ash, unlike elms, reproduce sexually so they are
not clones - uniformly vulnerable to the pathogen. But it's only a
glimmer: tree parasites, from chestnut blight to pine beauty moth,
have a habit of sweeping through species pretty rampantly, because
trees are so long-lived they cannot evolve resistance in time.
The Forestry Commission's apologists are pleading 'cuts' as an
excuse for its failure to do anything more timely to get ahead of
the threat, but as a woodland owner I am not convinced. An
organisation that has the time and the budget to pore over my every
felling or planting application in triplicate and come back with
fussy and bossy comments could surely spare a smidgen of interest
in looming threats from continental fungi that have been spreading
out from Poland for 20 years. The commission was warned four years
ago of the problem.
My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall
Street Journal is on wolves and "mesopredators":
The return of the wolf is one of the unexpected ecological
bonuses of the modern era. So numerous are wolves that this fall
Wisconsin and Wyoming have joined Idaho and Montana in opening
wolf-hunting seasons for the first time in years. Minnesota follows
suit next month; Michigan may do so next year. The reintroduced wolves
of Yellowstone National Park have expanded to meet the expanding
packs of Canada and northern Montana.
The same is happening in Europe. Wolf populations are rising in
Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe, while in recent years wolves have
recolonized France, Germany, Sweden and Norway, and have even been
seen in Belgium and the Netherlands. Nor are wolves the only "apex
predators" to boom in this way. In the U.S., bears and mountain
lions are spreading, to joggers' dismay. Coyotes are reappearing
even within cities like Chicago and Denver.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
In 1965, the computer expert Gordon Moore published his famous little graph showing that the number of
"components per integrated function" on a silicon chip-a measure of
computing power-seemed to be doubling every year and a half. He had
only five data points, but Moore's Law has settled into an almost
iron rule of innovation. Why is it so regular?
This week's award of the Nobel Prize for medicine to John Gurdon
and Shinya Yamanaka effectively recognizes the science of
epigenetics. Dr. Gurdon showed that almost any cell (in a frog)
contains all the genetic information to become an adult. What makes
the cell develop a certain way is a pattern of "epigenetic"
modifications to the DNA specific to each tissue-turning genes on
and off. Dr. Yamanaka showed that if you can remove that epigenetic
modification (in a mouse) you can reprogram a cell to be an
Yet to most people the word "epigenetics" has come to mean
something quite different: the inheritance of nongenetic features
acquired by a parent. Most scientists now think the latter effect
is rare, unimportant and hugely overhyped.
There are several mechanisms of modifying DNA without altering
the genetic code itself. The key point is that these modifications
survive the division of cells.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on genetically modified crops:
Generally, technologies are judged on their net benefits, not on
the claim that they are harmless: The good effects of, say, the
automobile and aspirin outweigh their dangers. Today, arguably,
adopting certain new technologies is harder not just because of a
policy of precaution but because of a bias in much of the media
against reporting the benefits.
Shale gas is one example, genetically modified food another,
where the good news is deemed less newsworthy than the bad. A
recent French study claimed that both pesticides and GM corn fed
to cancer-susceptible strains of rats produced an increase in
tumors. The study has come in for withering criticism from
mainstream scientists for its opaque data, small samples,
unsatisfactory experimental design and unconventional statistical
analysis, yet it has still gained headlines world-wide. (In
published responses, the authors have stood by their results.)
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal finds that just as liberals and conservatives have
predictable personalities, so do libertarians:
An individual's personality shapes his or her political ideology
at least as much as circumstances, background and influences. That
is the gist of a recent strand of psychological research identified
especially with the work of Jonathan Haidt. The baffling (to
liberals) fact that a large minority of working-class white people
vote for conservative candidates is explained by psychological
dispositions that override their narrow economic interests.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about the retreat of Arctic Sea Ice and what it
This week probably saw the Arctic Ocean's sea ice reach its
minimum extent for the year and begin to expand again, as it
usually does in mid-September. Given that the retreat of Arctic ice
has become a key piece of evidence for those who take a more
alarmed view of global warming, it's newsworthy that 2012's melt
was the greatest since records began in 1979, with sea ice in the
Northern Hemisphere shrinking to about 1.3 million square miles, or
about half the 1979-2008 average.
As this column has sometimes pointed out ways in which the
effects of global warming are happening more slowly than predicted,
it is fair to record that this rate of decline in Arctic sea ice is
faster than many predicted. Although an entirely ice-free Arctic
Ocean during at least one week a year is still several decades away
at this rate, we are halfway there after just three decades.
I have an article in the Spectator drawing attention to the
curious fact that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring owed
much to a passionate tobacco denier. It's behind a paywall, but
there it is with the sources as links. Hat tip Ron Bailey.
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published 50 years
ago this month, effectively marked the birth of the modern
environmental movement. "Silent Spring came as a cry in the
wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly
written argument that changed the course of history," wrote Al Gore in his introduction to the 1994
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Bill Moggridge, who invented the laptop computer in 1982, died last week. His idea of using a hinge to
attach a screen to a keyboard certainly caught on big, even if the
first model was heavy, pricey and equipped with just 340 kilobytes
of memory. But if Mr. Moggridge had never lived, there is little
doubt that somebody else would have come up with the idea.
The phenomenon of multiple discovery is well known in science.
Innovations famously occur to different people in different places
at the same time. Whether it is calculus (Newton and Leibniz), or
the planet Neptune (Adams and Le Verrier), or the theory of natural
selection (Darwin and Wallace), or the light bulb (Edison, Swan and
others), the history of science is littered with disputes over
bragging rights caused by acts of simultaneous discovery.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is a review of a remarkable new science book:
Your great-grandparents faced infectious diseases that hardly
threaten you today: tuberculosis, polio, cholera, malaria, yellow
fever, measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, typhoid, typhus,
tapeworm, hookworm…. But there's also a long list of modern
illnesses that your great-grandparents barely knew: asthma, eczema,
hay fever, food allergies, Crohn's disease, diabetes, multiple
sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis. The coincidence of the rise in
these "inflammation" diseases, characterized by an overactive
immune system, with the decline of infection is almost certainly
not a coincidence.
My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street
The astronomer Martin Rees recently coined the neat phrase "Copernican demotion"
for science's habit of delivering humiliating disappointment to
those who think that our planet is special. Copernicus told us the
Earth was not at the center of the solar system; later astronomers
found billions of solar systems in each of the billions of
galaxies, demoting our home to a cosmic speck.
Mr. Rees says further Copernican demotion may loom ahead. "The
entire panorama that astronomers can observe could be a tiny part
of the aftermath of 'our' big bang, which is itself just one bang
among a perhaps-infinite ensemble." Indeed, even our physics could
be a parochial custom: Mr. Rees says that different universes could
be governed by different rules and our "laws of nature" may be
The Times has published my article on Northumberlandia today.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on
The theory of selfish DNA was born as a throwaway remark in the
book "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, when he pondered why
there is so much surplus DNA in the genomes of some animals and
When the sun rises on December 22, as it surely will, do not
expect apologies or even a rethink. No matter how often apocalyptic
predictions fail to come true, another one soon arrives. And the
prophets of apocalypse always draw a following-from the 100,000
Millerites who took to the hills in 1843, awaiting the end of the
world, to the thousands who believed in Harold Camping, the
Christian radio broadcaster who forecast the final rapture in both
1994 and 2011.
Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s
proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from
millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are
becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the
rhetoric has ramped up in recent years. Echoing the Mayan calendar
folk, theBulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to
midnight at the start of 2012, commenting: "The global community
may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe
from changes in Earth's atmosphere."
Over the five decades since the success of Rachel
Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 and the four decades since
the success of the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth in
1972, prophecies of doom on a colossal scale have become routine.
Indeed, we seem to crave ever-more-frightening predictions-we are
now, in writer Gary Alexander's word, apocaholic. The past half century has
brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines,
plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling
sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K
bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish,
cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate
My latest Mind and Matter column discusses the debate about how
non-Africans got their 1-4% Neanderthal DNA:
So did we or didn't we? Last week saw the publication of two new
papers with diametrically opposed conclusions about whether
non-African people have Neanderthal-human hybrids among their
ancestors-a result of at least some interspecies dalliance in the
That non-Africans share 1% to 4% of their genomes with
Neanderthals is not in doubt, thanks to the pioneering work of
paleo-geneticists led by the Max Planck Institute's Svante Paabo.
At issue is how to interpret that fact. Dr. Paabo originally
recognized that there are two possible explanations, hybridization
(which got all the press) or "population substructure."
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall
Identifying unique features of human beings is a cottage
industry in psychology. In his book "Stumbling on Happiness," the Harvard
psychologist Daniel Gilbert jokes that every member of his
profession lives under the obligation at some time in his career to
complete a sentence which begins: "The human being is the only
animal that..." Those who have completed the sentence with phrases
like "makes tools," "is conscious" or "can imitate" have generally
now conceded that some other animals also have these traits.
Plenty of human uniqueness remains. After all, uniqueness is
everywhere in the biological world: Elephants and worms also have
unique features. As fast as one scientist demotes human beings from
being unique in one trait, another scientist comes up with a new
unique trait: grandparental care, for instance, or extra spines on
the pyramidal cells of our prefrontal cortex.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is the third in the series on confirmation bias.
I argued last week that the way to combat confirmation bias-the
tendency to behave like a defense attorney rather than a judge when
assessing a theory in science-is to avoid monopoly. So long as
there are competing scientific centers, some will prick the bubbles
of theory reinforcement in which other scientists live.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:
If, as I argued last week, scientists are just as prone as
everybody else to confirmation bias to looking for evidence to
support rather than test their ideas then how is it that science,
unlike cults and superstitions, does change its
mind and find new things?
The answer was spelled out by the psychologist Raymond Nickerson
of Tufts University in a paper written in 1998: "It is not so much
the critical attitude that individual scientists have taken with
respect to their own ideas that has given science the success it
has enjoyed... but more the fact that individual scientists have
been highly motivated to demonstrate that hypotheses that are held
by some other scientist(s) are false."
There's a myth out there that has gained the status of a cliché:
that scientists love proving themselves wrong, that the first thing
they do after constructing a hypothesis is to try to falsify it.
Professors tell students that this is the essence of science.
Yet most scientists behave very differently in practice. They
not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they
perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges
their theories. Like defense attorneys building a case, they
collect confirming evidence.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
If all goes well next month, Curiosity, NASA's latest mission to
Mars, will land in the Gale crater, a 3.5-billion-year-old,
96-mile-wide depression near the planet's equator. Out will roll a
car-size rover to search for signs of life, among other things. It
will drill into rocks and sample the contents, using a mass
spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer.
In the unlikely event that the project finds evidence of life,
then what? In particular, who is in charge of deciding what we
should do if we encounter living Martian creatures?
The Times published my op-ed on banking reform:
It is not yet clear whether the current rage against the banks
will do more harm than good: whether we are about to throw the baby
of banking as a vital utility out with the bathwater of banking as
a wasteful casino. But what is clear is that the current mood of
Bankerdämmerung is an opportunity as well as a danger. The fact
that so many people agree that some kind of drastic reform is
needed, all the way along a spectrum from Milibands to mega-Tories,
might just open the window through which far-reaching reform of the
financial system enters.
All the actors involved bear some blame. First, investment
bankers and the principals in financial companies that cluster
around them have trousered an increasing share of the returns from
the financial markets, leaving less for their customers and
shareholders, while getting "too big to fail", so passing their
risks to taxpayers.
Two rival designs of plant biochemistry compete to dominate the
globe. One, called C3 after the number of carbon atoms in the
initial sugars it makes, is old, but still dominant. Rice is a C3
plant. The other, called C4, is newer in evolutionary history, and
now has about 21% of the photosynthesis "market." Corn is a C4
plant. In hot weather, the C3 mechanism becomes inefficient at
grabbing carbon dioxide from the air, but in cool weather C4 stops
working altogether. So at first glance it seems as if global
warming should benefit C4.
I wrote the following op-ed in The Times (behind a paywall) on 2
As I cowered in my parked car in a street in Newcastle last
Thursday, nearly deafened by hail on the roof of the car, thunder
from the black sky and shrieking girls from the doorway of a
school, a dim recollection swam into my mind. After inching back
home slowly, through the flooded streets, I googled to refresh the
memory. On 23 March this year, the Meteorological Office issued the following prediction:
"The forecast for average UK rainfall slightly favours
drier-than-average conditions for April-May-June as a whole, and
also slightly favours April being the driest of the 3 months. With
this forecast, the water resources situation in southern, eastern
and central England is likely to deteriorate further during the
One of the delights of science is its capacity for showing us
that the world is not as it seems. A good example is the startling
statistic that there are at least 10 times as
many bacterial cells (belonging to up to 1,000 species) in your gut
as there are human cells in your entire body: that "you" are
actually an entire microbial zoo as well as a person. You are 90%
microbes by cell count, though not by volume-a handy reminder of
just how small bacteria are.
This fact also provides a glimpse of the symbiotic nature of our
relationship with these bugs. A recent study by Howard Ochman at Yale
University and colleagues found that each of five great apes has a
distinct set of microbes in its gut, wherever it lives. So
chimpanzees can be distinguished from human beings by their gut
bacteria, which have been co-evolving with their hosts for millions
These days the heritability of intelligence is not in doubt:
Bright adults are more likely to have bright kids. The debate was
not always this calm. In the 1970s, suggesting that IQ could be
inherited at all was a heresy in academia, punishable by the
equivalent of burning at the stake.
More than any other evidence, it was the study of twins that
brought about this change. "Born Together-Reared Apart," a new book by Nancy L. Segal about the
Minnesota study of Twins Reared Apart (Mistra), narrates the
history of the shift. In 1979, Thomas Bouchard of the University of
Minnesota came across a newspaper report about a set of Ohio twins,
separated at birth, who had been reunited and proved to possess
uncannily similar habits. Dr. Bouchard began to collect case
histories of twins raised apart and to invite them to Minneapolis
latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:
Part of the preamble to Agenda 21, the action plan that came out
of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, reads:
"We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and
within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and
illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on
which we depend for our well-being."
Update: a couple of small corrections inserted
in square brackets below. Thanks to Stephen Coles of UCLA.
latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal
Human beings love sharing. We swap, collaborate, care, support,
donate, volunteer and generally work for each other. We tend to
admire sharing when it's done for free but frown upon it-or
consider it a necessary evil-when it's done for profit. Some think
that online, we're at the dawn of a golden age of free sharing, the
wiki world, in which commerce will be replaced by mass communal
sharing-what the futurist John Perry Barlow called "dot
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
If you write about genetics and evolution, one of the commonest
questions you are likely to be asked at public events is whether
human evolution has stopped. It is a surprisingly hard question to
I'm tempted to give a flippant response, borrowed from the
biologist Richard Dawkins: Since any human trait that increases the
number of babies is likely to gain ground through natural
selection, we can say with some confidence that incompetence in the
use of contraceptives is probably on the rise (though only if those
unintended babies themselves thrive enough to breed in turn).
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal
This week saw the announcement of the latest conclusions of
the Copenhagen Consensus, a project founded by Bjørn Lomborg in
which expert economists write detailed papers every four years and
then gather to vote on the answer to a simple question: Imagine you
had $75 billion to donate to worthwhile causes. What would you do,
and where should we start?
Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
Being maltreated as a child can perhaps affect you for life. It
now seems the harm might reach into your very DNA. Two recently
published studies found evidence of changes to the genetic material
in people with experience of maltreatment. These are the tip of an
iceberg of discoveries in the still largely mysterious field of
"epigenetic" epidemiology-the alteration of gene expression in ways
that affect later health.
Peter Pringle's new book "Experiment Eleven" documents a shocking
scandal in the history of medicine, when Albert Schatz, the
discoverer of streptomycin, was deprived of the credit and the
Nobel Prize by his ambitious boss, Selman Waksman. Streptomycin was
and is a miraculous cure for tuberculosis.
Yet the near disappearance of tuberculosis from the Western
world, where it was once the greatest killer of all, owes little to
streptomycin. Mortality from TB had already fallen by 75% in most Western
countries by 1950, when streptomycin became available, and the rate
of fall was little different before and after. Scarlet fever,
pneumonia and diphtheria all declined rapidly long before their
cures were introduced.
My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the technology of fly fishing
Moore's Law is the leitmotif of the modern age: Incessant
improvements in communication and computing are accompanied by
incessant drops in price. Yet some quite low-tech devices are also
experiencing Moore's Laws of their own, especially those that use
new materials. Even something as mundane as fishing rods.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about how predictably "primate" we all are in the
Generally, junior professors write long and unsolicited emails
to senior professors, who reply with short ones after a delay; the
juniors then reply quickly and at length. This is not because the
seniors are busier, for they, too, write longer and more punctually
when addressing their deans and funders, who reply more briefly and
tardily. The asymmetry in length and speed of reply correlates with
The Times has published my op-ed on shale gas:
It is now official: drilling for shale gas by
fracturing rock with water may rattle the odd teacup, but is highly
unlikely to cause damaging earthquakes. That much has been obvious
to anybody who has followed the development of the shale gas
industry in America over the past ten years. More than 25,000 wells
drilled have caused a handful of micro-seismic events that can
barely be felt.
The two rumbles that resulted from drilling a well near
Blackpool last year were tiny. To call a two-magnitude tremor an
earthquake is a bit like calling a hazelnut lunch. Such tremors
happen naturally more than 15 times a year but go unnoticed and
they are a common consequence of many other forms of underground
work such as coalmining and geothermal drilling. Earthquakes caused
by hydroelectric projects, in which dams load the crust and
lubricate faults, can be much greater and more damaging. The
Sichuan earthquake that killed 90,000 in 2008 was probably caused
by a dam.
A new study of the Great Barrier Reef will
apparently confirm what I argued in The Rational Optimist that
local pollution and over-fishing are a much greater threat to coral
reefs than either climate change or changing alkalinity (sometimes
wrongly called acidification).
The actual paper will appear in Current Biology,
but this is from the press release from James Cook University (I
hate it when scientists announce their results by press release
before the journal article is available).
Update: here's the article in press, but behind a
After a break of two weeks, here is my latest Mind and Matter column in
the Wall Street Journal:
April 25 is World Malaria Day, designed to draw attention to the
planet's biggest infectious killer. The news is generally good.
Never has malaria, which is carried by the Anopheles mosquito, been
in more rapid retreat. Deaths are down by a third in Africa over
the past decade alone, and malaria has vanished from much of the
world, including the U.S.
As so often happens in the battle against disease, however,
evolution aids the enemy. The selection pressure on pathogens to
develop resistance to new drugs is huge. In recent weeks, the
emergence on the Thai-Myanmar border of malaria strains resistant
to artemisin, a plant-derived drug, have led to pessimistic
headlines and reminders of the setback caused by resistance to the
drug chloroquine, which began in the 1950s.
Belatedly, here is my Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street
Journal on 24 March 2012.
In her remarkable new book "The Rambunctious Garden," Emma Marris explores
a paradox that is increasingly vexing the science of ecology,
namely that the only way to have a pristine wilderness is to manage
it intensively. Left unmanaged, a natural habitat will become
dominated by certain species, often invasive aliens introduced by
human beings. "A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a
heavily managed ecosystem," she writes. "The ecosystems that look
the most pristine are perhaps the least likely to be truly
latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street
Scientists, it's said, behave more like lawyers than
philosophers. They do not so much test their theories as prosecute
their cases, seeking supportive evidence and ignoring data that do
not fit-a failing known as confirmation bias. They then accuse
their opponents of doing the same thing. This is what makes debates
over nature and nurture, dietary fat and climate change so
But just because the prosecutor is biased in favor of his
case does not mean the defendant is innocent. Sometimes biased
advocates are right. An example of this phenomenon is now being
played out in geology over the controversial idea that a meteorite
or comet hit the earth 12,900 years ago and cooled the
From the Ideas Market Blog at the wall Street
Last month, the Review columnist Matt Ridley discussed a new book called "Abundance," by
Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which argues that the future
will be "better than you think." (Diamandis is founder of the X
Prizes, which reward breakthroughs in technology, medicine, energy
and other areas.) One driver of progress, the authors say, is
"dematerialization," defined by Ridley as "a reduction in the
quantity of stuff needed to produce a product" (think of computers
that grow ever smaller but more powerful). Ridley largely endorsed
their vision of greater returns on improved technology, but offered
a few caveats:
The authors have submitted a response to that objection: "This
may turn out to be the case," they write,
The island of Gaua, part of Vanuatu in the Pacific, is just 13
miles across, yet it has five distinct native languages. Papua New
Guinea, an area only slightly bigger than Texas, has 800 languages,
some spoken by just a few thousand people. "Wired for Culture," a remarkable new book by
Mark Pagel, an American evolutionary biologist based in England,
sets out to explain this peculiar human property of fragmenting
into mutually uncomprehending cultural groups. His explanation is
Evolutionary biologists have long gotten used to the idea that
bodies are just genes' ways of making more genes, survival machines
that carry genes to the next generation. Think of a salmon
struggling upstream just to expend its body (now expendable) in
spawning. Dr. Pagel's idea is that cultures are an extension of
this: that the way we use culture is to promote the long-term
interests of our genes.
To the nearest whole number, the percentage of the world's
energy that comes from wind turbines today is: zero. Despite the
regressive subsidy (pushing pensioners into fuel poverty while
improving the wine cellars of grand estates), despite tearing rural
communities apart, killing jobs, despoiling views, erecting pylons,
felling forests, killing bats and eagles, causing industrial
accidents, clogging motorways, polluting lakes in Inner Mongolia
with the toxic and radioactive tailings from refining neodymium, a
ton of which is in the average turbine - despite all this, the
total energy generated each day by wind has yet to reach half a per
If wind power was going to work, it would have done so by now. The
people of Britain see this quite clearly, though politicians are
often wilfully deaf. The good news though is that if you look
closely, you can see David Cameron's government coming to its
senses about the whole fiasco. The biggest investors in offshore
wind - Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Siemens - are starting to worry that
the government's heart is not in wind energy any more. Vestas,
which has plans for a factory in Kent, wants reassurance from the
Prime Minister that there is the political will to put up turbines
before it builds its factory.
This forces a decision from Cameron - will he reassure the turbine
magnates that he plans to keep subsidising wind energy, or will he
retreat? The political wind has certainly changed direction. George
Osborne is dead set against wind farms, because it has become all
too clear to him how much they cost. The Chancellor's team quietly
encouraged MPs to sign a letter to No. 10 a few weeks ago saying
that 'in these financially straitened times, we think it is unwise
to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient
and intermittent energy production that typifies onshore wind
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is
Economic growth is a form of deflation. If the cost of, say,
computing power goes down, then the users of computing power
acquire more of it for less-and thus attain a higher standard of
living. One thing that makes such deflation possible is
dematerialization, the reduction in the quantity of stuff needed to
produce a product. An iPhone, for example, weighs 1/100th and costs
1/10th as much as an Osborne Executive computer did in 1982, but it
has 150 times the processing speed and 100,000 times the
Dematerialization is occurring with all sorts of products. Banking
has shrunk to a handful of electrons moving on a cellphone, as have
maps, encyclopedias, cameras, books, card games, music, records and
letters-none of which now need to occupy physical space of their
own. And it's happening to food, too. In recent decades, wheat
straw has shrunk as grain production has grown, because breeders
have persuaded the plant to devote more of its energy to making the
thing that we value most. Future dematerialization includes the
possibility of synthetic meat-produced in a lab without brains,
legs or guts.
The fruit of a narrow-leaved campion, buried in permafrost by a
ground squirrel 32,000 years ago on the banks of the Kolyma river
in Siberia, has been coaxed into growing into a new plant, which
then successfully set seed itself in a Moscow laboratory. Although
this plant species was not extinct, inch by inch scientists seem to
be closing in on the outrageous goal of bringing a species back
from the dead. I don't expect to live to see a herd of resurrected
mammoths roaming the Siberian steppe, but I think my grandchildren
The mammoth is the best candidate for resurrection mainly
because flash-frozen ones with well-preserved tissues are regularly
found in the Siberian permafrost. Occasionally these have been
fresh enough to tempt scientists to cook and eat them, usually with
disappointing results. Just last week a Chinese paleontologist in
Canada, Xing Lida, filmed himself frying and eating what he said
was a small mammoth steak. Cells from such carcasses have been
recovered, encouraging a rivalry between Japanese and Russian
scientists to be the first to revive one of these huge,
elephant-like mammals by cloning. Four years ago the mammoth genome
was sequenced, so we at least now know the genetic recipe.
The news of the resurrected flower does, apparently, remove one
obstacle. After 32,000 years the plant's DNA had not been so
damaged by natural radioactivity in the soil as to make it
unviable, which is a surprise. Mammoth carcasses are often much
younger - the youngest, on Wrangel Island, being about 4,700 years
old, contemporary with the Pharoahs. So the DNA should be in even
For people who profess to be kind and tolerant, the defenders of
Christianity can be remarkably unpleasant and intolerant. For all
his frank and sometimes brusque bluster, I cannot think of anything
that Richard Dawkins has said that is nearly as personally
offensive as the insults that have been deluged upon his head in
the past few days.
"Puffed-up, self-regarding, vain, prickly and militant," snaps one
commentator. Running a "Foundation for Enlightening People Stupider
than Professor Richard Dawkins," scoffs another. Descended from
slave owners, smears a third, visiting the sins of a
great-great-great-great-great- great-grandfather upon the son (who
has made and given away far more money than he inherited).
In all the coverage of last week's War of Dawkins Ear, there has
been a consistent pattern of playing the man, not the ball:
refusing to engage with his ideas but thinking only of how to find
new ways to insult him. If this is Christian, frankly, you can keep
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is
on the good and the bad consequences of our surprising internet
It is now well known that people are generally accurate and
(sometimes embarrassingly) honest about their personalities when
profiling themselves on social-networking sites. Patients are
willing to be more open about psychiatric symptoms to an automated
online doctor than a real one. Pollsters find that people give more
honest answers to an online survey than to one conducted by
But online honesty cuts both ways. Bloggers find that readers who
comment on their posts are often harshly frank but that these same
rude critics become polite if contacted directly. There's a curious
pattern here that goes against old concerns over the threat of
online dissembling. In fact, the mechanized medium of the Internet
causes not concealment but disinhibition, giving us both
confessional behavior and ugly brusqueness. When the medium is
impersonal, people are prepared to be personal.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is
on citizen science:
The more specialized and sophisticated scientific research
becomes, the farther it recedes from everyday experience. The
clergymen-amateurs who made 19th-century scientific breakthroughs
are a distant memory. Or are they? Paradoxically, in an increasing
variety of fields, computers are coming to the rescue of the
amateur, through crowd-sourced science.
Last month, computer gamers working from home redesigned an
enzyme. Last year, a gene-testing company used its customers to
find mutations that increase or decrease the risk of Parkinson's
disease. Astronomers are drawing amateurs into searching for
galaxies and signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The modern
equivalent of the Victorian scientific vicar is an ordinary person
who volunteers his or her time to solving a small piece of a big
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about
the exodus from Africa, either 125,000 years ago or 65,000 years
Everybody is African in origin. Barring a smattering of genes
from Neanderthals and other archaic Asian forms, all our ancestors
lived in the continent of Africa until 150,000 years ago. Some time
after that, say the genes, one group of Africans somehow became so
good at exploiting their environment that they (we!) expanded
across all of Africa and began to spill out of the continent into
Asia and Europe, invading new ecological niches and driving their
There is plenty of dispute about what gave these people such an
advantage-language, some other form of mental ingenuity, or the
collective knowledge that comes from exchange and
specialization-but there is also disagreement about when the exodus
began. For a long time, scientists had assumed a gradual expansion
of African people through Sinai into both Europe and Asia. Then,
bizarrely, it became clear from both genetics and archaeology that
Europe was peopled later (after 40,000 years ago) than Australia
(before 50,000 years ago).
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about the role of disease in species
Some beekeepers, worried by the collapse of their bee colonies
in recent years, are pointing a finger this month at a class of
insecticide (neo-nicotinoids) that they think is responsible for
lowering the insects' resistance to disease. They may be right, but
I'm cautious. History shows that, again and again, blaming
chemicals for the decline of a species has prematurely exonerated
the real culprit, which is often disease alone.
The role of parasites in causing species to decline is often
overlooked. Native European red squirrels, for example, have long
been retreating in Britain at the hands of the American gray
squirrel, which menagerie-owning aristocrats introduced in the 19th
century. For years it was thought to be the competition for food
that prevented the squirrels' co-existence, but now scientists
place most of the blame on a parapox virus that causes a mild
illness to the grays but kills the reds.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on
Human beings, we tend to think, are at the mercy of their genes.
You either have blue eyes or you do not (barring contact lenses);
no amount of therapy can change it. But genes are at the mercy of
us, too. From minute to minute, they switch on and off (i.e., are
actively used as recipes to make proteins) in the brain, the immune
system or the skin in response to experience. Sunbathing, for
example, triggers the expression of genes for the pigment
As a recent study confirms, on a much longer time
scale, genes are even at the mercy of culture. The paradigmatic
example is lactose tolerance. All mammals can digest lactose sugars
in milk as babies, but the lactase gene switches off at weaning
when no longer needed. In much of Europe and parts of Africa, by
contrast, most people can digest lactose even as adults, because
the lactase gene remains switched on. (About 90% of East Asians and
70% of South Indians are lactose-intolerant to some degree.)
One of my favourite writers these days is Willis Eschenbach,
whose essays at wattsupwiththat often combine ingenious scientific
rationality with lyrical prose. Here he is on the subject of the
sea ice off Alaska:
My point in this post? Awe, mostly, at the damaging power of cold.
As a seaman, cold holds many more terrors than heat. When enough
ice builds up on a boat's superstructure, it rolls over and men
die. The sun can't do that. The Titanic wasn't sunk by a heat
The thing about ice? You can't do a dang thing about it. You can't
blow up a glacier, or an ice sheet like you see in the Bering Sea
above. You can't melt it. The biggest, most powerful icebreaker
can't break through more than a few feet of it. When the ice moves
in, the game is over.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Even a rational optimist is pessimistic about some things. Here's
one: the gradual distortion of the human sex ratio by sex-selective
abortion. A new essay by the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt
concludes that "the practice has become so ruthlessly routine in
many contemporary societies that it has impacted their very
population structures." He finds "ample room for cautious
pessimism" in the fact that this phenomenon is still very much on
For obscure reasons, the human sex ratio is always slightly
male-biased, but in the natural state it rarely goes above 105 male
births per 100 female ones, except in small samples. In China's
last mini-census in 2005, the ratio was nearly 120 to 100 and in
some districts over 150. That this is caused by sex-selective
abortion (and not, for example, by a hepatitis-B epidemic, which
can favor male births) is proved by a ratio of 107 to 100 among
first-born children but nearer 150 among ones born later.
China is not the only country where this is happening. By the
early 21st century, all four Asian "tigers"-South Korea, Singapore,
Hong Kong and Taiwan-had a "naturally impossible" ratio of 108 or
higher. India has an increasing ratio, as high as 120 in some
states. Even some European and central Asian countries (including
Albania, Georgia and even Italy) have unnaturally male-biased
births. Nearly half the world falls in this category.
Each year, John Brockman's website, The Edge, asks a question
and gets many answers to it. This year, the question is: What is
your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation? Some of the
answers are fascinating. Here's mine:
It's hard now to recall just how mysterious life was on the
morning of 28 February 1953 and just how much that had changed by
lunchtime. Look back at all the answers to the question "what is
life?" from before that and you get a taste of just how we, as a
species, floundered. Life consisted of three-dimensional objects of
specificity and complexity (mainly proteins). And it copied itself
with accuracy. How?
How do you set about making a copy of a three-dimensional
object? How to do you grow it and develop it in a predictable way?
This is the one scientific question where absolutely nobody came
close to guessing the answer. Erwin Schrodinger had a stab, but
fell back on quantum mechanics, which was irrelevant. True, he used
the phrase "aperiodic crystal" and if you are generous you can see
that as a prediction of a linear code, but I think that's
Here's my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Journal, with added links and charts. On interglacials.
The entire 10,000-year history of civilization has happened in an
unusually warm interlude in the Earth's recent history. Over the
past million years, it has been as warm as this or warmer for less
than 10% of the time, during 11 brief episodes known as
interglacial periods. One theory holds that agriculture and dense
settlement were impossible in the volatile, generally dry and
carbon-dioxide-starved climates of the ice age, when crop plants
would have grown more slowly and unpredictably even in warmer
This warm spell is already 11,600 years old, and it must surely,
in the normal course of things, come to an end. In the early 1970s,
after two decades of slight cooling, many scientists were convinced
that the moment was at hand. They were "increasingly apprehensive,
for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger
of another ice age," said Time in 1974. The "almost unanimous" view
of meteorologists was that the cooling trend would "reduce
agricultural productivity for the rest of the century," and "the
resulting famines could be catastrophic," said Newsweek in
Since then, of course, warmth has returned, probably driven at
least partly by man-made carbon-dioxide emissions. A new paper,
from universities in Cambridge, London and Florida, drew headlines
last week for arguing that these emissions may avert the return of
the ice age. Less noticed was the fact that the authors, by analogy
with a previous warm spell 780,000 years ago that's a "dead ringer"
for our own, expect the next ice age to start "within about 1,500
years." Hardly the day after tomorrow.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Coral reefs around the world are suffering badly from overfishing
and various forms of pollution. Yet many experts argue that the
greatest threat to them is the acidification of the oceans from the
dissolving of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
The effect of acidification, according to J.E.N. Veron, an
Australian coral scientist, will be "nothing less than
catastrophic.... What were once thriving coral gardens that
supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become
red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way."
This is a common view. The Natural Resources Defense Council has
called ocean acidification "the scariest environmental problem
you've never heard of."
My Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal on 1
January 2012 is here:
Here's a New Year's thought. With some nine million species on
the planet, and with each species lasting a million years on
average, about nine species will go extinct naturally this coming
year (with more, almost certainly, going extinct unnaturally). But
about nine new species also will be born in 2012.
Here is the Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal,
published on 24th December.
Which American city has more inhabitants: San Antonio or San
Diego? More Germans than Americans get the answer right (San
Diego). What about Hanover or Bielefeld? More Americans than
Germans get the answer right (Hanover). In each case, the
foreigners pick the right answer by choosing the city they have
heard more about, assuming that it's bigger. The natives know too
much and let the excess information get in the way.
This is an example of a "heuristic," a highfalutin name for a
"rule of thumb" or "gut feeling." Most business people and
physicians privately admit that many of their decisions are based
on intuition rather than on detailed cost-benefit analysis. In
public, of course, it's different. To stand up in court and say you
made a decision based on what your thumb or gut told you is to
invite damages. So both business people and doctors go to some
lengths to suppress or disguise the role that intuition plays in
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is
on metaphors for the Higgs Boson.
In 1993 a British science minister, William Waldegrave, was
sitting on a train reading the speech that his staff had prepared
for him for a physics conference. Finding the draft "unspeakably
dull," he decided instead to challenge the assembled scientists to
answer, on a single sheet of paper, the question: "What is the
Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?" He pledged to the
winner a bottle of vintage Champagne.
Even before its existence was at last tentatively suggested by an
experiment this week, many people had heard of the Higgs boson, the
mysterious manifestation of the field that causes matter to have
mass, according to a theory minted in 1964. Yet almost nobody,
myself included, knows what a Higgs boson is, or at least can give
a sensible description of it. This is a serious handicap if
Higgsism, as I hereby christen it, is to have an impact on human
culture, let alone on technology.
Prospect has published my essay on bioenergy, in which my
research left me astonished at the environmental and economic harm
that is being perpetrated. Biomass and biofuels are not carbon
neutral, can't displace much fossil fuel, require huge subsidies,
increase hunger and directly or indirectly cause rain forest
destruction. Apart from that, they're fine... Here's the
From a satellite, the border between Haiti and the Dominican
Republic looks like the edge of a carpet. While the Dominican
Republic is green with forest, Haiti is brown: 98 per cent
deforested. One of the chief reasons is that Haiti depends on
bioenergy. Wood-mostly in the form of charcoal-is used not just for
cooking but for industry as well, providing 70 per cent of Haiti's
energy. In contrast, in the Dominican Republic, the government
imports oil and subsidises propane gas for cooking, which takes the
pressure off forests.
Haiti's plight is a reminder there is nothing new about bioenergy.
A few centuries ago, Britain got most of its energy from firewood
and hay. Over the years the iron industry moved from Sussex to the
Welsh borders to Cumberland and then Sweden in an increasingly
desperate search for wood to fire its furnaces. Cheap coal and oil
then effectively allowed the gradual reforestation of the country.
Britain's forest cover-12 per cent-is three times what it was in
1919 and will soon rival the levels recorded in the Doomsday Book
Yet if the government has its way, we will instead emulate Haiti.
In 2007, Tony Blair signed up to a European Union commitment that
Britain would get 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources
by 2020. Apparently neither he nor his officials noticed this
target was for "energy" not "electricity." Since much energy is
used for heating, which wind, solar, hydro and the like cannot
supply, this effectively committed Britain to using lots of wood
and crops for both heat and electricity to hit that target. David
Cameron and Chris Huhne, anxious to seem the "greenest of them
all," dare not weaken the target, despite its unattainability.
I have published the following editorial in City AM, a British
WHEN is a job not a job? Answer: when it is a green job. Jobs in
an industry that raises the price of energy effectively destroy
jobs elsewhere; jobs in an industry that cuts the cost of energy
create extra jobs elsewhere.
The entire argument for green jobs is a version of Frederic
Bastiat's broken-window fallacy. The great nineteenth century
French economist pointed out that breaking a window may provide
work for the glazier, but takes work from the tailor, because the
window owner has to postpone ordering a new suit because he has to
pay for the window.
You will hear claims from Chris Huhne, the anti-energy secretary,
and the green-greed brigade that trousers his subsidies for their
wind and solar farms, about how many jobs they are creating in
renewable energy. But since every one of these jobs is subsidised
by higher electricity bills and extra taxes, the creation of those
jobs is a cost to the rest of us. The anti-carbon and renewable
agenda is not only killing jobs by closing steel mills, aluminium
smelters and power stations, but preventing the creation of new
jobs at hairdressers, restaurants and electricians by putting up
their costs and taking money from their customers' pockets.
In a strongly worded editorial in Science magazine this week,
Calestous Juma, the director of the Agricultural Innovation in
Africa program at Harvard's Kennedy School, called for a
government-led initiative to introduce biotechnology into Africa.
"Major international agencies such as the United Nations have
persistently opposed expanding biotechnology to regions most in
need of its societal and economic benefits," he wrote.
Genetic modification has had a huge impact on agriculture
worldwide. More than 15 million farmers now plant GM crops on
almost 370 million acres, boosting yields by 10% to 25%. Despite
opponents' fears that the technology would poison people, spread
superweeds and entrench corporate monopolies, it's now clear that
the new crops have reduced not only hunger but pesticide use,
carbon emissions, collateral damage to biodiversity and rain-forest
Yet, while much of North and South America, Australia and Asia are
expanding the use of GM crops, only three African countries have
adopted them (a further four are conducting trials). Mr. Juma
argues that Africa is the place that most needs a boost from
biotech: Many of the continent's farmers cannot afford to buy
pesticides, so corn and cotton that are genetically
insect-resistant could make a big difference there. Over the past
five decades, while Asian yields have quadrupled, African yields
have barely budged.
Here's an article I wrote, published by The Times this week.
The anti-capitalists, now more than 50 days outside St Paul's,
have a point:
capitalism is proving unfair. But I would like to try to
persuade them that the reason is because it is not free-market
enough. (Good luck, I hear you cry.) The market, when allowed to
flourish, tears apart monopoly and generates freedom and fairness
better than any other human institution. Today's private sector, by
contrast, is increasingly dominated by companies that are
privileged by government through cosy contract, soft subsidy,
convenient regulation and crony conversation. That is why it is
producing such unfair outcomes.
My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is on the purpose of
Chancing last week on a study about the calming effect of dreams
on people with post-traumatic stress disorder, I decided to read
recent research on dreams. When I looked at this topic about 20
years ago, it was clear that our ignorance of the purpose of
dreaming was almost total, notwithstanding the efforts of Sigmund
Freud, Francis Crick and other fine minds. Is that still true?
To my delight, the answer seems to be no. Some ingenious
experiments have replaced general ignorance with specific and
intriguing ignorance (as is science's habit). We now know enough to
know what it is we do not know about dreams.
Here's a column in The Times, imagining what the world might
look like if the UN's low-fertilty scenario comes true.
The peak is in sight. Even as the population passes seven billion,
the growth rate of the world population has halved since the 1960s.
The United Nations Population Division issues high, medium and low
forecasts. Inevitably the high one (fifteen billion people by 2100)
gets more attention than the low one (six billion and falling). But
given that the forecasts have generally proved too high for the
past few decades, let us imagine for a moment what might happen if
that proves true again.
Africa is currently the continent with the highest birth rates,
but it also has the fastest economic growth. The past decade has
seen Asian-tiger-style growth all across Africa. HIV is in retreat,
malaria in decline. When child mortality fell and economic growth
boomed like this in Europe, Latin America and Asia, the result was
a rapid fall in the birth rate. For fertility to fall,
contraception provides the means, but economic growth and public
health provide the motive. So the current slow decline in Africa's
birth rate may turn into a plummet.
As a science communicator, I found this fascinating.
The following is an email that was sent in 2003 by a very senior
scientist, Stephen Schneider, to a long list of other senior
scientists about an article in a newspaper by an economist. Read it
and see what you think of the economist, Ross McKitrick at the
Hello all. Ah ha-the latest idiot-McKitrick-reenters the scene. He
and another incompetent had a book signing party at the US
Capitol-Mike MacCracken went and he can tell you about it-last
summer. McKitrick also had an article-oped, highly refereed of
course-in the Canadian National Post on June 4 this year. Here is
the URL that worked back then:
It was a scream. He argued there is no such thing as global
temperature change, just local-all natural variablity mostly. To
prove this he had a graph of temperature trends in Erie
Pennsylvania for the past 50 years (this is from memory) which
showed a cooling. THat alone proves nothing, but when reading the
caption I noticed the trend was for temperature in October and
November!! So one station for two months consitituted his
"refutation" of global warming-another even dumber than Lomborg
economist way out of depth and polemicizing. I showed it to a class
of Stanford freshman, and one of them said: "I wonder how many
records for various combinations of months they had to run through
to find one with a cooling trend?" THe freshman was smarter than
this bozo. It is improtant to get that op-ed to simply tell all
reporters how unbelievably incompetent he is, and should not even
be given the time of day over climate issues, for which his one
"contribution" is laughably incompetent. By the way, the
Henderson/Castles stuff he mentions is also mostly absurd, but that
is a longer discussion you all don't need to get into-check it out
in the UCS response to earlier Inhofe polemics with answers I gave
them on Henderson/Castles if you want to know more about their bad
economics on top of their bad climate science
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is
about the possibility that big meteorites can trigger volcanic
About 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs and maybe two-thirds of
all other species suddenly died out. For three decades, the
dominant explanation for this mass extinction has been that it was
probably caused by the impact of a large meteorite.
A layer of iridium-rich rock from roughly the right date is the
fingerprint that convicted this extraterrestrial killer (iridium is
more common in space than in the Earth's crust). Even the bullet
hole has apparently been found in the shape of a 110-mile-diameter
crater called Chicxulub off the coast of Mexico. The explosion
would have been the equivalent of two million hydrogen bombs.
My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street
Earthquakes are natural disasters. However much culpability there
is afterward about the building standards that may have worsened
the death toll or the response of the emergency authorities, nobody
is to blame for the actual shock.
At least, not normally. An exception is the phenomenon of "induced
seismicity," whereby human activity such as geothermal energy
projects, mining, gas drilling or the filling of reservoirs
apparently sets off swarms of very small earthquakes where there
are susceptible geological faults and in certain kinds of
A recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey concludes, for
example, that a nearby shale gas well probably caused a swarm of 43
very small earthquakes (largest magnitude, 2.8) in Garvin County,
Okla., last January. A few hours before the quakes began, the well
had ceased hydraulic fracturing or "fracking": that is, injecting
high-pressure water into the ground to crack deep rocks.
interview I did for the Globe and Mail in Toronto during my
recent visit to Canada.
Joanne Nova has a really fine essay on Naomi Klein. This is
great writing, easily as fluent as Klein herself, only rational. An
By building her whole argument on un-scientific quicksand, Klein
makes mindless statements that unwittingly apply more to her own
arguments than anyone elses. She explores "how the right has
systematically used crises-real and trumped up-to push through a
brutal ideological agenda designed not to solve the problems that
created the crises but rather to enrich elites."
No one uses trumped-up-crises better than the left: Which team is
demanding billions to "stop the storms"? And which elites will be
enriched? The carbon traders and financiers.
My latest Wall Street Journal Mind and Matter column:
The list of scientific heretics who were persecuted for their
radical ideas but eventually proved right keeps getting longer.
Last month, Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for the discovery
of quasicrystals, having spent much of his career being told he was
"I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame
on them with what I was saying," he recalled, adding that the doyen
of chemistry, the late Linus Pauling, had denounced the theory with
the words: "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
"You can't change human nature." The old cliché draws support from
the persistence of human behavior in new circumstances.
Shakespeare's plays reveal that no matter how much language,
technology and mores have changed in the past 400 years, human
nature is largely undisturbed. Macbeth's ambition, Hamlet's
indecision, Iago's jealousy, Kate's feistiness and Juliet's love
are all instantly understandable.
Recently, however, geneticists have surprised themselves by
finding evidence of recent and rapid changes in human genomes in
response to the pressures of civilization. For example, fair skin
allows more absorption of the sun's ultraviolet rays necessary for
the skin to make vitamin D. So when the northern Europeans, living
in a climate with little sunshine, started to farm wheat, a food
low in vitamin D, they evolved fair skin to compensate and get more
of the vitamin.
There's a fine article at Spiked by Tim Black exposing
what Robert* Malthus actually said. Malthus was a reactionary
nostalgic pessimist who was not just wrong about population growth
outstripping food supply. He was also wrong in his cynicism about
helping the poor lest they breed more.
(*Everybody calls him Thomas these days, whereas his
contemporaries all called him Robert, which was his second name.
Calling him Thomas is like calling the first director of the FBI
Mylecture on scientific heresyto the RSA
this week has been reprinted onbishop-hill.netandwattsupwiththat.com, where it has
generated much discussion. Thanks to Andrew Montford and Antony
Watts for their interest.
This Halloween, the United Nations declared over the summer, a
baby will be born somewhere on Earth who will tip the world's
population over seven billion for the first time. Truly do
international bureaucrats have the power of prophecy!
The precision is bunk, of course, or rather a public-relations
gimmick. According to demographers, nobody knows the exact
population of the world to within 100 million. (Incidentally, the
record-setting baby will not be the seven billionth human being to
have existed, as some press reports have implied-more like the 108
Sad news of the death of John McCarthy, former professor of
Computer Science at Stanford University, who coined the very term
"artificial intelligence" in 1955 and invented the LISP programming
language in 1958.
McCarthy was a true "progressive" in that he appreciated the rapid
and dramatic improvements in human living standards brought about
by innovation. It was from McCarthy's website that I first learned
of Thomas Babington Macaulay's remarks, in the Edinburgh Review,
that I often quote -- "We cannot absolutely prove that those
are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point,
that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and
with just as much apparent reason ... On what principle is it that,
when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect
nothing but deterioration before us".
This alerted me to the startling fact that even 200 years ago,
when human living standards had barely begun to improve,
intellectuals were already lamenting the imminent and inevitable
end of that improvement. They were wrong then and they are wrong
Bronwen Maddox, editor of Prospect, has a long article entitled "Just Too Many?", arguing
that the world needs to end its taboo on discussing population and
population control. This is of course pegged on the United Nations'
somewhat gimmicky announcement that the world will pass seven
billion people on 31st October. Thugh it is generally
a good essay, like so much of the coverage, Maddox's article fails
sufficiently to distinguish the top-down approach to population,
which did indeed become taboo after 1994, and the bottom-up one,
which did not. The bottom up one focuses on economic development
and public health, which together drive down birth rates by
enabling women to plan smaller families rather than keep breeding
heirs and spares. The top-down approach targets birth rates
themselves. I would argue that its cruelties should make us
cautious before returning to it. I have sent the following letter
to the editor at Prospect:
Your population cover story makes a
good case that public-sector experts effectively turned their backs
on the issue following the intervention of an unusual mixture of
conservatives and feminists at the Cairo conference in 1994. Was
this silence entirely a bad thing? Do not underestimate the harm
done by the coercion recommended in the 1970s by western
intellectuals -- and implemented. Egged on by Western
governments and pressure groups, coerced sterilisation became a
pattern all across Asia in the 1970s. Chinese women were forcibly
taken from their homes to be sterilised. Cheered on by Robert
McNamara's World Bank, Sanjay Gandhi ran a vast campaign of rewards
and coercion to force 8 million poor Indians to accept vasectomies.
Yet we now know that bottom-up forces, chiefly public health
improvements and economic growth, generally reduce birth rates even
faster than top-down coercion (which bodes well for Africa with its
recent rapid economic growth). The availability of contraception is
necessary but not sufficient. Maybe the inattention of the
international quangocracy is not always a bad thing.
After writing this I came across an unusually (for the
BBC) well-researched and well-informed essay on this subject by
Mike Gallagher on the BBC, which makes the same point in greater
detail. Some extracts:
he Australian has published my review of Donna Laframboise's
The review prompted a tweet from Michael Mann that I was wrong
to say the IPCC had dropped the hockey stick. Here's a source: judge for yourself.
Here's the text of the review:
Chris Huhne, the UK energy secretary, boasts that wind farms and
other renewable energy schemes will create 9,000 jobs this year.
Since they are all subsidised, each one is in effect sponsored by a
newly unemployed person elsewhere in the economy.
Shale gas already supports 140,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone, up
from about zero in 2007. This is without subsidy; in fact, the
reverse -- hefty tax revenue. Pennsylvania's population is
one-fifth of Britain's.
From The Economist comes news that does not
surprise me and reinforces my view, aired in mydebate with Bill Gates, that pessimism about
Africa is overdone and trade is transforming Africa for the
AFRICA has made a phenomenal leap in
the last decade. Its economy is growing faster than that of any
other continent. Foreign investment is at an all-time high; Senegal
has lower borrowing costs than Ireland. The idea of a black African
billionaire-once outlandish except for kleptocratic dictators-is
commonplace now. At the same time an expanding African middle class
(similar in size to those in India and China) is sucking in
consumer goods. Poverty, famine and disease are still a problem but
less so than in the late 20th century, not least thanks to advances
in combating HIV and malaria.
Africa's mood is more optimistic than at any time since the
independence era of the 1960s. This appears to be a real turning
point for the continent. About a third of its growth is due to the
(probably temporary) rise in commodity prices. Some countries have
been clever enough to use profits to build new infrastructure. The
arrival of China on the scene-as investor and a low-cost
builder-has accelerated this trend. Other Asian economies are
following its lead, from Korea to Turkey.
Nicely put by Michael Barone:
...A similar but more peaceable fate is
befalling believers in what I think can be called the religion of
the global warming alarmists.
They have an unshakeable faith that
manmade carbon emissions will produce a hotter climate, causing
multiple natural disasters. Their insistence that we can be
absolutely certain this will come to pass is based not on science
-- which is never fully settled, witness the recent experiments
that may undermine Albert Einstein's theory of relativity -- but on
something very much like religious faith.
Here is a letter I sent to the editor and deputy editor of The
A comment on the piece
by James Astill about the Berkeley temperature study. Most of the article
is a sensible discussion of a deadly dull piece of statistics that
changes nothing. But it's topped and tailed with claims that this
leaves little room for doubters, and that the warming is "fast".
Both these conclusions are badly wrong.
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Journal is the extraordinary story of modern chicken genetics.
Of all the amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals in the world,
the most abundant species is probably the chicken. At any one time,
approximately 20 billion cocks and hens are alive on the planet
(though never for long).
Donna Laframboise is a journalist and civil libertarian in
Toronto, who made her name as a fearless investigative reporter in
the 1990s. She has recently been investigating the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has come up with
startling results about how its reports are compiled. For those of
us who took the IPCC's evaluations of climate at face value when
they came out -- I know I did -- and thought that they were based
on an impartial and careful process that relied on peer reviewed
evidence, these revelations are shocking. Her book The Delinquent Teenager is now available on
kindle and will shortly be in paperback. It is one of the most
important pieces of investigative journalism in recent years. It
demolishes the argument that we need the mainstream media because
the blogosphere will never do the hard work of investigative
journalism. The opposite is true.
Here I take the liberty of extracting one fairly lengthy tale
from the book, but there are many more:
The IPCC's transparency shortcomings have
been obvious for some time. In 2005 Steve McIntyre, a Canadian with
a PhD Masters degree in mathematics and a flair
for statistics, was invited by the IPCC to be an expert reviewer
for what would become the 2007 edition of the Climate Bible.
McIntyre, who writes theClimateAudit.org blog, was by
then a well-known IPCC critic, so this invitation was a promising
sign. But it didn't take long for matters to go off the rails.
Here's my latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall
Writing about science carries the risk of embarrassment.
If you champion a theory and it gets disproved, you have some
explaining to do. So it is nice when a theory you choose does win
Here's an article I wrote for this week's Spectator about
UK energy policy. Wind must give way to gas before it ruins us all,
and our landscapes.
Which would you rather have in the view from your
house? A thing about the size of a domestic garage, or eight towers
twice the height of Nelson's column with blades noisily thrumming
the air. The energy they can produce over ten years is similar:
eight wind turbines of 2.5-megawatts (working at roughly 25%
capacity) roughly equal the output of an average Pennsylvania shale
gas well (converted to electricity at 50% efficiency) in its first
Difficult choice? Let's make it easier. The gas well can be
hidden in a hollow, behind a hedge. The eight wind turbines must be
on top of hills, because that is where the wind blows, visible for
up to 40 miles. And they require the construction of new pylons
marching to the towns; the gas well is connected by an underground
Fenbeagle has done a cartoon featuring a rational optimist...
From My latest Mind and Matter Column at he Wall
The science of evolutionary psychology has flourished in recent
years by asking "why" as well as "how" questions about animal and
human behavior, and answering them with historical
I have a book review in the Wall Street Journal of
Robert Laughlin's book Powering the Future.
These are the first two paragraphs:
Many environmentalists believe that carbon
dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels will cause a climate
crisis toward the end of this century. Environmentalists also raise
the alarm that we have reached "peak oil" and that fossil fuels
will run out by the middle of the century. That both views cannot
be true rarely seems to bother those who hold them. Either
consequence, we're told, makes the world's conversion to a
low-carbon energy system an urgent matter.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on
metaphors and analogies:
Monkeys can reason by using analogy, it seems. In an experiment
recently reported in the journal Psychological Science, baboons in
a lab proved capable of realizing that a pair of oval shapes is
"like" a pair of square shapes and "unlike" a pair made of two
different shapes. This finding suggests that you can have analogy
Fascinating interview with the founder of Continental
Resources Harold Hamm in the Wall Street Journal.
Harold Hamm calculates that if
Washington would allow more drilling permits for oil and natural
gas on federal lands and federal waters, the government could over
time raise $18 trillion in royalties. That's more than the U.S.
The Bakken oil fields of North Dakota are proving to be huge.
possibly 24 billion barrels.
I have an op-ed article in the Times today, arguing that
there is light at the end of the tunnel for the world's and the
British economy: the long-term gains from living within our means
Matthew Parris hit a nerve last Saturday with his argument that
we have lived beyond our means and must now expect to have to work
harder and be 25 per cent poorer. It resonated with me as well as
many readers. He cut through all the detail of debt, default and
deficits to extract an essential truth. The West has run a pyramid
scheme, spending borrowed capital to boost current living
standards. From pensions to mortgages, from public spending to
consumer extravagance, the reckoning has arrived.
Here is my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
There are many mysteries about Ray, the 17-year-old
English-speaking "forest boy" who walked into the city hall in
Berlin on Sept. 5, claiming to have lived wild in the woods for
five years with his father-until his father recently died in a
fall. Judging by his rucksack and his speech, he was not a fully
feral child, reared by wild animals and unacquainted with
I have the following
opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal, adapted from my
forthcoming Hayek lecture.
The crowd-sourced, wikinomic cloud is the new, new thing
that all management consultants are now telling their clients to
embrace. Yet the cloud is not a new thing at all. It has been the
source of human invention all along. Human technological
advancement depends not on individual intelligence but on
collective idea sharing, and it has done so for tens of thousands
of years. Human progress waxes and wanes according to how much
people connect and exchange.
I published this article in the Ottawa Citizen today:
The world now has almost seven billion people and rising.
The population may surpass nine billion by 2050. We, together with
our 20 billion chickens and four billion cattle, sheep and pigs,
will utterly dominate the planet. Can the planet take it? Can we
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street
Journal is on drug development and network analysis:
Here's a paradox. Every week seems to bring news from a research
laboratory of an ingenious candidate cure about to enter clinical
trials for a serious disease. Yet the productivity of drugs coming
out of clinical trials has been plummeting, and the cost per drug
has been rocketing skyward. The more knowledge swells, the more
pharmaceutical innovation fails. What's going on?
My latest Wall Street Journal Mind and Matter column discusses conspiracy
Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, has
never received so many angry letters as when he wrote a column for
Scientific American debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. Mr. Shermer
found himself vilified, often in CAPITAL LETTERS, as a patsy of the
sinister Zionist cabal that deliberately destroyed the twin towers
and blew a hole in the Pentagon while secretly killing off the
passengers of the flights that disappeared, just to make the thing
look more plausible.
He tells this story in his fascinating new book, "The Believing
Brain." In Mr. Shermer's view, the brain is a belief engine,
predisposed to see patterns where none exist and to attribute them
to knowing agents rather than to chance-the better to make sense of
the world. Then, having formed a belief, each of us tends to seek
out evidence that confirms it, thus reinforcing the belief.
My TED talk onWhen Ideas Have Sexhas now passed
Latest Wall Street Journal
column is on how anti-virals outwit natural selection:
Draco, who wrote Athens's first constitution in about 620 B.C.,
decreed that just about every crime should be punishable by death,
because that was what petty criminals deserved and he could think
of no harsher penalty for serious criminals. "Draconian" means
indiscriminate as well as harsh.
Back in June, I could not make it to Idea City in Canada,
meeting that chose "ideas having sex as its slogan". But I
recorded a talk by Skype and here it is.
I have a piece in today's Times newspaper on extinction of
species. Here it is, with added links:
The suitably named Dr Boris Worm, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, led
the team that this week estimated the number of species on the planet
at 8.7 million, plus or minus 1.3 million. That sounds about right.
We human beings have described almost all the mammals, birds,
butterflies and other conspicuous creatures, but new beetles,
wasps, moths, flies and worms abound in every acre of tropical
Some patterns are clear. Most species are on land; marine life,
though just as abundant, is slightly less diverse. Most are in the
humid tropics; the rest of the globe is an ecological footnote to
the rainforest. Most are animals - though plants, fungi and
microbes vastly outweigh us beasts, they tend to come in fewer
kinds, perhaps because plants hybridise and bacteria swap genes,
blurring the boundaries of species. Most are insects: spiders/mites
and molluscs take silver and bronze, but if Planet Earth had a
mascot, it would be a ground beetle.
Latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
Evolutionists long ago abandoned the idea that natural selection
can promote only selfish behavior. In the right circumstances,
animals-including human beings-evolve the instinct to be nice (or
acquire habits of niceness through cultural evolution). This
happens within families but also within groups, where social
solidarity promotes the success of the group at the expense of
Hardly any subject in science has been so politically fraught as
the heritability of intelligence. For more than a century, since
Francis Galton first started speculating about the similarities of
twins, nature-nurture was a war with a stalemated front and
intelligence was its Verdun-the most hotly contested and costly
What limits the size of a peacock's tail, the weight of a deer's
antlers or the virtuosity of a songbird's song? Driven inexorably
by the competition to attract mates, these features of animals
ought to get ever more elaborate. There was even once a theory-now
discredited-that the famously gigantic antlers of the Irish elk
became so unwieldy that they caused its extinction. Yet sexual
ornaments do not get ever bigger.
Here is a piece I just published in the Spectator.
Johnny Berliner made this charming little calypso account of genes
and what they are made of. It's concise and precise as well as
nice. (Calypso rhyming is catching)
h/t Mark Stevenson.
Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
"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
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
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
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
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.
atest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on
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
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
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
Brian Eno, the musician and writer,
is more positive as a result of reading The Rational
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
One German organic farm has killed twice as many people as the
Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Gulf Oil spill
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street
It turns out I was right to be sceptical about the Howarth study
claiming that shale gas production produces more greenhouse gases
Ther's now a definitive study here thoroughly debunking Howarth and showing
that shale gas results in 54% less GHG production. Howarth claimed
that the gap between gas produced and gas sold indicated leakage.
Instead it indicates usage in powering equipment.
This is Howarth's second big mistake. His first last year was to
assume that coal mining produced no methane.
`Greener food and greener fuel' is the promise of Ensus, a firm
that opened Europe's largest (£250 million) bio-ethanol plant at
Wilton on Teesside last year - and has now shut it down for lack of
profitable customers. This is actually the second shut-down at the
plant - which takes subsidies and turns them into motor fuel - the
first being a three-week refit to try to stop the stench bothering
Welcome to the neo-medieval world of Britain's energy policy. It
is a world in which Highland glens are buzzing with bulldozers
damming streams for miniature hydro plants, in which the Dogger
Bank is to be dotted with windmills at Brobdingnagian expense, in
which Heathrow is to burn wood trucked in from Surrey, and
Yorkshire wheat is being turned into motor fuel. We are going back
to using the landscape to generate our energy. Bad news for the
Now this is what I call magnificent writing in the
sprit of Swift: Sean Corrigan riffs on peak oil, finite resources
and the planet's carrying capacity:
It is much better to forget all that Sierra
Club/WWF elitist, anti-mankind, horse manure about 'the call on the
planet' exerted by us members of the 'plague species' and to take a
little Bjorn Lomberg, a smattering of Julian Simon, and a
riffle-through of Matt Ridley, regarding the minuscule size of the
impact which our tiny little ilk - unimaginably outweighed by
living forms we cannot even see - can really expect to exert on the
vast, negatively-feedbacked rock which we inhabit-and to glory in
the sustained quality of our response to the challenges which
confront us, even under the far-from-ideal conditions under which
we are usually asked to make it.
For example, just as an exercise in
contextualisation, consider the following:-
Here's a piece I wrote for a Times supplement published
yesterday in print, not available online.
In the twentieth century, the world population quadrupled. By
the 1960s, it was growing at 2% a year. Yet, unlike the nineteenth
century when the prairies, pampas and steppes had been brought
under the plough, little new land was available to grow human food.
Some in the western world began to suggest that food aid to the
poor was only making the population problem worse. The ecologist
Paul Ehrlich forecast famines `of unbelievable proportions' by
1975; the chief organizer of Earth Day, 1970, said it was `already
too late to avoid mass starvation'; a professor in Texas said that
by 1990 famines would be devastating `all of India, Pakistan, China
and the Near East, Africa'.
Why did this not happen? Why was India a net exporter of food by
the mid 1970s? Why did China never revisit the horrors of Mao's
famines? Why has famine virtually disappeared from Africa except
where foolish dictators cause it? Why has the growth rate of the
world population halved to 1%?
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal,
with added links:
It's presumably neither ethical nor practical, but supposing
that somebody could sequence Osama bin Laden's genome, which genes
would you want to examine to try to understand his violent
I put this question to the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the
author of a new book called "The Science of Evil" (and a cousin of comedian
Sacha Baron Cohen). He replied that there is no evidence that bin
Laden's crimes came from his nature, rather than from his
experiences, so you might find nothing.
I wrote this week's Spectator diary (no link yet):
A day in London for the launch of my new report `The Shale Gas
Shock', published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I argue
that shale gas calls the bluff of the renewable energy movement in
the same way that genetically modified crops called the bluff of
the organic farming movement. Just as GM allows the organic dream
of drastic cuts in pesticide use to come true without high cost, so
shale gas promises gradually to displace both coal (in electricity
generation) and oil (in transport), drastically cutting carbon
emissions without needing subsidy. Since subsidy is the lifeblood
of most of the busybodies in the energy business, and since good
news is no news, few people turned up for my report's launch.
Back in the north, watching Newcastle United unconvincingly defeat
Birmingham at St James's Park, I tried to explain `Blaydon Races'
to my wife's Swedish cousin. Tyneside's national anthem chronicles
no climactic battle, doomed love affair, prolonged feud or heroic
feat, but the crash of a horse-drawn bus when a wheel fell off.
Bizarrely, the crash never even happened, let alone on the date
mentioned in the second line, 9th June 1862 - four
days after the song was first performed by the song's
writer, Geordie Ridley (no relation). Apparently the only bit that
came true, in a verse added after the event, is the line (in
Ridley's spelling) `The rain it poor'd aw the day an' myed the
groons quite muddy'.
By last weekend, it had not done that for weeks. I realised the
drought was getting to me when I dreamed about rain. For weeks we
have stared at the sky, and the web page of the Met Office rainfall
radar, in the hope of a smudge that might presage a deluge. But
still the sun shone every dawn, promising (in the Sarah Miles'
character's words from the film White Mischief) ``another ****ing
beautiful day''. The barley is beginning to suffer, though it is
not yet at the point of no return. A friend says in Iowa snow and
frost has delayed the maize planting to the point where it is
almost too late.
This is weather, not climate: noise, not signal. Just like last
December's cold, or Alabama's tornadoes, or Queensland's floods,
things are well within the pattern of normal variation. The global
average temperature in April was 0.12 of a degree above the long
term average, according to satellites: after 30 years of supposedly
worrying warming. Not that this will stop the climate preachers
claiming the drought as evidence of Gaia trampling out her grapes
of wrath. Watch for the have-it-both-ways words: `while no single
event can be blamed on climate change, this is the sort of weather
we can expect more of.'
The barley is grown on contract for Famous Grouse whisky.
Apparently, because there is not enough winter barley in Scotland
these days, they have had to redefine Scotland to Hadrian's old
border, the wall, and we are north of that. Can we vote in
Scotland's independence referendum, then?
Driving along the military road, atop Hadrian's wall, on another
****ing beautiful evening, I ponder a simple question: did it work?
We keep telling ourselves it was an act of visionary genius to
build an eighty-mile whinstone border fence with watchtowers, but
maybe it was just a bureaucratic folly, signed into existence by a
distracted emperor with whom nobody dared argue and then found to
be Maginot-useless at stopping regular barbarian incursions. Given
what we know about the relentless decay into self-serving
incompetence of all modern monopolies - public or private - I
suspect we are too forgiving in our accounts of ancient ones, the
Roman army included.
As I drive, a blizzard of hawthorn flies and other insects die
(dies?) on my windscreen. Judging by the Geiger-counter noise they
make, it must be hundreds a minute. And there are millions of cars
on the roads. Say ten billion deaths a day in Britain alone. Does
this worry Jain or Buddhist drivers, who don't like killing living
things? I google (actually Bing) the question and immediately find
a Buddhist who advises sticking Tibetan mantras on the car so that
`even if the insects get struck by the car and die, at least they
touched the mantras and purify their negative karma.' A bit like
papal indulgences, or carbon offsets.
On Saturday night, the rain came.
I stumbled on a BBC television program this evening (watch
it here), which was unintentionally revealing. It
was a compilation of extracts over several decades from its
flagship science series `Horizon', all on the theme of the `end of
the world'. The episodes covered asteroids, supervolcanoes,
contagious earthquakes, bird flu, the Y2K computer bug, the
greenhouse effect, the melting of Antarctica, the collpase of the
Gulf Stream as a consequence of global warming.
In every episode, the alarm was maximised, the worst case
emphasised, the language ludicrously extreme. Not one hint was
allowed, even in tonight's commentary linking the episodes, that
perhaps the failure of these extreme predictions of disaster should
lead to just a little caution about continuing apocaholism.
The BBC's unbalanced championing of alarm continues.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall
Street Journal is about the innovation that leads to the cheapening
of technologies, as opposed to the invention that leads to new
Cheapeners deserve as much credit as inventors.
Last week a Minneapolis firm called TenKsolar announced that it
reckons it can soon cut the cost of rooftop solar power in sunny
locations to as little as eight cents a kilowatt-hour-which is
almost competitive with conventional electricity. It borrows an
idea from computer memory technology to wire up solar panels in a
new pattern so that the current can take many different paths
through the cells in the array. The result is that the output of
the panel is no longer limited to the output of the
worst-performing cell. Until now, a shadow passing over one cell
would cut the output of the whole panel.
I published an article in The Times this week about fossil
Booming demand and stagnant supply drove oil prices to $125 a
barrel last week. Is this a sign that fossil fuels are running out?
It is more likely a sign that the cheap-oil age is giving way to
the cheap-gas age. As the oil price heads north, the gas price is
In 1865 a young economist named W. S. Jevons published a book
titled The Coal Question in which he argued that
Britain's "present lavish use of cheap coal" could not continue as
coal would soon run out and continued prosperity was therefore
"physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice
between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity."
Gladstone, as Chancellor, found Jevons' "grave and ... urgent
facts" so persuasive that he proposed to Parliament, with the
support of John Stuart Mill, to retire the national debt while the
good times lasted.
Read my report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation
on The Shale Gas Shock here.
The foreword is by Freeman Dyson.
This is the summary
The Rational Optimist has won the Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute. I
will be giving the Hayek Lecture when I accept the prize later in
the year. The Hayek Prize honors the book published within the past
two years that best reflects Hayek's vision of economic and
individual liberty. The Hayek Prize, with its $50,000 award, is
among the world's most generous book prizes. It was conceived and
funded by Manhattan Institute trustee Tom Smith to recognize the
influence of F.A. Hayek and to encourage other scholars to follow
his example. The winner of the Hayek Prize is chosen from among the
nominations by a selection committee of distinguished economists,
journalists, and scholars. Past winners include: William Easterly
for The White Man's Burden, Amity Shlaes for The Forgotten Man,
and, most recently, Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds for Money, Markets
This is a great honour because my central themes about
collective intelligence and spontaneous order are in many ways
prefigured in F.A.Hayek's work, and his ideas on the evolutionary
nature of economic progress are ones that I share and have built
The Rational Optimist has also won a silver
Business Book Award.
I don't have terribly strong views on the alternative-vote
referendum that Britain holds this week. But I found this radio exchange on the BBC between John
Humphreys and the prime minister, David Cameron, remarkable. If
even Humphreys does not know how the system would allow the second
votes of extremists to be counted more than those of moderates (and
he clearly does not), then it does not sound like a comprehensible
DC: "...you start counting some people's votes more than
JH: "No, you don't. That simply isn't true, that you
count some votes more than once."
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on grain,
fruit and the economic underpinnings of democracy.
When I was young, I had a mug on a shelf in my bedroom, and on
it was a poem about a farmer-a simple hymn to self-sufficiency.
Here's a bit of it:
I eat my own lamb,
My own chickens and ham
I shear my own fleece and I wear it.
I have lawns, I have bowers
I have fruits, I have flowers
The lark is my morning alarmer.
Update: the Taxpayers' Alliance has a major report on this issue, by Matthew
Sinclair, which concluded that
Over £37 million was spent on taxpayer funded
lobbying and political campaigning in 2007-08. That is nearly as
much as the £38.9 million all three major political parties
combined spent through their central campaigns at the 2005
election. But, the true amount spent on taxpayer funded lobbying
and political campaigning may be much higher as this report has
taken a conservative approach, focussing just on the most clear-cut
Is anybody else as shocked by this as I am?
Master Resource reposts Julian Simon's
wonderful and inspiring message of 1 May 1995. For good and bad, it
has aged not at all:
"EARTH DAY: SPIRITUALLY UPLIFTING, INTELLECTUALLY
Lord (Chris) Patten, new chairman of the BBC Trust, has
been sounding off, militantly, at the militancy of
He scored a bit of an own goal, though, with this remark:
Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the
year than I said. See below.
A meditation on the English spring I wrote for
I live on the 55th degree north parallel. If I had gone round
the world along that line last week, through Denmark, Lithuania,
Russia, Kamchatka, Alaska, Hudson's Bay and Labrador, I would be
trudging through snow nearly all the way (there is a handy northern
hemisphere weekly snow map on the website of Florida State
University, whence I gleaned this fact). Yet instead I ate a picnic
on a Northumbrian riverbank as a blizzard of orange-tip butterflies
danced over a snowfield of wood anemones in the mild sunshine.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on the regulation of genetic testing
I just took a detailed genetic test by sending some spit to a
firm in California and looking up the results on the Net. It seems
I'm probably descended from a peculiarly fecund fourth-century
Irish king called Niall of the Nine Hostages and a slightly more
unusual Mesopotamian Neolithic matriarch. Oh, and I have mostly
average risk of most diseases: The medical part of the test gave me
a bit of risk here, a bit of reassurance there, nothing very
In my experience, scientists often have a reflexive contempt for
economics. Speaking as a scientist who came to understand economics
after leaving academia, I find this attitude frustrating, because I
see how they miss the fundamentally bottom-up, emergent, evolving
nature of human society that the field of economics strives to
understand (even as they often acknowledge the bottom-up, emergent
nature of evolution and of ecosystems).
Peter Risdon writes to draw to my attention what Mark
Twain wrote to Walt Whitman on this 70th
The BBC has plumbed new depths with its recent reporting on
shale gas. Its reporter Richard Black wrote a story about the old Cornell University claim
that shale gas production emits more greenhouse-warming gases than
coal. I happen to know quite a bit about this study and I know that
it is based on very extreme and highly implausible assumptions
shared by nobody outside a narrow group of partisans. I also know
that it is very, very easy for a journalist to find this out and
then at least to mention that there are two sides to the story. Yet
nowhere in the entire piece does Black even mention that this study
is disputed. As reporting goes, that's truly disgraceful, and I for
one will never trust a story from Black again.
So here are a few things he should have told you about the other
side of the story, from Energy in Depth, a source that is about
as partisan as the BBC.
Alan Carlin has a peer reviewed paper in The International Journal of
Environmental Research and Public Health, which concludes that
climate policy is, in my terminology, a tourniquet for a
The economic benefits of reducing CO2
emissions may be about two orders of magnitude less than those
estimated by most economists because the climate sensitivity factor
(CSF) is much lower than assumed by the United Nations because
feedback is negative rather than positive and the effects of CO2
emissions reductions on atmospheric CO2 appear to be short rather
than long lasting.
The costs of CO2 emissions reductions are
very much higher than usually estimated because of technological
and implementation problems recently identified.
The Times has been serialising seven chapters
of The Rational Optimist for a week each.
The last one is available now.
The discovery, announced this week, of several genetic mutations
that predispose people toward Alzheimer's disease is intriguing,
because the genes are associated with cholesterol metabolism and
inflammation. The Alzheimer's jigsaw is a long way from being
complete, but the pieces are emerging, and this new evidence fits
quite nicely with the other pieces in suggesting a role for
Piece 1 is the immediate cause of Alzheimer's disease: the
appearance of insoluble "plaques" made of a small protein called
amyloid beta (A-beta for short) inside brain cells. These plaques
block the traffic of molecules in the cells. Eventually another
small protein, called tau, also starts to crystallize in this way
to form "tangles." Both symptoms are diagnostic of Alzheimer's, and
similar ones characterize other neurological syndromes such as
Parkinson's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob's.
Puzzle piece 2 is the APOE gene on chromosome 19, long known as
a powerful influence on whether you will get Alzheimer's disease.
Having two copies of the 4 version of the gene makes you 20 times
more likely than average to get the symptoms before the age of 75.
(Having at least one copy of the 2 version makes you less likely
than average to get the symptoms.) One of APOE's jobs is to break
down plaques, and the 4 version is inefficient at this task.
As I keep saying, shale gas is indeed revolutionising world
The US Energy Information Administration officially
uses the word `vast' for shale gas resources outside the US:
Although the shale gas resource estimates
will likely change over time as additional information becomes
available, the report shows that the international shale gas
resource base is vast
I wrote this piece for The Times yesterday (original behind
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about trying to evolve, rather than ordain,
solution to obesity
Sometimes we find it easy to identify a problem and
impossible to think of a solution. Obesity is a good example.
Almost everybody agrees that it is a growing burden on health
systems and that it requires urgent attention from policy makers.
But almost everybody also agrees that no policy for reducing
obesity is working.
Some 32% of adult American men and 35% of women are clinically
obese. The proportion hasn't swelled in recent years, but it hasn't
shrunk either, a study of 2008 data suggests. School posters,
virally marketed videos, healthy-eating classes, mandatory swimming
lessons, minimum school-recess times, celebrity chefs in charge of
school-meal recipes, bicycle lanes, junk-food ad bans,
calorie-content labels, hectoring physicians, birthday-cake bans,
monetary rewards for weight loss-they've all been tried, and
they've all largely failed.
Correlation ain't causation.
But for some time I have been noticing that the correlations
between certain aspects of solar activity and certain aspects of
climate are getting really rather impressive -- far more so than
anything relating to carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide certainly can affect climate, but so for sure can
other things, and in explaining the ups and downs of past climate,
before industrialisation, variations in the sun are looking better
and better as an explanation. That does not mean the sun causes
current climate change, but it certainly suggests that it is at
least possible that forcings more powerful than carbon dioxide
could be at work.
To mark today's UK publication of The Rational Optimist in
paperback, I have written an article for The Sun newspaper:
FOR the past month, the news has been all bad -
war, recession, riot, tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster,
inflation, cuts... and the cricket.
Guest post by Andrew Mayne
"Too much choice can be a bad thing-not just for the
individual, but for society."
Tim Worstall riffs on William Baumol to
One way of putting which is that increasing
labour productivity in services is more difficult than improving it
in manufacturing. Canonically, we cannot get a symphony orchestra
to be more productive by playing at twice the speed. So, ally this
with wages being determined by average productivity, we'll see the
amount we need to spend on labour to get services to rise against
the amount we need to spend on labour to get manufactures. Services
will become more expensive relative to manufactures over time.
However, this is not certain. A tendency,
yes, but not a certainty. For it is possible, through innovation,
to turn a service into, if not a manufacture, at least an automated
operation. Think replacing bank clerks with ATMs. Skilled typists
with dictation software. We can record the symphony once and play
it many times on a gramophone/Walkman/iPod.
As a general rule, if George Monbiot agrees with you, start
worrying you may be wrong. The Fukushima nuclear crisis has
made Monbiot a fan of nuclear power, at just the
time when my doubts have been growing.
You will not be surprised to hear that
the events in Japan have changed my view of
nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed
it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer
nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety
features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The
electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The
reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a
familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as
we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
My latest Wall Street Journal article is on Nick
Humphrey's theory of consciousness, as set out in his fine new
book Soul Dust
In 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments," published in 1759, Adam
Smith boldly recast the question of virtue in terms of what we now
call empathy (but which he called sympathy). Smith argued that we
are good to each other because empathy allows us to imagine both
the pleasure and the suffering experienced by our fellow beings.
Even when alone, he suggested, our morality comes from adopting the
perspective of an imagined "impartial spectator."
I have written two articles in the past few days on the
implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis (accident?, incident?
drama? -- not sure what the right word is).
This was for The Times on 16th March:
Robert Hardman in the Daily Mail writes:
Of course, the modern world is better
equipped than the ancients to survive these cataclysmic disasters.
We have stronger buildings, better communications and international
aid agencies to help the recovery process. But older societies had
a more realistic sense of their place in the world.
Which would you rather have? A more realistic sense of your
place in the world -- or your life? The remarkable thing about the
Japanese earthquake and tsunami is how many more they would have
killed if Japan had still been a poor country.
This is a draft of a piece that I wrote for The Times last
week. The published version was slightly different. I strongly
recommend Brian Moynahan's wonderful book on Tyndale:
This month, the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the
King James Bible reach a crescendo. Melvyn Bragg, James Naughtie
and Adam Nicolson have all presented programmes on the subject. But
I have an
uneasy feeling that they are they are missing, or underplaying, a
key point: that there is a single literary genius behind the
authorized bible's wonderful English - William Tyndale.
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Photo: Jon Erlandson
The Times ran this column by me last week:
When burglars broke into Vodafone's Basingstoke exchange early
on Monday morning, they plunged half of southern England into the
dark ages. Desolate and desperate figures shuffled through the
drizzle wearing sack-cloth and mortifying their flesh in expiation
of the sins that had brought this calamity upon them. It did no
good and for several long hours the horror continued: blackberries
were silent, mute, lifeless.
Is a mobile signal a luxury or a necessity? It would have been
unwise to lecture one of Monday's deprived souls on the astonishing
marvel of being able to communicate through the ether at all, let
alone window-shop the world's information bazaar virtually for free
at the speed of light. `Just be grateful that it sometimes works'
is not a line that placates me when I lose a mobile signal.
atest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
When did you last read an account of how microchips actually
work? You know, replete with all that stuff about electrons and
holes and "p-doping" and "n-doping" and the delights of gallium
arsenide. The golden age of such articles, when you could read
about them in the mainstream press, was the early 1980s. Today
nobody writes about semiconductors, at least not about how they
My point? That when a technology is new, everybody wants to
understand how it works. When it is mature, nobody is interested in
such details. The fascination with how things work fades, and the
technology becomes a black box.
Three years ago Queen Elizabeth II asked a group of speech
therapists if her father's stutter had been caused by his being
forced to write with his right hand despite being a natural
left-hander. Though it's a more plausible theory than movie
psychobabble about conflict with a domineering father (a theme of
Oscar front-runner "The King's Speech"), the experts told the queen
that this commonly held explanation for stuttering remains
unproven. It may be just an urban legend, based on the fact that
stuttering is more common among the left-handed.
The connection between handedness and speech runs deep.
Speech is controlled by the left side of the brain and so is motor
control of the usually dominant right hand. It is possible that
this connection says something about the evolutionary origin of
language, if language was first expressed through gestures rather
The other day at a talk I was asked, as I often am, whether I
agree that only putting the state in control can clean up the
environment. I wish I had then read this, from the blog at Cafe Hayek: a letter
sent to the Los Angeles Times:
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about the weakening of the magnetic field and,
more generally, the question of how we scare ourselves by knowing
The earth's magnetic field is weakening at an accelerating rate.
It is 15% weaker than it was at the time the north magnetic pole
was "discovered"-and claimed for King William IV-by a British
explorer in 1831. Should we be worried?
There is a lot of fuss about two new papers arguing, from
mathematical models, that extreme downpours have become and will
become more common in thenorthern hemisphereand specifically
inBritainas a result of man-made climate
Let's ignore the fact that this looks awfully similar to
the habit of blaming specific weather events on climate trends,
something we `lukewarmers' (who think climate change is real but
slow enough to adapt to through the foreseeable future) are
reprimanded for doing when we point out that an especially cold
winter or cool summer weakens the case for the alarming version of
the theory. So now we can do that too, can we?
Let's ignore the fact that neither paper comes up with any
actual evidence that greenhouse gases have caused more extreme
downpours - other than circumstantial correlation. Their sole
argument is that they cannot think of any other explanation for the
increase in downpours. Or as the
BBC puts it:
Ever since opening my own eyes by researching my book, I keep a
watching brief for egregious examples of pessimistic bias in the
media. Once your eyes adjust, the media's tendency to spot a cloud
in every silver lining is very striking.
But just as striking is its ability to ignore anything that
reaches optimistic conclusions.
As I have mentioned before, almost nobody has heard of the
CO2-fertilisation effect. There is a new book by the Idsos that is
well worth reading on this: there is a huge peer-reviewed
literature on the benefits of CO2 enrichment and it is skilfully summarised here.
My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall
Street Journal is on Dunbar's number.
I was on BBC Radio 4's programme A Good Read (the link allows you to listen
again) this week, where I recommended the book that was my
favourite as a child, and probably still is: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
The others chose A Game of Hide and Seek and Great
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Journal, on `unlearning':
For adults, one of the most important lessons to learn in life
is the necessity of unlearning. We all think that we know certain
things to be true beyond doubt, but these things often turn out to
be false and, until we unlearn them, they get in the way of new
understanding. Among the scientific certainties I have had to
unlearn: that upbringing strongly shapes your personality; that
nurture is the opposite of nature; that dietary fat causes obesity
more than dietary carbohydrate; that carbon dioxide has been the
main driver of climate change in the past.
I came across a rather good word for this kind of
unlearning-"disenthrall"-in Mark Stevenson's book "An Optimist's
Tour of the Future," published just this week. Mr. Stevenson
borrows it from Abraham Lincoln, whose 1862 message to Congress
speaks of disenthralling ourselves of "the dogmas of the quiet
past" in order to "think anew."
I took part in a debate on whether we can feed the world
on Al Jazeera television with Dvaid Frost. Video here.
Simon Singh and James Delingpole, both of whom I know, like
and respect as fine writers, have been disagreeing about climate
Beneath Simon's latest blog on the subject there is a
debate in which several very sensible and non-inflammatory things
are said by Bishop Hill and Paul Dennis. Do read it.
An especially good comment came from Climate Resistance, who
spoke for me and I suspect many others when he asked:
Prospect magazine has published my review of Hugh-Aldersey-Williams's
delightful chemistry book,
Periodic Tales. Here is an extract in which I was struck by the
parallels between finding specialised jobs for the metals and
finding specialised roles for individuals in society:
The best science writing emulates fiction,
creating plots, surprises and characters out of its esoteric
material. The science writer's trick is to transmute the dull
tinplate of fact and theory into the precious gold of truthful
entertainment. Thus James Watson turned the discovery of the
structure of DNA into a charming farce (The Double Helix, 1968);
Richard Dawkins turned gene-based evolution into a gripping
detective story (The Selfish Gene, 1976); and Simon Singh turned
the history of mathematics into an epic (Fermat's Last Theorem,
Since its plans to sell off much of the Forestry Commission's
land were leaked the press last October, the government has found
itself subject to a sustained lobbying campaign. The commission has
wheeled out its friends to tell the press what an irreplaceable
paragon of environmental virtue it is, and specifically how much
access to the countryside will be lost if its land is sold.
I have learned that when the government's proposals are put to
public consultation next week, this particular charge will be found
to be simply wrong. All sales of land will be subject to the same
access provisions as now. So the hyperventilating lobbyists, from
ramblers to baronesses, can calm down: the Forest of Dean will not
suddenly be closed. It was the Labour government that was quietly
selling Forestry Commission land in recent years with no such
The access row is a smokescreen to cover old-fashioned
bureaucratic self-preservation. The Forestry Commission is keen to
remain a cosy nationalised monopoly. With more than two million
acres (600,000 in England) and over 50% of timber production, plus
100% untrammelled power to set the rules of the industry it
competes in and dominates, the Forestry Commission is a walking
conflict of interest. It is like the Bank of England running a huge
high-street bank, or the BBC owning Ofcom.
George Monbiot is advertising a speaking tour with a poster of
himself as a boxer about to hit somebody.
And yet he
says in the Guardian:
From the Wall Street Journal, my latest Mind and Matter on stability, the moon and
This month saw the discovery of the first small and "rocky"
planet like ours outside the solar system, Kepler 10b, orbiting a
star more than 500 light years away. This month also saw terrible
floods in part of Australia. Here I intend to link these two news
stories. But don't worry-I have not gone astrological on you. The
link is not a causal one.
Some people think I am obsessed by the shale gas revolution and
that I might be exaggerating its significance.
Well, if anything I'm underplaying it.
The International Energy Agency says so. Here's what it says (from UPI):
The Edge's Annual Question is a great compilation of brief
effusions from science groupies like me. This year the question
What scientific concept would improve everybody's
My answer was this:
I had this article in the Times on 14 January:
The person who tips the world population over seven billion may
be born this year. The world food price index hit a record high
last month, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Bad
harvests in Russia and Australia, combined with rising oil prices,
have begun to cause shortages, export bans and even riots. Does
No. Never has the world looked less likely to starve, or our
grandchildren more likely to feed well. Never has famine been less
widespread. Never has the estimated future peak of world population
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about parabolas, the evolution of throwing and
The spectacular trajectory of the Angry Birds computer game,
from obscure Finnish iPhone app to global ubiquity-there are board
games, maybe even movies in the works-is probably inexplicable. Of
course it's cheap and charming, but such catapulting success must
owe a lot to serendipitous, word-of-mouth luck. Yet, prompted by my
friend Trey Ratcliff, who created the gaming-camera app 100 Cameras
in 1, I've been musing on whether there's an evolutionary aspect to
To play Angry Birds, you must use a catapult to lob little birds
at structures in the hope of knocking them down on pigs. It's the
verb "lob" that intrigues me. There is something much more
satisfactory about an object tracing a parabolic ballistic
trajectory through space towards its target than either following a
straight line or propelling itself.
David Middleton has an interesting essay on ocean pH here.
Like me he finds the literature replete with data suggesting
that a realistic reduction in alkalinity caused by CO2 increases
will do no net harm to marine ecosystems. For example:
A recent paper in Geology
(Ries et al., 2009) found an unexpected
relationship between CO2 and marine calcifers. 18 benthic species
were selected to represent a wide variety of taxa: "crustacea,
cnidaria, echinoidea, rhodophyta, chlorophyta, gastropoda,
bivalvia, annelida." They were tested under four CO2/Ωaragonite
The always perceptive Brendan O'Neill raises an important point
about the Brisbane floods, which just may have been exacerbated by
a collective institutional obsession with preparing for droughts
caused by global warming (hat tip Bishop Hill).
It is worth looking at
a document called ClimateSmart 2050, which was published in
2007 by the Queensland government. It outlines Queensland's
priorities for the next four decades (up to 2050) and promises to
reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent during
that timeframe. The most striking thing about the document is its
assumption that the main problem facing this part of Australia,
along with most of the rest of the world, is essentially dryness
brought about by global warming. It argues that "the world is
experiencing accelerating climate change as a result of human
activities", which is giving rise to "worse droughts, hotter
temperatures and rising sea levels". We are witnessing "a tendency
for less rainfall with more droughts", the document confidently
As a consequence the government went on warning of water
shortages even as the Wivenhoe dam got close to full, apparently
forgetting that one of the dam's jobs was to act as a flood shock
absorber. As with British snow, the concern seems to have
asymmetric, suggesting that climate change is causing officials to
forget that weather noise may still be far more important than
climate signal even in a slowly warming world.
Latest Mind and Matter column is on why there is
nothing so old as the recently new:
Watching friends learn kite-surfing last week, equipped not only
with new designs of inflatable kites shaped like pterodactyls but
new kinds of harnesses shaped like medieval chastity belts and even
new helmets shaped like Elizabethan sleeping caps, it occurred to
me that nothing becomes obsolete so fast as something new. For it
is pretty clear that the rise of kite-surfing, invented in the late
1990s, is slowly killing wind-surfing.
Fox News has dug up some remarkable botched
predictions about the environment. Most are familar but three were
new to me:
Happy New Year.
I mean it. 2011 will see horrible things, no doubt, but it will
also see a continuing incremental reduction in poverty, hunger,
illness and suffering, plus a continuing incremental rise in most
measures of human and planetary wellbeing.
Here's a fine blast of optimism from John Tierney in the New
York Times. He took a bet with a peak-oiler and won hands down.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal, with added links:
Don't look for the soul in the language of DNA
Back in the genomic bronze age-the 1990s-scientists used to
think that there would prove to be lots of unique human genes found
in no other animal. They assumed that different species would have
many different genes. One of the big shocks of sequencing genomes
was not just the humiliating news that human beings have the same
number of genes as a mouse, but that we have the same genes, give
or take a handful.
Rachel Carson, in her hugely influential book Silent Spring, wrote that she expected an
epidemic of cancer caused by chemicals in the environment,
especially DDT, indeed she thought it had already begun in the
``No longer are exposures to dangerous
chemicals occupational alone; they have entered the environment of
everyone-even of children as yet unborn. It is hardly surprising,
therefore, that we are now aware of an alarming increase in
The increase itself is no mere matter
of subjective impressions. The monthly report of the Office of
Vital Statistics for July 1959 states that malignant growths,
including those of the lymphatic and blood-forming tissues,
accounted for 15 per cent of the deaths in 1958 compared with only
4 per cent in 1900. Judging by the present incidence of the
disease, the American Cancer Society estimates that 45,000,000
Americans now living will eventually develop cancer. This means
that malignant disease will strike two out of three families. The
situation with respect to children is even more deeply disturbing.
A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical
rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than
from any other disease. So serious has this situation become that
Boston has established the first hospital in the United States
devoted exclusively to the treatment of children with cancer.
Twelve per cent of all deaths in children between the ages of one
and fourteen are caused by cancer. Large numbers of malignant
tumors are discovered clinically in children under the age of five,
but it is an even grimmer fact that significant numbers of such
growths are present at or before birth. Dr. W. C. Hueper of the
National Cancer Institute, a foremost authority on environmental
cancer, has suggested that congenital cancers and cancers in
infants may be related to the action of cancer-producing agents to
which the mother has been exposed during pregnancy and which
penetrate the placenta to act on the rapidly developing fetal
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about how the human brain deals with the future.
Here it is with added links.
I recently came across the phrase
"remembering the future." Rather than some empty poetic paradox, it
appeared in an article about a neuroscientific experiment that
tested a hypothesis of Karl Friston of University
College, London, that the brain is more active when it is
In the study, volunteers watched patterns of
moving dots while having their brains scanned. Occasionally, a dot
would appear out of step. Although there was the same number of
dots, the visual part of the subjects' brains was more active when
the dots broke step. According to Arjen Alink of the Max Planck
Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, who did the experiment, the brains
were predicting what would happen next and having to work harder
when their predictions failed. They were "remembering the
Bishop Hill has a review of Tim Worstall's book Chasing Rainbows, which reminds me that I
meant to write about this book. I wrote a cover quote for it that
described it `fearless, fresh, forensic and funny'.
What is particularly clever about the book is the way that
Worstall makes economic theory so digestible, even delicious. He
refutes the dreary cliche so popular among environmentalists that
economics just `does not get' the environment (by which they
usually mean that they would like to do the equivalent of repeal
the laws of gravity and make things to happen even if they make no
sense for people: like getting people to give up cheap forms of
energy to take up expensive ones). Quite the reverse is true:
environmentalists all too often just don't get what economists are
trying to tell them.
I especially liked this little section which so neatly
eviscerates the Stern Report:
(picture from Eden's Path)
Here's a letter I sent to the editor of The Economist:
Last winter, we were told by scientists that it was `stupid' to
take the cold weather as evidence against global warming. Yet this
winter you are quite happy to speculate, entirely against the
consensus view, that the cold weather is evidence for global
warming (`A Cold Warming', Dec 4th). In
support of this fancy, you cite `some' evidence that summer heat
`may' induce shifts in atmospheric circulation that `might'
encourage seasonal patterns that would `probably' mean more cold
winters in Britain. Spare us the astrology, please.
There is a big new report on shale gas from the No
Hot Air website. It is far too expensive for me, but here is a
summary of what it supposedly concludes:
The key issue going forward for natural gas
is not managing supply, but creating demand.
The US success in shale gas technology can be
replicated in multiple locations world-wide.
My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the work of Sugata Mitra, who is
turning education upside down with the help of the internet:
For some time now I have been aware of environmentalists who
dislike the way their agendas have been hijacked by climate change.
The orthodox view is that climate change is raising the profile of
all environmental issues, but is it?
Can it really be easier to raise money for a wildlife
conservation project in Madagascar or Galapagos when everybody is
saying that the major threat is not habitat loss or invasive
species, but slow warming?
Can it really be helpful for bird conservation when green groups
take money from wind companies which kill golden eagles?
Update: I have misled the reader about the
quantity of neodymium in a wind turbine magnet. The magnet is not
pure neodymium, but an alloy of Nd, iron and Boron. So there's a
lot less than 2.5 tonnes of Nd itself in a 2.5MW turbine magnet.
There's still plenty of it, though. Hat tip Tim Worstall.
2nd Update: I am told 270kg of Nd per megawatt
is about right, though it will vary with different kinds of magnet.
That means about 675kg of Nd in a 2.5MW turbine. Hat tip Alan
We are getting somewhere. There is a long response to my Times
article from ocean acidification scientists
here. This makes me rather happy. The response confirms the
accuracy of my main points. I have sent the following response
to Nature's website, which carried a report on
I am glad to have my main point confirmed by
the reply: that there is in fact no evidence for net biological
harm likely as a result of realistic changes in ocean pH. This is a
huge and welcome change from the exaggerated rhetoric that has been
used on this topic.
The reply also confirms the accuracy of
virtually all of my factual assertions about the likely change in
pH, the natural variation in pH and other issues, including the
involvement of a Greenpeace ship in a research project. Only my
interpretation is challenged.
On his blog, A Very Remote Period Indeed, Julien
Riel-Salvatore discusses his recent paper about Neanderthals and
I'm quoted [in the press release] as saying,
among other things, that this study helps 'rehabilitate'
Neanderthals by showing that they were able to develop some of the
accoutrements of behavioral modernity independent of any contact
with modern humans. While I've caught a bit of flak from some
friends and colleagues for that turn of phrase, I stand by my
statement -this study helps to cast Neanderthals in a much more
positive light than they have been for a long while now.
In my book, I argue that Neanderthals --though highly
intelligent -- did not show a tendency to innovate, because they
did not show a tendency to exchange (their artefacts never come
from far away), and this kept their toolkit much the same till the
end. The discovery of Neanderthals innovating would therefore be a
blow to my argument.
I have just found at Spiked Online Brendan O'Neill's superb recent essay on whether
the earth is finite, and I heartily recommend it. Here's a
Over the past 200 years, Malthusians have
tended to look at people as simply the users-up of scarce
resources. They have tended to view nature as the producer of
things and mankind as the consumer of things. And their view of
people as little more than consumers - almost as parasites -
inevitably leads to them seeing human beings as the cause of every
modern ill, and therefore reducing the number of human beings as
the solution to every modern ill. Their focus on finiteness means
they conceive of humanity as a kind of bovine force, hoovering up
everything that it comes across.
I read this while sitting in a hotel room at San Francisco
airport. Huge jets queue for take off in full view of my window. I
am in the middle of a great conurbation. But between me and the
jets lies a stretch of water, an arm of the Bay itself. And the
water is a bird watcher's paradise. There are rafts of ducks such
as buffleheads and wigeon. There are pelicans, grebes and two
speces of gull. Along the shore there are great white and little
egrets, willets, whimbrels, grey plovers, stints, dowitchers,
avocets, yellow-legs and tight flocks of sandpipers. Sea lions
cruise a litle further out, and an osprey has just plunged into the
water after a fish.
Here is my latest Wall Street Journal column. It led me
into the etymology of the word `optimism' and the realisation that
at first it meant almost the opposite of what we now mean by it,
namely that the world was at its `optimum' and could not
A Haitian who survived the January earthquake
and has so far escaped cholera recently told a reporter that this
month's Hurricane Tomas wasn't as bad as he thought it would be,
"thank God." I know it's often just a verbal tic, but it has always
struck me as odd that people who survive natural disasters thank
God for saving them but rarely blame Him for the disaster.
It has been quite a decade for natural
disasters: the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Burma's
cyclone, Pakistan's floods, China's quake. Only once to my
knowledge has there been much media debate about whether these
disasters were "acts of God"-after the Indian Ocean tsunami of
2004, perhaps because it happened on the day after Christmas. In
any case, I always felt the phrase applied better to 9/11,
considering the motivation of the terrorists.
A new paper in Science casts further doubt on the usefulness of
the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) as a warning of what we
face from man-made carbon emissions. Tropical rain forests became
more diverse, not less, during the warm spell.
The paleontologist who made this discovery told Science News:
"We were expecting to find rapid
extinction, a total change in the forest," says study leader Carlos
Jaramillo, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research
Institute in Balboa, Panama. "What we found was just the opposite -
a very fast addition of many new species, and a huge spike in the
diversity of tropical plants."
Don Boudreaux has a lovely essay in the Christian Science Monitor
(interest declaration: he mentions my book) in which he makes the
point people often miss about markets, that they encourage
diversity rather than one-size-fits-all solutions:
Contrast the multitude of different
market-generated and voluntarily adopted ideas with the ideas of
progressives - for example, progressives' idea thatgovernment must regulate the
fatcontent of foods.
Each of us can decide how much we
value, say,juicy burgersand
double-dark chocolate ice cream compared to how much we value a
trim waistline and longer life expectancy. And each of us values
these benefits differently. The dietary choices that I make for
myself are right for me, but I cannot know if they are right for
anyone else. Progressives, in contrast, falsely assume there's a
single correct metric, for the whole country, that determines for
everyone how to trade off the satisfaction of eatingtasty but fatty foodsfor the benefit of being healthier.
Here is the letter that David MacKay sent me following my
article in The Times and to which I replied.
(I have gone to weblinks for his charts and in one case
come up with a slightly different version -- the sea ice graph I
could not find the exact one he included so I have found another
from the same source which has more years on it than his version,
but it's the same data and the same source.) Update: all
graphs now correct!
There is a hilarious letter in today's Times from three FRS
professors about my recent artilce on ocean acidification.
Despite conceding the factual truth of my article in detail,
they tell me to brush up on chemistry then give no examples of me
getting anything wrong.
They concede my point that any shift of acidity will be within
natural ranges. Thanks. But say it could be much larger `in the
future'. No numbers, note. They mean in several centuries.
UPDATE: David MacKay's letter is now up in a
separate post here
Some weeks ago I wrote an article for The Times about why I no
longer find persuasive the IPCC's arguments that today's climate
change is unprecedented, fast and dangerous.
Update: I'd like to add one thing to the story
below. Stewart Brand, who I know and admire, played a prominent
part in the Channel 4 film. He's not a `convert' to these views. He
has always been strongly pro-GM food and mildly pro-nuclear. So my
comments here were not aimed at him.
Last night saw a TV programme in the UK called What the Green Movement Got Wrong, in which
various greens admitted that they had done terrible harm by
opposing nuclear power and GM food and indoor DDT. It was a pretty
good programme, especially on Chernobyl.
I have an article in The Times today (behind a paywall) on
ocean acidification. Here's the gist:
Today in Beijing an alliance of
scientists called Oceans United will present the United Nations
with a request for $5 billion a year to be spent on monitoring the
oceans. High among their concerns is ocean acidification, which
`could make it harder for animals such as lobsters, crabs,
shellfish, coral or plankton to build protective
As opinion polls reveal that global
warming is losing traction on the public imagination, environmental
pressure groups have been cranking the engine on this `other carbon
dioxide problem'. `Time is running out' wrote two activists in
Scientific American in August, `to limit acidification before it
irreparably harms the food chain on which the world's oceans - and
people - depend.'
I have just sent this letter to the Guardian:
In response to Donald Brown's call for climate scepticism to be
classified as a crime against humanity (1st
in which he said `We may not have a word for this type of crime
yet, but the international community should find a way of
classifying extraordinarily irresponsible scientific claims that
could lead to mass suffering as some type of crime against
Here (a bit late) is my latest Wall Street Journal column, on
In the debate over whether our fates
as individuals are ruled by nature or nurture-that is, by innate
qualities or personal experience-one of the most baffling features
is the way the nurture advocates manage to cast themselves as the
great foes of determinism. "Genes don't determine who we are," they
insist-all the while positing that environmental causes
often do. Remember how some Freudians tried to blame
autism, schizophrenia and even homosexuality on the way parents
treated their children? True, they claimed these effects were
treatable, but so are many genetic problems. I wear glasses to
correct a partly genetic tendency to myopia.
Nor has environmental determinism
escaped moral stain. When Soviet agriculture was forced to obey
crank theories that environmental conditioning rather than breeding
could determine the frost-resistance of wheat-not coincidentally
echoing the notion that human nature could be remade by
communism-the result was famine.
Over at LIberal Curmudgeon, Steve Budiansky has a
good insight into a subject he knows well, ever since writing the
book Nature's Keepers: claims about species
The whole science behind the
extinction crisis is riddled withcircular reasoning, but this is an
especially fine example. No new research was involved, no field
studies, no nothing that involved actual science as we know it.
(The researchers for example concluded that habitat loss is one of
the "root causes" of global biodiversity loss; this conclusion was
derived from the fact that many of the species listed as threatened
on the IUCNRed Listwere presumed to be threatened, and accordingly placed on
the list in the first place, because of . . . habitat
Like Steve, I care about extinctions. In my youth I worked on
three different projects to try to diagnose and arrest the decline
of rare birds in the Indian subcontinent. But like me he fears that
mega-political statements and exaggerated claims will only do that
Further evidence that ocean acidification is a
non-event, scientifically, even while being a big event for
Thus, both of the investigated coastal
plankton communities were unaffected by twenty-first century
expected changes in pH and free CO2. This may be
explained by the large seasonal, and even daily, changes in pH seen
in productive marine ecosystems, and the corresponding need for
algae to be pH-tolerant.
Tim Worstall has an enlightening essay on his specialist subject,
Rare-earth minerals are the 15
elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table --
known as lanthanides -- plus two others. About 95 percent of global
production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex
in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern
electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets
in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium
crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact
fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights;
lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of
these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a
non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white
earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there
simply isn't a viable substitute.
In other words, those vast wind turbines depend on surface
mining just as much as the fossil fuel industry does.
Here is Sunday'sNew York Times variety puzzlewhose
solution was a nice surprise for me (hat tip Steve
My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is
about the psychology of bureaucracy. just as we need to understand
the human proclivities that give rise to booms and busts in
markets, so we need to understand the human proclivities that
motivate officials. Here are five identified by Slavisa Tasic,
starting with `illusions of competence':
Psychologists have shown that we
systematically overestimate how much we understand about the causes
and mechanisms of things we half understand. The Swedish health
economist Hans Rosling once gave students a list of five pairs of
countries and asked which nation in each pair had the higher
infant-mortality rate. The students got 1.8 right out of 5. Mr.
Rosling noted that if he gave the test to chimpanzees they would
get 2.5 right. So his students' problem was not ignorance, but that
they knew with confidence things that were false.
The issue of action bias is better
known in England as the "dangerous dogs act," after a previous
government, confronted with a couple of cases in which dogs injured
or killed people, felt the need to bring in a major piece of clumsy
and bureaucratic legislation that worked poorly. Undoubtedly the
rash of legislation following the current financial crisis will
include some equivalents of dangerous dogs acts. It takes unusual
courage for a regulator to stand up and say "something
must not be done," lest "something" makes the problem
Here's anhour long conversationI did on Econtalk
with economist and novelist Russ Roberts about trade, prosperity
and Adam Smith. It includes a discussion of why animals can manage
reciprocity but not, apparently, exchange.
My latest Wall Street Journal column, Triumph of the Idea Smugglers, argues that
from time to time in history good ideas need rescuing from bad
regimes. If Thales of Miletus had not infected Greece with
rationalism after travelling in Egypt, and if 1700 years later,
Leonardo Fibonacci had not infected Italy with Hindu numerals after
growing up in what is now Algeria -- then these ideas might not
The secret of human progress is and always has been to
keep ideas moving, both so that they meet and mate with new ideas
and so that they escape suppression at home. As the philosopher
David Hume was the first to observe, China suffers from a
geographic disadvantage in this respect: It is too easy to unify.
When disunited it grows rich and innovative. But time and again
emperors, from the Ming to the Maoist, have been able to establish
tyrannical centralized rule and shut down trade, diversity and
Europe, with its centrifugal rivers,
its peninsulas and mountain ranges, is very hard to unify by
conquest. Ask Constantine, Charles V, Napoleon and Hitler. So
European states could harbor commercial, intellectual and religious
refugees from each other, keeping flames alive. The history of
technology is littered with examples of Europeans who fled from one
jurisdiction to another to a find a more congenial or generous
ruler: Columbus, Gutenberg, Voltaire, Einstein.
Today I read two contrasting articles about the wonderful rescue
of the Chilean miners that I strongly recommend, even though both
are a few days old.
The first, by Brendan O'Neill, in Spiked (hat tip: Frank
Stott), reveals the degree to which the miners helped themselves to
cope by defying the psychological experts 700 metres above
The inconvenient truth is that the 33
miners survived underground not as a result of psychological advice
and intervention but by sometimes rebellingagainst
the psychologists who kept a watchful eye on their every move. The
real story of the Chilean miners, for anyone who cares to look, is
that the interventions of the various wings of the trauma industry
often make things worse rather than better, and people are mostly
happier and healthier without them.
Continuing the debate about the industrial revolution with
her reply to me
...We agree at least that innovation
is the key. That's a very, very important agreement. Joel Mokyr,
Jack Goldstone, and our own Greg Clark join Matt Ridley, Robert
Allen, and me in affirming it. It sets us Innovators off from most
economists and historians, who are Accumulators. We say that the
modern world got rich by (at a minimum) 1500% percent compared with
1800 not, as the sadly mistaken Accumulators say,
because of capital accumulation, or exploitation of the third
world, or the expansion of foreign trade. The world got rich by
inventing cheap steel, electric lights, marine insurance,
reinforced concrete, coffee shops, saw mills, newspapers, automatic
looms, cheap paper, modern universities, the transistor, cheap
porcelain, corporations, rolling mills, liberation for women,
Here's a video of a discussion I had with Richard
Dawkins about `life' back in June: extra-terrestrial life,
artificial life and synthetic life.
At Cato Unbound, there is a set of essays on the
subject in response to Deirdre McCloskey, one of which is by me, others by Greg Clark
and Jonathan Feinstein.
I champion the theory that coal was crucial, because it showed
increasing rather than diminshing returns (the more people mined,
the cheaper it got) and it amplified productivity and commerce. But
there is more to the story than that.
On the failed promise of genomics.
Is it because common ailments are caused by many different rare
Do you remember how, back in the days when genetically modified
crops were as vilifed as climate sceptics were until recently, one
of the arguments deployed against them was that they would
`contaminate' neighbouring farms with their genetically modified
pollen? This was one justification for a total ban, as there still
is in Britain, rather than a policy of live and let live.
Now comes evidence of a different kind of collateral
contamination by GM crops. Turns out GM maize contaminates
neighbouring farms with extra profits. The fact that farmers are
growing insect-resistant GM crops raises yields for those who are
growing conventional maize, because it reduces the number of pests
that are about.
Robin Marantz Henig hits the nail on the head in the New York
The history of in vitro fertilization
demonstrates not only how easily the public will accept new
technology once it's demonstrated to be safe, but also that the
nightmares predicted during its development almost never come true.
This is a lesson to keep in mind as we debate whether to pursue
other promising yet controversial medical advances, from genetic
engineering to human cloning.
The Nobel prize for Robert Edwards is long overdue. It should
not be forgotten what a gauntlet he and Patrick Steptoe had to run
when they pioneered IVF. Here's a taste, from an article in The Times in
My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall
An odd thing about people, compared with
other animals, is that the more of us there are, the more we
thrive. World population has doubled in my lifetime, but the
world's income has octupled. The richest places on Earth are among
the most densely populated.
By contrast, it's a fair bet that if you took
a few million rabbits and let them loose on Manhattan island, they
would starve, fight, sicken and generally peter out. Whether you
like it or not, whether you think it can continue forever or not,
you cannot deny that when people come together in dense swarms,
they often get richer.
This video was made by an organisation funded partly by the UK taxpayer.
Francis Crick's letters from the 1950s, supposedly thrown away
by `an over-zealous secretary', have come to light in Sydney
Brenner's papers. Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski found them when they
went through the Brenner archive. The secretary is exonerated. The
Crick Brenner office (they shared a room) was moved twice in the
As one of Crick's biographers I have done some interviews, for
example with the LA Times.
My main reaction is that this is a thrilling discovery that adds
lots of colour and enriches the story but does not rewrite history
in any fundamental way. Not that I have read all the letters
There is a big push on to draw attention to species extinction
in the run up to a Biodiversity Jamboree in Japan.
But something struck me as odd as I listened to the radio this
morning. There was a lot of talk of `extinctions' of thousands of
plants, as turned up by a new report from Kew Gardens. When I
opened the newspapers (online), I found that actually the report
was not about extinctions, but about threats of extinction. Then I
looked at the list cited by the Times and Guardian. Right there at the top:
Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) -
I am now writing a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal
called Mind and Matter. Here's the first one.
Recently, the psychologist David Buss's team
at the University of Texas at Austin reported that men, when
looking for one-night stands, check out women's bodies. Or as they
put it, "men, but not women, have a condition-dependent adaptive
proclivity to prioritize facial cues in long-term mating contexts,
but shift their priorities toward bodily cues in short-term mating
Like many results in evolutionary psychology,
this may seem blindingly obvious, but that does not stop it from
being controversial. Earlier this month a neuroscientist in
Britain, Gina Rippon, lambasted what she called the "neurohype"
about sex differences: "There may be some very small differences
between the genders, but the similarities are far, far
From Cafe Hayek comes this:
When materials are worth
recycling, markets for their reuse naturally arise. For
materials with no natural markets for their reuse, the benefits of
recycling are less than its costs - and, therefore, government
efforts to promote such recycling waste
Everyday experience should teach
us this fact. The benefits of recycling clothing, for
example, are large enough to prompt us to buy costly
clothes-recycling machines that we routinely use to recycle for
tomorrow the clothes we wear today. We call these machines
"washers and dryers." And when American families no longer
want their clothing, organizations such as Goodwill come by to
gather the discarded garments to recycle them for use by poor
The brilliant philosophical writer (and my old friend) Anthony
Gottlieb has been ruminating on whether science should be
sceptical about itself.
There is no full-blown logical
paradox here. If a claim is ambitious, people should indeed tread
warily around it, even if it comes from scientists; it does not
follow that they should be sceptical of the scientific method
itself. But there is an awkward public-relations challenge for any
champion of hard-nosed science. When scientists confront the
deniers of evolution, or the devotees of homeopathic medicine, or
people who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism-all of
whom are as demonstrably mistaken as anyone can be-they
understandably fight shy of revealing just how riddled with error
and misleading information the everyday business of science
actually is. When you paint yourself as a defender of the truth, it
helps to keep quiet about how often you are
Very true. On scientific questions where I am orthodox (eg,
alternative medicine, evolution), I notice that the heretics use
precisely the same sorts of arguments as I do in those fields where
I am a sceptic (eg, climate projections, crop circles). There seems
to be no easy answer to the problem: when should you go for a
Update: George Monbiot has made it clear that he did not ask for the
deletions of comments referred to below, but that the Guardian
moderators made the deletions for legal reasons and without his
knowledge. But he still fails to take the opportunity to discuss
the evidence that Williams and Niggurath produce.
George Monbiot is in trouble. He has already had to make
an apology for his mistakes in an attack on
He's swinging like a weathervane on issues like vegetarianism and feed-in tariffs.
Chris Anderson's brilliant talk at TED Global is now on the
Among the take-home messages:
- that innovation is accelerating thanks to the ability to
compare and combine. Dance is a great example.
Here's the text of an opinion piece I wrote, which was published
in the Western Daily Press (link to home page, not
article itself) this morning to publicise a
talk I am giving in Wells Cathedral on Tuesday 14th. Come along
if you live nearby for the peculiar sight of me speaking in a
church. Will I get to use the pulpit?
``If you write a book saying the world is
getting better, you might get away with being thought eccentric.
But if you write a book saying that the world is going to go on
getting better and that in 2100 people will be healthier, wealthier
and wiser -- and have more rainforests too - you will be though
stark, raving bonkers. It is just not sane to believe in a happy
future for people and their planet.
Yet I cannot stop myself. I've looked at all
the statistics, facts, anecdotes, predictions and pronouncements I
can get hold of and they all seem to me to suggest that we will be
better off in 2100 than we are now. Much better off.
Ben Pile at Climate Resistance has a nice essay on the `environmentalist's
paradox'. This is the superficially puzzling -- and to many greens,
infuriating -- fact that people keep on getting healthier and
wealthier when really they should, in all decency, be suffering
terribly because of the deterioration of the earth's
Pile's starting point is a new paper that grapples wih the paradox. It
puts forward four explanations
(1) We have measured well-being
Stephen Budiansky's two essays on the `locavore' movement, one
in the New York Times and one on his blog, have received quite a bit of attention
already. They are remarkably fine rants not least because Steve (an
old friend) is not some pontificator. He actually grows a lots of
his own food on his small farm in Virginia. He knows what he is
talking about. And yet, like me, he concludes that
Twice, while being interviewed about my book I have been told by
the interviewer that it is a bad thing that I can buy green beans
from Africa `because the food should be kept in Africa to feed
people there'. The sheer ignorance of this statement, let alone its
patronising tone, left me open-mouthed on both occasions. Think how
many calories of wheat an African bean exporter can afford to buy
for the price he receives for the few calories in his beans. He is
growing the most valuable crop he can so that he can afford to
import things of greater value to him than surplus beans.
Distant food is efficient, sustainable, safe and moral.
Russ Roberts, over at Cafe Hayek, has this lovely hymn to progress:
In 1979,Sony introduced the
Walkman, the first portable music
player. It weighed 14 ounces and cost $200. It could play a
cassette that could hold about 90 minutes of music. It was a little
bigger than a cassette. It was pretty ugly.
A new nano from Apple was
announced yesterday. It weighs less than an ounce. The 8GB model is
$149. It holds about 60 hours of music. It is smaller than a
matchbook. It is very beautiful.
Steve Budiansky has a good piece at his Liberal Curmudgeon blog. He argues -- and I
agree -- that heavy handed legal attacks on climate scientists,
like Attorney general Ken Cucinelli's in Virginia, are
reprehensible, but that to some extent environmental scientists are
reaping what they have sown, for example in their reaction to Bjorn
Lomborg's 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist:
responded with a determination to stamp out this heresy that would
have done Torquemada or Khomeini proud. A dozen scientists served
Cambridge University Press with a demand that it cease printing the
book, fire the editor who oversaw it, and "convene a
tribunal" to investigate the book's "errors." Nature ran a truly
egregious review by the scientists Stuart Pimm and Jeffrey Harvey
attributing to Lomborg ridiculous statements that he never even
remotely made in the book or anywhere else. And Pimm and Harvey
along with other members of the environmental goon squad lodged a
complaint with the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty - a
legal body of the state - alleging that Lomborg had committed
"scientific misconduct" for having reached conclusions that Pimm
and Harvey did not like.
Walter Russell Mead has a powerful essay in the American Interest online
about how the environmental movement suddenly turned into the
establishment. Have you noticed the irony of being told to shut up
and trust the experts by the likes of Greenpeace? Nothing is quite
so amusing about the modern environmental movement as its sudden
volte-face on the argument from authority: from `don't believe the
experts' to `do as you are told'.
I suppose one should not be surprised. Every movement, from
Christianity to Bolshevism, had the same transformation. How the
church went from being a radical insurgent organization that gave a
voice to the poor to one that insisted on papal infallibility
without a backward glance always struck me as entertaining.
Mead argues that the entire environmental movement was founded
on not trusting experts:
Update: Links added to sources
From today's Times, my op-ed piece.
This month, after a three-year investigation, Harvard University
suspended a prominent professor of psychology for scandalously
overinterpreting videos of monkey behaviour. The incident has sent
shock waves through science because it suggests that a body of data
is unreliable. The professor, Marc Hauser, is now a pariah in his
own field and his papers have been withdrawn. But the implications
for society are not great - no policy had been based on his
Excellent essay in City Journal by Fred Siegel on how
liberal progressives became nostalgic reactionaries when they
discovered environmental pessimism in the 1970s:
Why, then, did American
liberalism, starting in the early 1970s, undergo a historic
metanoia, dismissing the idea of progress just as progress was
being won? Multiple political and economic forces paved
liberalism's path away from its mid-century optimism and toward an
aristocratic outlook reminiscent of the Tory Radicalism of
nineteenth-century Britain; but one of the most powerful was the
rise of the modern environmental movement and its recurrent
I especially enjoyed his quotation from my late colleague Norman
My son, aged 16, is cleverer than me and knows more about
economic theory, which interests him. He has his own views on the
world. So I invited him to write a blog post on a topic of his
choosing. Here it is:
by Matthew Ridley
Janice Turner provided an amusing dose of irrational pessimism
in TheTimes on 21 August
(behind a paywall) with an argument for population control. Talking
of China's efforts to control population, she says that:
I have sent the following letter to the New Statesman
John Gray, in his review of my book The
Rational Optimist accuses me of being an apologist for social
Darwinism. This vile accusation could not be farther from the
truth. I have resolutely criticised both eugenics and social
Darwinism in several of my books. I have consistently argued that
both policies are morally wrong, politically authoritarian and
practically foolish. In my new book I make a wholly different and
more interesting argument, namely that if evolution occurs among
ideas, then it is ideas, not people, that struggle, compete and
die. That is to say, culture changes by the mutation and selective
survival of tools and rules without people suffering, indeed while
people themselves prosper. This is precisely the opposite of social
Darwinism in the sense that it is an evolutionary process that
enables the least fit people to thrive as much as the fittest.
Let nobody accuse professional healthcare officials of being
unproductive. They diligently produce what they are good at
producing -- dire warnings of disaster.
There have been Ebola virus, Lassa fever, swine flu, bird flu,
swine flu again, SARS, the human form of mad cow disease, and many
more such scares. Every single one proved exaggerated -- greatly,
To add insult to injury, when each scare fails to materialise,
officials close ranks and congratulate themselves on averting it.
The latest example is Britain's insulting official review of the
swine flu fiasco, as described by Michael Fitzpatrick in
I am on holiday in the Idaho Rockies, in a house on the edge of
what is in winter a fancy ski resort, the streets of which are
clogged with sports cars, massive SUVs and even the odd Hummer. The
shops offer all the extravagances a pampered plutocrat needs: from
pet grooming to art galleries. Sent to buy bagels, I was faced with
a bewildering ten different kinds.
Sounds like I am complaining? Read on.
From the patio of our house can be seen a constant procession of
wonderful (and remarkably tame) birds, attracted by the effect of
the the suburb's sprinklers in the usually dry landscape. Squirrels
come to the trees; garter snakes to the wall; butterflies to the
flowers. In the crystal stream at the bottom of the hill, wild
rainbow trout rise to caddis flies and dippers, martins and
sandpipers snack on huge stoneflies. In the woods along the valley
are moose droppings and signs of the occasional black bear.
In The Rational Optimist, I argue that the human technological
and economic take-off derives from the invention of exchange and
specialisation some time before 100,000 years ago. When people
began to trade things, ideas could meet and mate, with the result
that a sort of collective brain could form, far more powerful than
individual brains. Cumulative technology could begin to embody this
Of course, I did not invent this idea. In keeping with the
theory, I merely put together the ideas of others, notably those of
Joe Henrich (collective intelligence), Rob Boyd (cumulative
culture), Paul Romer (combinatorial ideas), Haim Ofek (the
invention of exchange) and many others.
There was also the important thought that came from Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark Thomas,
namely that temporary `outbreaks' of new technology in Paleolithic
Africa probably have a demographic explanation. That is, when
population density rose, it resulted in a spurt of innovation; when
population density fell, it resulted in technological regress (as
happened in Tasmania when it was isolated). Technology was
sophisticated, in other words, in proportion to the number of
people networked by exchange to sustain and develop it.
I noticed a curious thing recently. The BBC's coverage of the
Gulf oil spill for the last two nights was missing one thing:
A reporter went down in a minisubmarine and looked at a pristine
coral reef. Newsnight interviewed lawyers, fishermen and
But there was no sign of a slick, a slimed pelican or even a tar
ball in their reports.
Through the letterbox drops a begging letter from the head of a
university. Fair enough. The needy beg. The first sentence reads as
Today, the defining struggle in
the world is between relentless growth and the potential for
This is very odd in all sorts of ways.
German language interview just published in Das Magazin, based
in Zurich. It calls me `notorisch zuversichtlichen'.
Includes this picture of the author looking pessmistic because
about to be eaten by sabre-toothed cat, and because he has his head
by the rear end of a monkey.
Whenever somebody gets nostalgic about the past, I get
suspicious. In the eigth century BC, Hesiod was already moaning
about how things aint like they used to be.
The Wall Street Journal has a great article about how nostalgic people get
for the way air travel used to be in the 1950s -- with more leg
room, less hassle and more romance.
Piffle. Compard with today, it was expensive, dangerous and
I have long known that there is nothing remotely `green' about
putting wind farms all over the countryside, with their
eagle-slicing, bat-popping, subsidy-eating, rare-earth-demanding,
steel-rich, intermittent-output characteristics. But until I read
Robert Bryce's superb and sober new book Power Hungry, I had not realised just how
dreadfully bad for the environment nearly all renewable energy
Bryce calculates that one Texas nuclear plant generates about 56
watts per square metre. This compares with 53 for gas turbines, 1.2
for wind, 6.7 for solar or 0.05 for corn ethanol. Sorry, but what
is so green about using 45 times as much land - and ten times as
much steel - to produce the same amount of power? It does not
surprise me that those with vested interest in renewables close
their minds to this, but it genuinely baffles me that other people
don't get it.
I've dealt with bird killing elsewhere, but Bryce contrasts the
prosecution of Exxon for killing 85 birds in uncovered tanks with
the fact that:
I found this on John Hawks's anthropology blog. He's
writing about the sometimes heated debate over whether Homo
floresiensis is a species or a deformity:
What I notice is that when I
write about this, I have to correct a lot of false claims about
what the anti-floresiensis scientists have said. Why do I so rarely
have to correct false claims about what the pro-floresiensis
scientists say? This is a generalization, but I've written enough
about this to have a good impression. The media reports skeptical
arguments very poorly. I think it's a systematic problem with
With the H. floresiensis issue,
the science writers have been abetted by some careless scholars. A
reporter may quote a pro-floresiensis scientist who says his
critics believe something totally nonsensical, and they report that
uncritically. This is another example of the same. I challenge
anybody to find an anti-floresiensis scholar who has written that
"nature moves inexorably towards bigger brains".
Daniel Ben-Ami's new book `Ferraris For All', published by the Policy
Press, is a great read. Ben-Ami's point is to defend the idea of
economic development against the `growth sceptics' who have emerged
in various blue, green and red guises recently.
What he does especially well is to point out how conservative,
how elitist and anti-aspirational, so many of the critics of
economic growth are. In a fascinating chapter he explores the way
in which the Left has abandoned the idea of progress, and turned
Nowadays it has reached the stage
where what passes for radical thinking is typically imbued with
deep social pessimism and hostility to economic growth.
Paradoxically, to the extent that any current is associated with
advocating prosperity, it is often the free market
I have written an op-ed article in The Times today. It's behind
a paywall, but here's my last draft before editing by the
newspaper, together with links.
So long as the cap holds, and
assuming that is the end of it, the Deepwater Horizon spill (up to
600,000 tonnes in total) will now take its place in the oil spill
hall of shame. BP's cavalier incompetence has made this probably the worst oil-spill year since 1979,
the year that saw not only the previous worst rig spill - the Ixtoc
1 platform off Mexico - but also the worst tanker spill, a
collision of two supertankers off Trinidad.
All this, just when things were
going so well in the oil-spill business. The number and collective
size of oil spills (over 7,000 tonnes) has declined in each of the last four decades,
from 25 large spills and over 250,000 tonnes a year in 1970-1979 to
three spills and about 20,000 tonnes a year in 2000-2009: that is a
drop of more than 90%.
My TED talk is now live online.
At TEDGlobal 2010, author Matt
Ridley shows how, throughout history, the engine of human progress
has beenthe meeting and mating of ideas to make new
ideas. It's not important how clever
individuals are, he says; what really matters is how smart the
collective brain is.
Today at TED Global in Oxford, among other great talks, I was
blown away by this graph, shown by David McCandless.
I have just one comment on the Climategate reports and that is
People who ask the world to spend $45 trillion on a project are surely under an
obligation to show their raw data and their workings. If instead,
publish only `adjusted data' rather than raw
Ten reasons I want the Netherlands to win the World Cup
1. More than almost any nation since the Phoenicians, the Dutch
traded rather than plundered their way to prosperity in their
2. They were cheated out of winning (hosting?) the industrial
revolution by invasions and attacks from jealous neighbours,
especially Louis XIV.
I am in today's Sun newspaper. Fully clothed.
WHEN I was growing up in the
1970s we were warned the ice age was returning, the population
explosion was unstoppable and we'd all be poisoned by chemicals in
None of these things
Tim Worstall has a superb rebuke to the idiotic argument that
greedy speculation, rather than greenie politicking, was the real
cause of the high food prices, hunger and food riots of 2008:
In short, futures allow
speculation upon the future: which is why we have them, for
speculation upon the future allows us to sidestep the very things
which we do not desire to happen in that future.
Now, of course, you could design
an alternative method of doing this. The wise, omniscient
and altruistic politicians and bureaucrats could send a
fax to all farmers telling them to plant more. Signs could appear
in every breadshop telling us all to eat our
have written a blog at the Huffington Post called Down with Doom. Here's an extract:
I now see at firsthand how I
avoided hearing any good news when I was young. Where are the
pressure groups that have an interest in telling the good news?
They do not exist. By contrast, the behemoths of bad news, such as
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF, spend hundreds of
millions of dollars a year and doom is their best fund-raiser.
Where is the news media's interest in checking out how pessimists'
predictions panned out before? There is none. By my count, Lester
Brown has now predicted a turning point in the rise of agricultural
yields six times since 1974, and been wrong each time. Paul Ehrlich
has been predicting mass starvation and mass cancer for 40 years.
He still predicts that `the world is coming to a turning
Update: apologies for formatting problems in a previous version
of this blog post.
Last week a study claimed that 97-98
percent of the most published climate scientists agree with the
scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening.
Well, duh. Of course they would: it's their livelihood. Anyway,
so do I. So do most `sceptics': they just argue about how much and
through what means. You can believe in man-made carbon dioxide
causing man-made climate change but not in net positive feedbacks
so you think the change will be mild, slow, hard to discern among
natural changes and far less likely to cause harm than
carbon-rationing policies: that's still within the range of
possibilities of the IPCC consensus.
I was giving a talk in Bozeman, Montana, last night at an event
to celebrate the 30th anniversary ofPERC, a think tank that encourages private
approaches to wildlife conservation and free-market environmental
Just as I uttered the words "of course, things will still go
wrong", there was a huge thunderclap, the lights went out and the
slide projector died.
I spent an afternoon this week getting a personal tour of a cast
of the skeleton of Ardipithecus from Tim White, the leader of the
team that decsribed it. Call me a nerd, but I found it
spine-tingling to hold in my hands the skull of a 4.4.million year
old creature that might be very close to my own ancestor.
But it was the details that stole the show. The lack of
sharpening on the rear of the canines (unlike a chimpanzee), the
flared pelvis of a regular biped, the curved but relative short
metatarsals of the foot, the hints of very little sexual
The ecology, too, is intriguing. The Afar depression was not
such a depression then, and the weather was sufficiently damp for a
fairly rich forest to be growing there, albeit with patches of
grassland. By far the commonest antelopes were woodland-dwelling,
browsing kudu. Ardi herself ate fruits and nuts from trees, not
grasses -- this can be decided by isotopic analysis -- and she was
a good climber as well as a walker. Her molar teeth had not grown
robust like those of Lucy, for grinding grass seeds and roots, but
nor had they shrunk for processing soft fruit as those of modern
Frederic Bastiat's writings are full of brilliant rebukes
against the restriction of trade, and the curtailment of human
happiness such restrictions always bring. But it is in a discussion
around the state funding of the arts that Bastiat most
clearly articulates the pessimism behind the bureaucratic state and
the life-enhancing optimism of those who believe in human
Our adversaries consider that an activity
which is neither aided by supplies, nor regulated by government, is
an activity destroyed. We think just the contrary. Their faith is
in the legislator, not in mankind; ours is in mankind, not in the
The latest evidence for the rationality of such optimism can, of
course, be found in my book.
Nick Wade has a good piece in today's New York Times about
John Mitani's chronicling of warfare between troops of Chimpanzees
Dr. Mitani's team has now put a
full picture together by following chimps on their patrols,
witnessing 18 fatal attacks over 10 years and establishing that the
warfare led to annexation of a neighbor's
The fact that male chimpanzees systematically and stealthily
patrol their boundaries in groups to kill neighbouring males has
been known for a long time in Gombe in Tanzania, but critics have
charged that it was unnaturally caused by human feeding of the
chimps. That now seems unlikely.
Pertinent to my recent response to New Scientist on ocean
acidification, Willis Eschenbach has a fascinating piece at Wattsupwiththat on a study of ocean pH along a transect from Hawaii
to Alaska. Turns out that the further north you go, the less
alkaline the ocean:
As one goes from Hawaii to Alaska
the pH slowly decreases along the transect, dropping from 8.05 all
the way down to 7.65. This is a change in pH of almost half a
The study also measured the change caused by carbon dioxide from
When I joined the Economist in 1983, Norman Macrae was the
deputy editor. He died last week at the age of 87. Soon after I
joined the staff, a thing called a computer terminal appeared on my
desk and my electric typewriter disappeared. Around that time,
Norman wrote a long article that became a book about the future. It
was one of the strangest things I had ever read.
It had boundless optimism --
Over the last decade, I have
written many articles in The Economist and delivered lectures in
nearly 30 countries across the world saying the future should be
much more rosy. This book explores the lovely future people could
have if only all democrats made the right
As part of an `interview' with me, New Scientist published
a critique by five scientists of two pages of my
book The Rational Optimist. Despite its tone, this critique only
confirms the accuracy of each of the statements in this section of
the book. After reading their critiques, I stand even more firmly
behind my conclusion that the threats to coral reefs from both
man-made warming and ocean acidification are unlikely to be severe,
rapid or urgent. In the case of acidification, this is underlined
by a recent paper, published since my book was written, summarising
the results of 372 papers and concluding that ocean acidification
`may not be the widespread problem conjured into the 21st century'.
The burden of proof is on those who see an urgent threat to corals
from warming and acidification. Here is what I wrote (in bold),
interspersed with summaries of the scientists' comments and my
Take coral reefs, which are
suffering horribly from pollution, silt, nutrient run-off and
fishing - especially the harvesting of herbivorous fishes that
otherwise keep reefs clean of algae. Yet environmentalists commonly
talk as if climate change is a far greater threat than these, and
they are cranking up the apocalyptic statements just as they did
wrongly about forests and acid rain
Andy Ridgwell says `I agree that at least for some reef systems,
other, and more local human factors such as fishing and pollution
may be the greater danger' and Jelle Bijma says `I do agree that,
for example, pollution and overfishing are also important problems,
some even more important than the current impact of ocean
acidification'. It was not therefore accurate of Liz Else to say
that the critics accuse me of failing `to recognize that there is
more to the health of corals than the amount of bicarbonate in the
sea' They do not - she has misrepresented their views and mine.
Update: now that I have seen the five
scientists' comments, I find that remarkably they support and
vindicate each one of my factual statements. I have posted a
detailed analysis in
a separate blog post.
Here's a letter I just sent to New Scientist:
In her misleading article about my book,
among other errors Liz Else wrongly states that I `failed to
recognize that there is more to the health of corals than the
amount of bicarbonate in the sea'. Yet I clearly state in my book:
`take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution,
silt, nutrient runoff and fishing'. After doing the interview, Else
asked me for proof of a statement in my book that `Even with
tripled bicarbonate concentrations, corals show a continuing
increase in both photosynthesis and calcification.' Presumably this
was because her unnamed `experts' had challenged this statement. I
was happy to supply her with the following extract from Craig
Idso's book (`CO2, global warming and coral reefs'), which I cited
in my book, and with the reference it cites (Herfort et al 2008.
Journal of Phycology 44: 91-98): `This work reveals that additions
of HCO3- to synthetic seawater continue to increase the
calcification rate of Porites porites until the bicarbonate
concentration exceeded three times that of seawater…Similar
experiments on Acropora species showed that calcification and
photosynthetic rates in these corals were enhanced to an even
greater extent, with calcification continuing to increase above a
quadrupling of the HCO3- concentration and photosynthesis
saturating at triple the concentration of seawater'. I am sorry
that instead of quoting this exchange between us, Else chose to
fall back on unsubstantiated accusations of `misconceptions,
selective reporting and failure to see the significance of
historical changes in ocean acidity'. I took the trouble to back up
my claims; she should have done so for her accusations.
I just read a wonderful book Hybrid: the history and science of plant
breeding by Noel Kingsbury.
It contains a charming story, of a Moravian priest called Father
Schreiber, who was more interested in horticulture than holiness,
and whose parish included Gregor Mendel's birthplace, Hyncice. As
Kingsbury tells the tale:
Schreiber also had to face opposition,
or at least suspicion, from a conservative peasantry. So in order
to distribute new fruit varieties, he and the countess [Maria
Walpurga Truchsess-Zeil, no less] developed a technique that has
been used more than once down the ages in order to bring new genes
to the countryside: subterfuge. A nursery for trees was established
and word put out that these valuable seedlings were under guard,
the guards being instructed to make a lot of noise if they heard
anybody but not to actually arrest anyone. In a matter of days, all
the seedlings had been stolen.
I have written a longish piece about the human footprint on the
earth, avaliable as a `ChangeThis' manifesto here
Here are a few extracts:
George Monbiot's recent attack on me in the Guardian is
misleading. I do not hate the state. In fact, my views are much
more balanced than Monbiot's selective quotations imply. I argue
that the state's role in sometimes impeding or destroying the
process that generates prosperity needs to be recognised, as people
from enslaved ancient Egyptians to modern North Koreans could
testify. But as I mention in my book, I don't think that free
markets, especially those in assets, should be completely
unregulated. I do argue that free and fair commerce has the
power to raise living standards.
Unlike Monbiot's article, my book isn't about me. It's about the
billions of other people in the world who, through ingenuity,
exchange and specialisation, have generated remarkable
Monbiot, remember is the man who once wrote: ``every time someone dies as a
result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be
dragged out of his office and drowned.'' (see, George, two can play
at selective quotation).
In my book I point out that an unemployed British father of
three on welfare today receives more in state support than a man on
the average wage received in income in 1957. It's an eye-catching
reminder of how wrong J K Galbraith was to argue that affluence in
the late 1950s had already gone too far.
Now the Institute of Fiscal Studies has compiled data on average incomes in Britain since 1961,
coming to the remarkable conclusion that
in real terms the bottom 25% are now
considerable richer than were the top 25% in 1961.
In my book I quote the English environmentalist Jonathon Porritt
as follows: 'It's blindingly obvious [that] completely
unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it
permanently, hopelessly, stuck in deepest, darkest poverty.'
At first I had assumed that the quote, which I had found in
another book, must be out of context. Surely nobody would say
anything so foolish or so heartless. Surely he was caricaturing
some blimpish view from a reactionary? So I looked up the original
article, in The Ecologist in 2007, to be sure I was not being
unfair to quote him thus. You can read the whole article here. Here's the longer context of the
Yet the facts speak for themselves: the
fewer there are of us, the greater our personal carbon budgets -
and just remember we're starting from a baseline here in the UK of
around 12½ tonnes of CO2 per person!I can't
tell you how politically incorrect it is to spell things out in
those terms. Even those who are getting more and more
enthusiastic about the idea of personal carbon budgets (including
Environment Secretary David Miliband) wouldn't dream of giving
voice to such a crass calculation. Leaders of our
ever-so-right-on environment movement can barely bring themselves
to utter the dreaded "p" word. The Millennium Development
Goals don't mention population. Tony Blair's Commission for
Africa ignored it entirely, even though it's blindingly obvious
that completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa
will keep it permanently, hopelessly stuck in deepest, darkest
poverty. Our very own Department for International Development
grits its teeth and reluctantly doles out little bits of money for
family planning projects, but the idea that it should be the
Department's No 1 priority - if it was remotely realistic about its
poverty alleviation aspirations - remains anathema to most
officials and ministers.
There's a lot of debate about the `Medieval Warm Period'. But
I've always been intrigued by the warm period of 7,000 years ago,
known as the Holocene Optimum, and I have been doing some digging
to find out just how warm it was. I've come away rather amazed.
Have a look at this image, which uses stalagmites in caves to
estimate ancient temperatures (as graphed by Wilis Eschenbach)
The Globe and Mail (Toronto) has made a nice new version of my
"handaxe and mouse" image to illustrate their review of The Rational Optimist
Tim Black has an excellent article in Spiked about the
hypercautious European reaction to the Icelandic volcano in
We have sincediscoveredthat the maximum density of ash (100
micrograms of ash per cubic metre) over the UK during the ban was
one fortieth of that nowdeemeda safe threshold (4,000 micrograms of ash per cubic metre). In
other words, the ban was nowhere near justified by what is now the
He goes on to give some remarkable numbers from the similar
over-reaction to avian flu:
Listen to my interview on NPR's Leonard Lopate Show
and an MP3 of my interview on PM with Marc Colvin, in Australia
My good friend Dave Sands is not only a brilliant biologist -- I
cite him in The Rational Optimist arguing for genetic modification
to improve the quality rather than the quantity of food -- but a
very fine poet. He's profiled in yesterday's New York Times discussing his
latest theory that ice-forming pseudomonas bactera in the air play
a central role in precipitation:
In the last few years, Dr. Sands and
other researchers have accumulated evidence that the well-known
group of bacteria, long known to live on agricultural crops, are
far more widespread and may be part of a little-studied weather
ecosystem. The principle is well accepted, but how widespread the
phenomenon is remains a matter of debate.
If true, this could have all sorts of implications.
One small fact in my book has caught several readers'
Today, a car emits less pollution
travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from
My source for this remarkable statistic was Johan Norberg's 2006
book När människan skapade världen. In a translation he
sent me it reads:
nterview in the Guardian today:
"If people are all the same underneath, how
has society changed so fast and so radically? Life
now is completely different to how it was 32,000 years ago. It's
changed like that of no other species has. What's made that
difference? Clearly our genes haven't changed; this process has
happened far too fast for genetic change. My answer, bringing
together my evolutionary knowledge and a lot of economic reading,
is this: sex is to biology as exchange is to culture."
Here is why Craig Venter's new organism carries absolutely
no fears for me: the Red Queen. Evolution is a treadmill.
People speak about artificial life forms getting loose and running amok. But that's not
how life works. It's a jungle out there.
Nature is continually trying new life forms on a truly gigantic
scale and testing them against each other. Very few get to take
over the world even briefly and even they soon succumb to evolving
predators, parasites and competitors.
John Tierney reviews The Rational Optimist in
today's New York Times:
Every now and then, someone comes along
to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on
prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as
happy talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end
is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the
The Sunday Times printed an edited extract of the book on 16 May.
People love to talk about the energy industry in voices of gloom
and doom. The oil's running out, the lights are going out, the
pollution's getting worse. But pause to consider the good news.
Like shale gas.
Over the past decade, a wave of drilling
around the world has uncovered giant supplies of natural gas in
shale rock. By some estimates, there's 1,000 trillion cubic feet
recoverable in North America alone-enough to supply the nation's
natural-gas needs for the next 45 years. Europe may have nearly 200
trillion cubic feet of its own.
Imagine a source of energy...
As own goals go, this was a stunning shot.
The quantity of cereals harvested in the world has trebled in 40
years [correction: nearly trebled in 50 years!], but the acreage
planted to cereals has hardly changed at all.
(graph from my book)
My good friend the evolutionary biologist and expert on old age,
Tom Kirkwood, has made a splash in my local newspaper, The
Newcastle Journal, by writing to all three British party leaders to
ask them to emphasise the positive rather than the negative aspects
of people living longer.
Our studies are revealing high levels of
capability and good quality life among people who are well into
their 80s. They are not all in poor health needing high levels of
care. Indeed, many view their health as 'excellent' and still live
highly independent lives.
I point out in The Rational Optimist that the average lifespan
has increased by a third during my lifetime; life expectancy is
increasing globally by 5 hours a day. Kirkwood's Changing Age Charter, like my book, says:
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a horror, for people and
for wildlife. It will surely cause huge damage. It is a reminder
that for all the talk of global impacts, the worst environmental
crises are still local ones.
But it is worth pausing to reflect how rare such terrible oil
spills have now become. Here is the data on world tanker spills over the past 40
I've admired Robert Bryce's work since he did such a great job
of exposing the biofuel boondoggle inGusher of Lies.
Now he has a new book, which I have just kindled, on the myths
of green energy, called Power Hungry.
He summarises his argument in the Washington Post. One fact that jumps out is
how much worse the dependence on foregin powers green energy would
be than even oil is:
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:
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?
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.
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."
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
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
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
For those who think my recent report on ocean acidification and
plankton is unrepresentative, do check out this comprehensive database that has collated
all studies. The conclusion is very, very clear: PH reduction has a
negative effect only at greater changes than are likely in the
twenty-first century. At likely changes, the effect is positive.
Can we have some honesty from scientists, please?
In the final graphical
representations of the information contained in our
Ocean Acidification Database, we have plotted
the averages of all responses to seawater
acidification (produced by additions of both HCl
and CO2) for all five of the life characteristics of
the various marine organisms that we have analyzed over the five pH
reduction ranges that we discuss in ourDescription of the Ocean Acidification Database
Tables, which pH ranges we illustrate
in the figure below.
April's Reader's Digest carries an article based on excerpts from my
book and an interview with me:
"The world has never been a better place to live
in," says science writer Matt Ridley, "and it will
keep on getting better." Today, in a world gripped by global
economic crisis and afflicted with poverty, disease, and war,
them's fightin' words in some quarters. Ridley's critics have
called him a "denialist" and "shameful" and have accused him of
"playing fast and loose with the truth" for his views on climate
change and the free market.
Yet Ridley, 54, author most recently of The Rational Optimist,
sticks to his guns. "It is not insane to believe in a happy future
for people and the planet," he says. Ridley, who's been a foreign
correspondent, a zoologist, an economist, and a financier, brings a
broad perspective to his sunny outlook. "People say I'm bonkers to
claim the world will go on getting better, yet I can't stop
myself," he says. Read on to see how Ridley makes his case.
Brilliant or bonkers? You decide.