Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.
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My Spectator article on a surge in medical and environmental pseudoscience:
‘The whole aim of practical politics,’ wrote H.L. Mencken, ‘is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’ Newspapers, politicians and pressure groups have been moving smoothly for decades from one forecast apocalypse to another (nuclear power, acid rain, the ozone layer, mad cow disease, nanotechnology, genetically modified crops, the millennium bug…) without waiting to be proved right or wrong.
An expanded version of the my recent Times article:
Suppose Britain leaves the EU on March 29 with no deal, just a series of last-minute fixes on things such as aviation and data. And suppose it proves to be a fairly damp squib, with a handful of problems, talked up breathlessly by the BBC, but no significant shortages in shops, or disruptions to supply chains.
My article in the Wall Street Journal on the persistent appeal of pessimism:
Has the percentage of the world population that lives in extreme poverty almost doubled, almost halved or stayed the same over the past 20 years? When the Swedish statistician and public health expert Hans Rosling began asking people that question in 2013, he was astounded by their responses. Only 5% of 1,005 Americans got the right answer: Extreme poverty has been cut almost in half. A chimpanzee would do much better, he pointed out mischievously, by picking an answer at random. So people are worse than ignorant: They believe they know many dire things about the world that are, in fact, untrue.
My Review in The Times of Robert Plomin's new book:
For a long time there was an uncomfortable paradox in the world of behaviour genetics. The evidence for genes heavily influencing personality, intelligence and almost everything about human behaviour got stronger and stronger as more and more studies of twins and adoption came through. However, the evidence implicating any particular gene in any of these traits stubbornly refused to emerge, and when it did, it failed to replicate.
Ten years ago I recall talking to Robert Plomin about this crisis in the science of which he was and is the doyen. He was as baffled as anybody. The more genes seemed to matter, the more they refused to be identified. Were we missing something about heredity? He came close to giving up research and retiring to a sailing boat.
My Times column on the European Court of Justice's bizarre decision to treat genome edited crops as if they were transgenic:
The European Court of Justice has just delivered a scientifically absurd ruling, in defiance of advice from its advocate general, but egged on by Jean-Claude Juncker’s allies. It will ensure that more pesticides are used in Britain, our farmers will be less competitive and researchers will leave for North America. Thanks a bunch, your honours.
This is recent Times feature article I wrote on the incredible new discoveries of what seabirds get up to far from land, and on the man who first visited seabird colonies with a scientific eye in the 1660s. It's sometimes still possible to write this kind of discursive essay! This one is about two of my friends from the same research group at Oxford.
My recent Times essay on the history of vaping and why the UK became such a hub of electronic cigarettes:
Britain is the world leader in vaping. More people use ecigarettes in the UK than in any other European country. It’s more officially encouraged than in the United States and more socially acceptable than in Australia, where it’s still banned. There is a thriving sector here of vape manufacturers, retailers, exporters, even researchers; there are 1,700 independent vape shops on Britain’s streets. It’s an entrepreneurial phenomenon and a billion-pound industry.
The British vaping revolution dismays some people, who see it as a return to social acceptability for something that looks like smoking with unknown risks. Yet here, more than anywhere in the world, the government disagrees. Public Health England says that vaping is 95% safer than smoking and the vast majority of people who vape are smokers who are partly or wholly quitting cigarettes. The Royal College of Physicians agrees: “The public can be reassured that ecigarettes are much safer than smoking.”
My Times column on the parliamentary battle over Brexit:
Dominic Grieve, MP, and Viscount Hailsham are clever barristers both, and agreeable company. I was at Oxford with one, sit in the Lords with the other, and count them as friends. But what they are up to infuriates me. Their amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill — for it is a joint effort — is a masterpiece of ingenuity and subterfuge, and it has nearly succeeded in wrecking Brexit altogether, which was undoubtedly its purpose all along. Tonight in the Lords comes the latest and probably not the last battle.
Before the 2017 election Mr Grieve said he did not want to “fetter the government’s hands in negotiations, or indeed the government’s right to walk away from the negotiations”. Like many at that time he wanted to get the best possible deal in the softest possible Brexit. What changed?
My Times column on artificial intelligence:
As a member of the House of Lords select committee on artificial intelligence, whose report is released today, I was struck by two things during the course of our inquiry: how well placed Britain could be to take advantage of the new technologies that go under the name of AI, should we choose to play our cards right; and how pervasive and invisible this technology will prove to be.
The first point was driven home during an evidence session with a more than usually brilliant German professor, Wolfgang Wahlster, chief executive of the German Research Centre for AI. He said: “We have a very special approach that is based on Germany’s industrial strengths . . . This is quite different from the US approach, which is based more on internet services. We are more in the physical domain; you know that Germany is well known for its engineering and manufacturing.” He added: “Historically, the UK was the leading country in Europe in AI. It started in Edinburgh.”
My Times column on the rent-seeking crony-capitalists who stifle innovation:
While the world economy continues to grow at more than 3 per cent a year, mature economies, from Europe to Japan, are coagulating, unable to push economic growth above sluggish. The reason is that we have more and more vested interests against innovation in the private as well as the public sector.
Continuing prosperity depends on enough people putting money and effort into what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. The normal state of human affairs is what The jurist Sir Henry Maine called a “status” society, in which income is assigned to individuals by authority. The shift to a “contract” society, in which people negotiate their own rewards, was an aberration and it’s fading. I am writing this from Amsterdam and am reminded we caught the idea off the Dutch, whose impudent prosperity so annoyed the ultimate status king, Louis XIV.
My Times column on the evolution of urban wildlife:
Easter Monday bank holiday feels like a good moment to put aside politics and consider something far more portentous: evolution. Recently I was walking alongside a canal in central London, surrounded by concrete, glass, steel and tarmac, when I heard the call of a grey wagtail. Looking to my right I saw this bold, fast, yellow-bottomed bird, which I associate with wild rocky rivers in the north, flitting into a canal tunnel. Later that week I stared up at two peregrine falcons circling high above parliament — and got funny looks from passers-by.
My Times column on genes, intelligence and selective schools:
The good news is you can save on school fees. A new study finds that selective schools add almost nothing to the exam results of students, because the advantages teenagers come out with are mainly ones they arrived with, and are for the most part genetic. The bad news is that this implies genetic stratification of society is happening, and more than we thought. But then that is bound to happen in a meritocracy. If you make everything else equal, differences will be increasingly determined by genes.
The new study comes with impeccable credentials, from a team led by Robert Plomin, a professor at King’s College London and the acknowledged leader in the genetics of intelligence. Co-authors include the researcher Emily Smith-Woolley and the prominent school reformer (and social media witch-hunt victim) Toby Young, whose father coined the word “meritocracy” 60 years ago.
My Times column on Britain's energy options:
Until 2004 Britain was a net energy exporter. Today, it imports about half its energy. Some of that, in the form of coal and liquefied natural gas, comes directly from Russia, which also supplies a third of Europe’s gas through pipelines. The unprecedented “gas deficit warning” of March 2 was a sharp reminder of our dependence on imports.
My Times column on the how pessimism bias affects the way we think:
‘Deadly new epidemic called Disease X could kill millions, scientists warn,” read one headline at the weekend. “WHO issues global alert for potential pandemic,” read another. Apparently frustrated by the way real infectious diseases keep failing to wipe us out, it seems that the nannies at the World Health Organisation have decided to invent a fictitious one.
My Times column on Britain's housing crisis:
Sajid Javid, the Housing (etc) secretary, is right – and brave -- to go on the warpath about Britain’s housing crisis in his new national planning framework, to be launched today. Britain’s housing costs are absurdly high by international standards: eight times average earnings in England, 15 in London. A mortgage deposit that took a few years to earn in the early 1990s can now take somebody decades to earn. Average rents in the UK are almost 50% higher than average rents in Germany, France and crowded Holland.
Britain really is an outlier in this respect. Knightsbridge has overtaken Monaco in rental levels. Wealthy, crowded Switzerland has falling house prices and lower rents than Britain. Over recent decades, most things people buy have become more affordable – food, clothing, communication – and the cost of building a house has come down too. Yet the price you pay for it in Britain, either as a buyer or a tenant, has gone up and up.
My Times column on the liberal case against the protectionism in the EU customs union:
If reports are accurate, there is at least one thing in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech today with which I will agree: “The EU is not the root of all our problems and leaving it will not solve all our problems. Likewise the EU is not the source of all enlightenment and leaving it does not inevitably spell doom for our country. Brexit is what we make of it together.” Yet this makes his overall conclusion, that we should stay in “a” customs union with the European Union, all the more baffling. That would be the worst of all worlds. It would be, in an inversion of the Labour Party’s phrase, “for the few, not the many”.
My Times column on the Russian encouragement and perhaps origin of the now discredited theory of "nuclear winter":
So, Russia does appear to interfere in western politics. The FBI has charged 13 Russians with trying to influence the last American presidential election, including the whimsical detail that one of them was to build a cage to hold an actor in prison clothes pretending to be Hillary Clinton.
My Times thunderer column on shale gas and shale oil and Britain's opportunity:
Gas will start flowing from Cuadrilla’s two shale exploration wells in Lancashire this year. Preliminary analysis of the site is “very encouraging”, bearing out the British Geological Survey’s analysis that the Bowland Shale beneath northern England holds one of the richest gas resources known: a huge store of energy at a cost well below that of renewables and nuclear.
My Times column on how the censorious and prudish young are a bit like Victorians:
I am sure I am not alone in finding the cultural revolution that we are going through difficult to understand. Like a free-living Regency rationalist who has survived to see Victorian prudery, like a moderate critic of Charles I trying to make sense of the Cromwellian dogma, like a once revolutionary Chinese democrat hoping not to be denounced and sent for re-education under Chairman Mao (or John McDonnell), I am an easygoing Seventies libertarian baffled by the aggressive puritanism and intolerance that seems to be everywhere on the march.
My Times column on the impartiality of public servants:
Last week saw political eruptions on either side of the Atlantic about a similar issue: whether government officials are neutral. The row over the leaked forecasts for Brexit, and whether civil servants were being partisan in preparing and perhaps leaking them, paralleled the row in America about the declassified Congressional memo on the FBI and Donald Trump. “Trump’s unparalleled war on a pillar of society: law enforcement”, said TheNew York Times. “Brexit attacks on civil service ‘are worthy of 1930s Germany’ ” said The Observer.
To summarise, in London a government forecast that even a soft Brexit would be slightly worse for the economy than non-Brexit was conveniently leaked. This happened just as some politicians and commentators were trying to shift the country towards accepting a form of customs union with the European Union — that is to say, not really leaving at all.
My Times column on Britain's opportunity to diverge from the EU:
At the risk of infuriating both sides in the parliamentary civil war over Brexit, I humbly suggest a compromise. The central issue is divergence: how much should Britain aim to veer away from the Continent in how it regulates products and services, and how much would the 27 countries and the European Commission allow us to diverge before denying us a trade deal at all?
My Times column on the revolution in protein and DNA diagnosis:
As happens in the media, the excitement generated last week by the headline that cancer could be detected in the blood was overdone. The results announced in Science magazine are a long way short of meaning that the earliest signs of cancer can be detected in people with no symptoms: the 70% success rate in finding DNA from 16 cancerous genes was in people already diagnosed with serious cancers. False hopes may have been raised.
But behind the headline, there is little doubt that a revolution in diagnostics is happening. Till now, the slow process of culturing infectious agents to identify them has not changed much since the days of Louis Pasteur. It is becoming increasingly possible to identify the precise virus, bacterium, drug-resistant strain, antibody or telltale molecule that defines exactly what is wrong with somebody, quickly and without invasive procedures or lengthy cultures in distant labs. Yet Britain is lagging behind comparable countries in joining that revolution.
My Times column on the government's 25-year plan for the environment:
The government’s 25-year environment plan is more than a piece of virtue signalling, despite its chief purpose being to persuade the young to vote Conservati(ve)onist. It is full of sensible, apolitical goals and in places actually conveys a love of the natural world, which is not always the case with such documents.
An expanded version of my recent Times column on ice ages:
Record cold in America has brought temperatures as low as minus 44C in North Dakota, frozen sharks in Massachusetts and iguanas falling from trees in Florida. Al Gore blames global warming, citing one scientist to the effect that this is “exactly what we should expect from the climate crisis”. Others beg to differ: Kevin Trenberth, of America’s National Centre for Atmospheric Research, insists that “winter storms are a manifestation of winter, not climate change”.
Forty-five years ago a run of cold winters caused a “global cooling” scare. “A global deterioration of the climate, by order of magnitude larger than any hitherto experienced by civilised mankind, is a very real possibility and indeed may be due very soon,” read a letter to President Nixon in 1972 from two scientists reporting the views of 42 “top” colleagues. “The cooling has natural causes and falls within the rank of the processes which caused the last ice age.” The administration replied that it was “seized of the matter”.
My Times column on AI and jobs:
In the early 1960s, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there was a disagreement about what computers would achieve. One faction, led by John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky, championed “artificial intelligence”, believing that computers would gradually replace human beings. The other, led by Norbert Wiener and JCR Licklider, the man who oversaw the creation of the internet’s precursor, championed “human-computer symbiosis”, believing that computers would augment human beings.
My Spectator article in the Christmas edition:
Christmas Day marks the birthday of one of the most gifted human beings ever born. His brilliance was of a supernoval intensity, but he was, by all accounts, very far from pleasant company. I refer to Isaac Newton.
Would you like your next child to have the intelligence of a Newton? It may not be long before this is a consumer choice, according to an ambitious new company founded in America a few months ago. Genomic Prediction initially plans to offer people who use in-vitro fertilisation the chance to identify and avoid embryos that would be likely to develop diabetes, late-life osteoporosis, schizophrenia and dwarfism. The key is the application of smart software to gigantic databases of genomic information from the population at large so as to spot dangerous combinations of gene variants. The founders also talk of being able to predict intelligence from genes, at least to some degree.
My Times column on Britain's successful use of electronic cigarettes (vaping) to cut smoking rates:
Imagine if Britain led the world in a new electronic industry, both in production and consumption, if independent British manufacturers had a worldwide reputation for innovation and quality, were based mainly in the north and were exporting to Asia. And that this innovation was saving lives on a huge scale while saving consumers over £100 billion so far.
My Times column on the BBC's Blue Planet II:
Nothing that Hollywood sci-fi screenwriters dream up for outer space begins to rival the beauty and ingenuity of life under water right here. Blue Planet II captured behaviour that was new to science as well as surprising: giant trevally fish eating sooty terns on the wing; Galapagos sea lions herding yellowfin tuna ashore; an octopus wrapping itself in shells to confuse sharks.
My Times column on Britain's "financial settlement" with the European Union:
Theresa May reportedly plans to offer about £40 billion of our money in order to bring the European Union to the table to discuss whether it wishes to trade freely with Britain after we leave in 2019. I listened to a German MEP last week describe these negotiations as “a French commissioner insulting an entire nation”, and heard a British MP call the EU’s obsession with money “disreputable”. The result is not humiliating for us, but for them. If I were Mrs May, this (tongue-in-cheek) is the letter I would write to accompany the offer.
My Times column on the urgent need for biotechnology in African agriculture:
An even more dangerous foe than Robert Mugabe is stalking Africa. Early last year, a moth caterpillar called the fall armyworm, a native of the Americas, turned up in Nigeria. It has quickly spread across most of Africa. This is fairly terrifying news, threatening to undo some of the unprecedented improvements in African living standards of the past two decades. Many Africans depend on maize for food, and maize is the fall armyworm’s favourite diet.
Many Africans rely on maize but it is threatened by a rapidly spreading pestWAYNE HUTCHINSON/GETTY IMAGES
My Times column on environmental policy:
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is right to promise higher, not lower, environmental standards once we leave the European Union. Britain has always been a pioneer of environmental policy, and indeed many of our protections pre-date our joining the EU. Besides, thanks to the productivity of our farmers, we can spare land for nature in increasing amounts, and thanks to new science and technology, we can afford ever more effective interventions on behalf of wildlife. Improvement, not just protection, is the aim.
My Reaction article on the disputes within the green movement:
You can always tell when there is a United Nations Climate Conference of the Parties (COP) coming up, because there are any number of carefully timed press releases about how hot it has been or is going to get in the future. The media has been snowed under with such things for a while now, and sure enough, this week sees the gathering in Bonn of the usual circus of thousands of diplomats, bureaucrats, quangocrats, envirocrats and twittercrats.
My Times column on Amara's Law:
Alongside a great many foolish things that have been said about the future, only one really clever thing stands out. It was a “law” coined by a Stanford University computer scientist and long-time head of the Institute for the Future by the name of Roy Amara. He said that we tend to overestimate the impact of a new technology in the short run, but we underestimate it in the long run. Quite when he said it and in what context is not clear but colleagues suggest he was articulating it from some time in the 1960s or 1970s.
My Times column on demography, immigration and the building of houses, roads and runways:
The Office for National Statistics says it expects Britain’s population to grow slightly more slowly than it thought three years ago, partly because of lower immigration after Brexit and partly because of slowing increases in life expectancy. But it still forecasts the figure to pass 70 million in a little more than ten years from now. That is not necessarily a bad thing, unless we remain as reluctant to build new houses, roads, schools and hospitals as we currently are. Britain can thrive as a dense city-state, a big Singapore, but not if it hates development. Openness to immigration and antipathy to building cannot both persist.
My Times column on the scientific and legal scandal behind the attempt to ban a weedkiller.
Bad news is always more newsworthy than good. The widely reported finding that insect abundance is down by 75 per cent in Germany over 27 years was big news, while, for example, the finding in May that ocean acidification is a lesser threat to corals than had been thought caused barely a ripple. The study, published in the leading journal Nature, found that corals’ ability to make skeletons is “largely independent of changes in seawater carbonate chemistry, and hence ocean acidification”. But good news is no news.
My recent Times column on Britain's opportunity for fisheries reform post Brexit:
A richly abundant sea fish population is one of the great wonders of the world that my generation has rarely seen. Last week I was lucky enough to be aboard a boat off California, surrounded by five humpback whales, more than 2,000 common dolphins, plus hundreds of sea lions and shearwaters all gorging on anchovies. There is no reason that properly managed British waters could not be as healthy and diverse as this.
My Times column on how intentions are taken to matter more than what works:
The curse of modern politics is an epidemic of good intentions and bad outcomes. Policy after policy is chosen and voted on according to whether it means well, not whether it works. And the most frustrated politicians are those who keep trying to sell policies based on their efficacy, rather than their motives. It used to be possible to approach politics as a conversation between adults, and argue for unfashionable but effective medicine. In the 140-character world this is tricky (I speak from experience).
My Times column on free markets and free trade:
The “ultimatum game” is a fiendish invention of economists to test people’s selfishness. One player is asked to share a windfall of cash with another player, but the entire windfall is cancelled if the second player rejects the offer. How much should you share? When people from the Machiguenga tribe in Peru were asked to play this game, they behaved selfishly, wanting to share little of the windfall. Not far away, the Achuar in Ecuador were much more generous, offering almost half the money to the other player — which is roughly how people in the developed world react.
My Times column on threats to the enlightenment itself:
Mel Brooks said last week that comedy is becoming impossible in this censorious age and he never could have made his 1974 film Blazing Saddles today. A recent poll found that 38 per cent of Britons and 70 per cent of Germans think the government should be able to prevent speech that is offensive to minorities. If you give a commencement speech at a US university these days and don’t attract a shouty mob, you’re clearly a nobody. “There’s an almost religious quality to many of the protests,” says Jonathan Haidt of New York University, citing the denunciations.
Bret Weinstein tweeted last week: “We are witnessing the sabotage of the core principle of a free society — rationalised as self-defence.” He is a left-wing former biology professor at Evergreen College in Washington state, who objected to white students and professors being asked to stay away from the university for a day on the grounds that this was a form of racism. For this he was confronted by a mob, and the university authorities told the campus police to stand down rather than protect him.
My recent column in the Times on robots in agriculture:
If you will forgive the outburst of alliteration, the harvesting of a “hands-free hectare” at Harper Adams University has made headlines all around the world, in the technology press as well as the farming press. A crop of Shropshire barley was sown, fertilised, sprayed and harvested by robot tractors, drones and a robot combine harvester, without a human being setting foot in the field.
This is the text of a chapter I wrote for a new book entitled Climate Change - The Facts 2017, edited by Jennifer Marohasy. The book is worth buying for Clive James's chapter alone.
Here is a simple fact about the world today:
My recent Times column on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma:
As Hurricane Irma batters Florida, with Anguilla, Barbuda and Cuba clearing up and Houston drying out after Harvey, it is reasonable to ask whether such tropical cyclones are getting more frequent or fiercer.
A Times column on free trade:
Why does the European Union raise a tariff on coffee? It has no coffee industry to protect so the sole effect is to make coffee more expensive for all Europeans. Even where there is an industry to protect, protectionism hurts far more people than it helps. Last October the EU surreptitiously quintupled the tariff on imported oranges to 16 per cent to protect Spanish citrus producers against competition from South Africa and punish the rest of us. It imposes a tax of 4.7 per cent on imported umbrellas, 15 per cent on unicycles and 16.9 per cent on sports footwear.
I find that many Twitter trolls do not even realise that the European “single market” is actually a fortress protected by high external tariff walls. Yet external tariffs are pure self-harm; they are blockades against your own ports, as the economist Ryan Bourne has pointed out. We impose sanctions on pariah regimes, restricting their imports, not to help their economies but to hurt them. The entire point of producing things is to consume things (the pattern of pay shows that we work to live rather than vice versa), so punishing consumers is perverse. As Adam Smith put it, describing the European Union in advance, “in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer”.
My recent Times column on the arguments for Brexit:
More than a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union, I realise we who ended up on the Leave side have probably made a mistake. No, not that we should have voted the other way, but that we thought we had won the argument last year during those weeks when we lived and breathed every detail of the debate. To some extent we then stopped making the case. The Remainers didn’t.
My recent Times column on gene editing:
Britain has an opportunity to seize on the latest breakthroughs in gene editing and pioneer new approaches in agriculture, research and medicine. We are well placed to be bold but responsible gene editors. Bolder than continental countries, looking over their shoulder to the disapproving Roman Catholic church; more responsible than China, where decisions on such matters are taken by officials with little consultation with the public; and without the divisive culture battles over moral and legal issues that so often divide the United States on matters of biology.
This is partly a matter of good regulation. Britain’s pioneering debate in the 1980s on how to regulate embryo research, allowing such work up to 14 days, drew the sting from subsequent arguments over cloning, stem cells and mitochondrial transplants. It is a compromise that has held and shown that the slope to “designer babies” is not slippery. The public is reassured. There have been no major scandals or disasters in genetic research here.
My Times column on Britain's nuclear power fiasco:
Shortly before parliament broke up this month, there was a debate on a Lords select committee report on electricity policy that was remarkable for its hard-hitting conclusions. The speakers, and signatories of the report, included a former Labour chancellor, Tory energy secretary, Tory Scottish secretary, cabinet secretary, ambassador to the European Union and Treasury permanent secretary, as well as a bishop, an economics professor, a Labour media tycoon and a Lib Dem who was shortlisted for governor of the Bank of England.
My Times column on the BBC:
The revelation that disc jockeys and football presenters are paid millions for topping and tailing segments of rehashed music or rebroadcast football, especially if they are male, will almost certainly lead to more pay inflation at the BBC — to correct the gender imbalance. Here’s another gender imbalance: television licence fee evasion accounted for 36 per cent of all prosecutions of women in 2015 and 6 per cent of men.
Are there any arguments left for funding one broadcaster through a compulsory and regressive poll tax? The original argument was that broadcasting was a natural monopoly and the airwaves a limited space. Well, that’s long gone. In the digital world, I can watch or listen to one of many thousands of channels through cable, satellite or the internet.
A review of Tim Harford's book, Fifty things that made the modern economy.
In 2006 the historian David Edgerton wrote a book called The Shock of the Old in which he argued that the 20th century was not really all about space travel and atom bombs, but humdrum things such as corrugated iron and refrigeration. In this enjoyable book Tim Harford makes much the same point: “An alien engineer visiting from Alpha Centauri might suggest it would be good if the enthusiasm we had for flashy new things was equally expressed for fitting more S-bends and pouring more concrete floors.”
My recent column for The Times on the arithmetic behind electric cars:
The British government is under pressure to follow France and Volvo in promising to set a date by which to ban diesel and petrol engines in cars and replace them with electric motors. It should resist the temptation, not because the ambition is wrong but because coercion could backfire.
My column in the Times on recent sensational discoveries relating to human evolution in Africa:
News is dominated by sudden things — bombs, fires, election results — and so gradual news sometimes get left out. The past month has seen three discoveries in Africa that radically change our understanding of a crucial phase in human evolution. For those interested in the common history of all humanity, this should really be among the biggest news of the year.
The first of these discoveries is genetic. Swedish and South African scientists have made the origin of us — modern human beings — an even more mind-bogglingly gradual phenomenon than we used to think. Here is what they found. A skeleton of a boy who died 2,000 years ago at a place called Ballito Bay has yielded a good sample of preserved DNA. He was a Khoe-San, that is to say an indigenous native of southern Africa of the kind once called “bushmen”, who still live in the Kalahari desert.
My review of Chris Thomas's fine book, Inheritors of the Earth:
If human beings were to vanish from the Earth, what would their effect on wildlife have been? A rash of extinctions, a lot of mixing up so that wallabies and parakeets live in England and rabbits and sparrows in Australia, but also — according to Chris Thomas — an eventual doubling in the number of species on the planet: a “sixth genesis”, as he calls it in reference to the five previous times that biodiversity has expanded rapidly after a mass extinction. We are causing a mass speciation.
My Times column on conservation and the British countryside:
Even Michael Gove’s enemies concede he is good at tackling vested interests. Even his friends concede he has a knack for making enemies in the process. In his new job as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, if he is to achieve anything, he may have to do a lot of both. So here’s a field guide to the vested interests he will encounter in the countryside.
Belated posting of my post-election Times column:
For those of us who want a clean Brexit and who champion freedom and innovation rather than socialism, the election result was a shattering disappointment. It reduced the party that most embraces free enterprise to a minority in the House of Commons and leaves us with a diminished and humiliated government less likely to win crucial concessions from a European Union emboldened to be more punitive — all against a background of teenager-murdering theocracy.
But, as the first shock fades, I am finding a few crumbs of comfort. Not optimism exactly, but glimmers of light amid the gloom. Here is my top ten.
My Times column on Britain's general election and the missing optimism about innovation:
Against the background of a terrorist campaign, a Tory government under a determined woman was cruising towards an easy victory against a socialist Labour party in a June election, but stumbling badly in the campaign. It was a dangerous world, with an impulsive American president and an undemocratic Russia and China. There was a funding crisis in the NHS and dire warnings of global environmental disaster: yes, this was 1987, the year of Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory — and of the Enniskillen bombing, shortly after, which killed 12 and injured 63.
Neil Kinnock’s Labour manifesto of 1987 reads very like Jeremy Corbyn’s: in favour of nationalised utilities and more money for the NHS, against nuclear missiles. The two manifestos said “this general election on June 11 faces the British people with choices more sharp than at any time in the past 50 years” (1987), and “what makes this election different is that the choice is starker than ever before” (2017).
My Times column on the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein and the 600th of De Rerum Natura's rediscovery:
It was in May 1817, two centuries ago this month, that Mary Shelley completed the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, which was published anonymously the next year. That first science-fiction novel has come to represent all that is dangerous about science. As well as being enacted almost 80 times in films, the book lends its plot to almost every film in which a scientist goes too far, as they usually do in films, from Metropolis to Jurassic Park. It inspires every campaign against biotechnology: the green movement fatally christened genetically modified crops “Frankenfoods”.
Gothic fantasy has infected reality. Those of us who argue that biological innovation — tinkering with the stuff of life — has proved a great force for good, and that the risk of hubristic disaster from research is largely a myth, could wish that Mary Shelley had not written the darned book, in which a brilliant scientist brings to life with an electric spark
My Times column on an academic hoax:
The latest university prank is embarrassing to academia and hilarious for the rest of us. Philosophy professor Peter Boghossian and mathematician Dr James Lindsay made up a learned paper on the “conceptual penis” as a “gender-performative, highly fluid social construct” that is “the conceptual driver behind much of climate change”, stuffed it full of random jargon and fake references and then got it through peer review into an academic journal.
True, it was a low-grade, pay-to-publish journal of the kind that has proliferated recently as a money-making venture, but the authors were recommended to try that journal by a serious journal, and the peer review was genuine. As the authors have written of their own work: “We don’t understand it either. Nobody does. This problem should have rendered it unpublishable in all peer-reviewed, academic journals.”
My Times column on obesity:
Even optimists admit that some things are undoubtedly getting worse: things like traffic jams, apostrophe use — and obesity. The fattening of the human race, even in middle-income countries, is undeniable. “Despite sustained efforts to tackle childhood obesity, one in three adolescents is still estimated to be overweight or obese in Europe,” said a report last week to the World Health Organisation. That means more diabetes and possibly a reversal of the recent slow fall in age-adjusted cancer and heart disease death rates.
My Times column on malware, ransomware and the battle against viruses:
The WannaCry ransomware cyberattack of last week, which briefly crippled much of the National Health Service, may be the biggest, but it will not be the last outbreak of cybercrime. Remember your Through the Looking-Glass. The Red Queen lives in a world where, she says: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” We, the good guys, are locked in a Red Queen race with hackers, just as we, the human race, are locked in a race with real viruses, and with antibiotic resistance.
It is a race in which permanent victory is impossible, but so is permanent defeat. Perpetual struggle is inevitable. I say this with confidence because for once the biological analogies are apt. The right way to think about cybersecurity is epidemiological. Indeed, the similarity between a computer virus and a real virus is more than a metaphor: both are pieces of linear digital information (one made of binary electronic digits, the other of quaternary DNA bases) capable of getting themselves replicated and spread. One leading theory is that sexual intercourse evolved, a billion years ago, as a security patch against parasites.
My Spectator article on the futile numbers behind wind power:
The Global Wind Energy Council recently released its latest report, excitedly boasting that ‘the proliferation of wind energy into the global power market continues at a furious pace, after it was revealed that more than 54 gigawatts of clean renewable wind power was installed across the global market last year’.
My Times article on badger culling:
If Theresa May is happy to see a return of foxhunting, she must be consistent and face down the misguided animal welfare lobby with a pledge to cull more badgers. There are three reasons that a continuing, wider and bigger badger cull is the right thing to do for humane, as well as financial and environmental, reasons.
My Times column on the Paris climate deal:
President Trump will decide shortly whether to pull the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change. By all accounts, his instincts and his campaign promises encourage him to do so while his daughter Ivanka and his secretary of state Rex Tillerson want him not to. He has already started rolling back the “clean power plan”, which was Barack Obama’s way of meeting America’s commitment under the Paris agreement.
If he does pull out, or send the agreement to the Senate for ratification on the grounds that it is a “treaty” — something Obama took great pains to try to deny so that he would not have to send it to the Senate — there will be a fresh paroxysm of rage among his critics. Climate scepticism is high among reasons that the left hates Trump. By contrast, it is one of the few things on which I half agree with him.
Here's my recent Times column:
An open letter to George Freeman MP, chairman of the government’s policy board.
Dear George, as a former biotech venture capitalist, you are a passionate champion of innovation. It has pulled an average of 137,000 people out of extreme poverty each and every day of the past 25 years. It’s the only thing that can pay off our £1.9 trillion national debt while keeping our grandchildren prosperous. You are on record as saying: “We have a once-in-a-generation chance to seize the opportunities to make the UK the innovation capital of the world, defying the doubters and being clear that we will go on leading the world in science and technology.”
My Times column on meat eating:
A few years ago I had a conversation at Harvard with Steven Pinker, the bestselling evolutionary psychologist. We were both writing optimistic books at the time, his being The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the decline in violence over recent centuries. I asked him: if all sorts of violence and cruelty were considered acceptable a century or two ago and are now beyond the pale — slavery, child labour, bear-baiting, wife-beating and so forth — then what routine habits do we practise today that we will look back on with horror in two or three generations’ time?
That’s easy, he replied: meat-eating. Don’t get me wrong, he added, I like meat, but the trend of history is clear, that one day in the future people may well look back on the rearing of animals for slaughter as barbaric. The number of animals killed for food each year — about 60 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, a billion sheep and goats and 300 million cows — continues to rise.
My Times column on a shocking case of European policy cover-up over bees and insecticides:
Is the European Commission determined to dim the Enlightenment? I ask this because its behaviour in one specific instance goes so utterly with dogma and against evidence as to suggest that there is no longer even a pretence of respect for reason left in Brussels. It concerns bees.
My Times column on dietary intolerance:
I suggest you finish your breakfast before reading this column.
My Times column on Douglas Carswell's book Rebel:
I am writing this from the Netherlands, where one of the most gruesome paintings in the Rijksmuseum, by Jan de Baen, depicts the eviscerated bodies of the de Witt brothers, hanging upside down after the mob had killed them and then roasted and eaten their livers in 1672. It is an episode mentioned in a new book published this week by Douglas Carswell, MP, called Rebel, in which he wrestles with an eternal dilemma: why populist revolutions sometimes bring tyranny.
"It is wrong to describe this as Islamic terrorism. It is Islamist terrorism. It is a perversion of a great faith.” This is what the prime minister said in parliament after the attack on Westminster Bridge that killed three tourists and a policeman. While I completely accept that the sins of extremists should never be visited on the vast majority of moderate believers, I am increasingly uneasy about how we handle the connection between religion and extremism. The ideology to which Khalid Masood was converted in prison may indeed be a perversion of Islam, but it is a version of it. We should not shy away from saying so.
After Nice, Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation wrote that saying such terrorism has nothing to do with Islam (as some do) is as dangerous as stating that it has everything to do with Islam. The terrorists in London, Paris, Brussels, Nice, Munich, Berlin, Würzburg, Ansbach, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sydney, Bali, New York, Bombay and many other places have been white, black and brown, rich, poor and middle class, male and female, gay and straight, immigrant and native, young and (now) older. The one thing they have in common is that they had been radicalised by religious preachers claiming to interpret the Koran.
Moreover, while a few sick individuals find within Islam justification for murder and terror, a far larger number find justification for misogyny and intolerance. We must be allowed to say this without being thought to criticise Muslims as people.
My Times column on Britain and India:
By 2022, India will have overtaken China to become the most populous country in the world and, growing fast, will be rapidly returning towards the dominant position it held in the world economy for centuries. It was the world’s economic superpower when imperial Rome and Han China were its junior trading partners. It still represented one quarter of the world economy when Britain began to conquer it in 1757.
An expanded and updated version of my Times column on free trade agreements and Brexit:
The prime minister will soon press the button and launch Article 50 on its inexorable, ballistic trajectory towards impact in March 2019. From the political class here, let alone in Brussels, comes incessant pessimism about those two years: it will be fractious, we are not ready to negotiate, a trade agreement is all but impossible, the timetable is too tight, we’re going over a cliff.
My Times column on the frequent statistical reasoning mistakes that lead to bad policies:
Budget week might be a good time to remind ourselves of the fallacies on which bad policies feed. Last year the University of Michigan’s Professor Richard Nisbett wrote a short book called Mindware, about the ways in which people deceive themselves and others about statistical reasoning. Since reading it, I have been noticing examples of the art everywhere.
Think of Nisbett’s book as a field guide to a nature reserve. Keep an eye out for the Sunk Cost fallacy, wherein you argue that a nuclear power station or a supersonic airliner must be built because you have spent a fortune on it already. It should never matter how much cost has already been sunk into a project: it is only worth spending more if it is cost-effective.
My recent Times column on gene editing's possibilities:
Scientists at the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, said last week that they had edited the genomes of pigs, rendering them immune to a dangerous virus. The announcement is extraordinary precisely because it sounds almost routine these days. Gene editing is already starting to save the lives of human cancer patients and generate healthier crops. Yet the battle to ensure it gains favour with public opinion must be urgently addressed. The usual suspects are already trying to blacken its name.
My Times column on Britain's self-inflicted diesel scandal:
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is right to try to switch the capital away from diesel engines as fast as possible, even if this is tough on those duped into buying diesel cars by years of government incentives and propaganda. Diesel engines do make for worse air quality than petrol engines, and air pollution does almost certainly kill people in significant numbers.
In 2010, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (Comeap) found that in Britain poor air quality “may have made some contribution to the earlier deaths of up to 200,000 people in 2008, with an average loss of life of about two years per death affected”.
A longer version of my Times column on free speech:
"In a free state, tongues too should be free,” wrote Erasmus 501 years ago. In truth, although Britain was often more tolerant than many countries, people have never been entirely free to speak their minds here. Blasphemy and sedition got you into trouble for centuries. There was uproar when Ken Clarke invited Oswald Mosley to address the Cambridge Union in 1961. The law has always rightly forbidden incitement to violence.
An expanded version of my Wall Street Journal article on bees, pesticides and how environmental activists gamed the system:
To those who have engaged with environmental activists in recent years, the concept of fake news is old hat. From Greenpeace’s hundred-fold exaggeration of the oil in the Brent Spar oil platform in 1995 to Friends of the Earth’s slap-down by Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency over fracking untruths in 2017, we have grown used to being told “alternative facts” that later turn out to be wrong by those with green axes to grind. The latest episode of environmental activists playing fast and loose with the facts, however, may be their undoing.
My Times column on the revelations of problems with the global surface temperature record at NOAA:
Back in December, some American scientists began copying government climate data onto independent servers in what press reports described as an attempt to safeguard it from political interference by the Trump administration. There is to be a March for Science in April whose organisers say: “It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”
Well, today they have a chance to do just that, but against their own colleagues who stand accused of doing what they claim the Trump team has done. Devastating new testimony from John Bates, a whistleblowing senior scientist at America’s main climate agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, alleges that scientists themselves have been indulging in alternative facts, fake news and policy-based evidence.
My Times column on British environmental policy:
Andrea Leadsom, the agriculture and environment secretary, is to set out her plans for the British countryside in two green papers: one on the environment this week and one on farming later. She should be ambitious and positive: the future, post-Brexit, could be bright and green.
My Times column on the Industrial Strategy:
Theresa May’s “modern industrial strategy”, launched today, must avoid the ignominious fate of its predecessors. One by one they failed. Diagnosis of Britain’s problems is not difficult; treatment is harder. How can a government close the productivity gap, improve our low investment levels, heal the north-south divide, overcome our habitual pattern of inventing but not exploiting new ideas, and create an economy that “works for everyone”?
I do not presume to know all the answers, but I trust that the prime minister and Greg Clark, her business secretary, have begun by learning a lesson from the history of industrial strategies, Labour and Conservative: top-down solutions will not work; bottom-up ones might.
My Times column on Brexit, Trump and free trade:
In the week that Theresa May reveals the trajectory of Brexit and Donald Trump enters the White House, these two “revolutions” are once again linked by coincidence of timing. For much of the rest of the world, and even in the minds of many people in Britain, the result of last June’s referendum and the outcome of last November’s presidential election are part of the same phenomenon: a revolt against globalisation by a forgotten, provincial, working class.
My Times column on UK university policy:
The government’s higher education bill will run a gauntlet of opposition starting today in the House of Lords, where many members are chancellors, fellows or other panjandrums of the grander universities. Some criticisms will be self-serving and wrong: the bill has good features. But in one central respect, critics are right. This is nationalisation. The bureaucrats of the Department for Education have long wanted to get more control of universities and this bill finally grants their wish.
Britain has some of the world’s best universities, second only to America. The chief reason is that they have been almost as autonomous as the great private universities of the Ivy League. This is for three historical reasons. First, thanks to the Bill of Rights of 1689, they escaped the centralised control that continental universities experienced from first the church and then the Napoleonic or Bismarckian state.
My Times column on the year that marks the centenary of the Russian revolution:
Human beings can be remarkably dense. The practice of bloodletting, as a medical treatment, persisted despite centuries of abundant evidence that it did more harm than good. The practice of communism, or political bloodletting as it should perhaps be known, whose centenary in the Bolshevik revolution is reached this year, likewise needs no more tests. It does more harm than good every time. Nationalised, planned, one-party rule benefits nobody, let alone the poor.
My Times column on Britain's strong track record in the life sciences:
Mitochondrial replacement therapy (misleadingly termed three-parent babies) is to be permitted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. I’m glad. The scientists who have developed the technique, Sir Doug Turnbull, Mary Herbert and others, are friends; the work has been done partly on the premises of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle, of which I am honorary president; I took part in the parliamentary debate last year on whether it was ethical and safe; and I have met some of the families suffering from the dreadful diseases it could cure. So I have emotional skin in the game.
My Times column on the high cost of Britain's climate change policies:
We now know from three different sources that Britain’s climate and energy policy is not just too expensive but has also been dishonestly presented. Peter Lilley MP, an unusually numerate former cabinet minister, has written a devastating new report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, published today, on the costs of Britain’s Climate Change Act 2008. It reveals “at best economic illiteracy and at worst deliberate deception” by government.
It comes as the National Audit Office has rapped the government’s knuckles for “a lack of transparency [that] has undermined accountability to parliament and consumers” in its energy policy. And a non-executive director of the former Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), Tom Kelly, found a systemic underestimation of the costs of the policy as well as “weaknesses in the original governance arrangements that were not rectified over time, a lack of transparency and a tendency to groupthink.” No wonder DECC sat on the Kelly report for a year before releasing it.
My column on European fragmentation in the Times (5 December):
The Italian referendum and close-shave Austrian election are symptoms of a continent that may be teetering on the brink of political disintegration. It’s just possible that an empire may be collapsing before our eyes, as the Habsburg and Ottoman empires did before it, in or around the same neighbourhood.
My Times column on identity politics:
The student union at King’s College London will field a team in University Challenge that contains at least 50 per cent “self-defining women, trans or non-binary students”. The only bad thing Ken Livingstone could bring himself to say about the brutal dictator Fidel Castro was that “initially he wasn’t very good on lesbian and gay rights”. The first page of Hillary Clinton’s campaign website (still up) has links to “African Americans for Hillary, Latinos for Hillary, Asian Americans and Pacific islanders for Hillary, Women for Hillary, Millennials for Hillary”, but none to “men for Hillary”, let alone “white people for Hillary”.
Since when did the left insist on judging people by — to paraphrase Martin Luther King — the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character? The left once admirably championed the right of black people, women and gays to be treated the same as white, straight men. With only slightly less justification, it then moved on to pushing affirmative action to redress past prejudice. Now it has gone further, insisting everybody is defined by his or her identity and certain victim identities must be favoured.
My Times column on the overdone threat from robots:
The tech industry, headquartered in Silicon Valley, is populated largely by enthusiastic optimists, who want to change the world and think they can. But there is one strand of pessimism that you hear a lot there: that the robots are going to take all our jobs. With artificial intelligence looming, human beings are facing redundancy and obsolescence. I think this neo-Luddite worry is as wrong now as in Ned Ludd’s day.
My Times column on Trump's electoral triumph (originally published 14 November):
Years of compensating for the media’s tendency to look on the dark side of everything has taught me that it generally pays to seek silver linings. It’s possible of course that Donald Trump will start a culture war, a trade war and a nuclear war, but it’s also just possible that, while behaving like an oaf, he will preside over a competent administration. So here, after a few days of talking to people in America’s two biggest economies, California and Texas, are ten reasons why I think a Trump presidency may not be as awful as many think, even if, like me, you heard the news of his victory with a sinking feeling.
1 Just as after Brexit, the markets went up, not down. Virtually all analysts agreed that if Mr Trump won the stock market would fall — most estimates ranged from 2 per cent to 7 per cent. Instead the S&P 500 was up 3.8 per cent by the end of last week. The markets are betting that financial deregulation will encourage growth.
My Times column on the wisdom of crowds, published the day before election day in the US:
‘In these democratic days, any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgments is of interest.” So begins an article entitled Vox Populi, which is not about Donald Trump but was published in 1907 by Francis Galton, a pioneer of statistics, by then 85 years old. He had analysed the results of a sweepstake competition held at the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition in Plymouth.
An ox was on display. Visitors could buy a postcard for sixpence and write their guess as to the weight of the ox, once slaughtered and dressed. Of 800 cards filled out, Galton rejected 13 as illegible and averaged the rest. The arithmetic mean of the 787 guesses came to 1,197lb. The true dressed weight of the ox was — yes — 1,197lb (Galton reported slightly different results, but recent reanalysis by Kenneth Wallis of Warwick University finds the match was exact).
My Times column on the surprising correlation between prosperity and improving conservation outcomes:
As foxes move into cities and deer, badgers and otters grow ever-more numerous, along with birds such as ospreys, buzzards and red kites, you might be thinking much of Britain’s wildlife is doing well. Yet last week the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), together with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), published their latest assessment of the state of the world’s mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish: the Living Planet Report 2016. They found that on average populations of such animals declined by about 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012.
The report also provides evidence that while wildlife populations are doing poorly in poor countries, they are generally doing well in rich countries. I spent a happy few hours on virtual safari through the detailed database behind the findings (so I can report that granulated catfish in Paraguay are doing well, while grey-necked picathartes in Cameroon are doing badly), and this pattern emerges clearly.
My Times column on batteries:
Batteries are no longer boring. Whether catching fire in Samsung Note 7s, being hailed as the answer to future electricity grids thanks to breakthrough chemical innovation, or being manufactured on a gigantic scale in Elon Musk’s gigafactory in Nevada, batteries are box office. And though battery technology is indeed advancing by leaps and bounds, there is a considerable quantity of balderdash being talked about it too.
My recent Times column from 10 October on immigration and the European Union:
Michael Kosterlitz, one of the four British-born but American-resident winners of Nobel prizes in science this year, is so incensed by Brexit that he is considering renouncing his British citizenship: “The idea of not being able to travel and work freely in Europe is unthinkable to me.” He has been misled — not by Leavers but by Remainers.
It’s not just that the overseas press have consistently portrayed Brexit as a nativist retreat, despite Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan consistently saying the very opposite. Throughout the referendum campaign — and, shamefully, since — academics have been told by their lobby groups (such as Universities UK) that Brexit probably means losing access to European research funds, European scientific collaborations and European talent.
My recent Times column on the planning paralysis holding back Britain:
At last, the government is about to decide on a third runway at Heathrow airport — by the end of this month, I hear. It’s only been ten years since Tony Blair’s government first proposed the plan. Yet it will be three years until planning permission is granted and another six before the runway is finished. That’s two decades. Heathrow’s original three runways in 1946 took less than two years to build from scratch in a war-ravaged country depleted of funds and fuel. Why do such projects now take so inordinately long?
Land-use planning in Britain is not a joke; it’s a disgrace. The present system is grotesquely biased, not so much in favour of opponents or proponents of development, but in favour of delay and cost. I happen to think HS2 and Hinkley Point C are mistakes, but if I’ve lost those battles — and I probably have — then at least let’s get on and build them quickly, rather than spend the next decade paying lawyers and consultants to slow them down and inflate their costs.
I have sent the following letter to the president of the Royal Society and the Chairman and director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation in response to a highly misleading letter to me that was copied to them.
To Sir Venki Ramakrishnan FRS, Lord Lawson and Dr Benny Peiser
The text of a lecture given at the Royal Society on 17 October 2016:
(Note some minor corrections made subsequent to delivery. These are shown in italics.)
I gave a lecture recently at Haileybury College (the successor to the East India College where the economist Robert Malthus taught), on the topic of "The Misapplication of Malthus". It was based on a chapter of my book The Evolution of Everything:
Parson Malthus casts a long shadow over the past 200 years. He was a good man without a cruel bone in his body. But great cruelty has been done in his name and is still being done in his name. That’s the paradox I wish to explore this evening.
Malthus’s finest legacy is to have sparked Charles Darwin into action. In September 1838, shortly after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin read, or re-read, Malthus’s essay on population and was struck by the notion of a struggle for existence in which some thrived and others did not, an idea which helped trigger the insight of natural selection.
My Times column on free trade after Brexit:
The prime minister wants Britain to be “the most passionate, most consistent, most convincing advocate for free trade”. Under either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and with world trade stagnating, it looks as if the job is increasingly likely to be vacant in March 2019, so Britain has both a vital duty and a golden opportunity. It worked for us before.
Next year sees the 200th anniversary of David Ricardo’s insight of “comparative advantage” — the counterintuitive idea that trade benefits “uncompetitive” countries as much as efficient ones. If one country is better at making both cloth and wine than another, it can still pay it to get its wine, for example, by making extra cloth to swap for the other’s wine. Or, as somebody once put it, even if Winston Churchill is a very good bricklayer (he was) it still makes sense for him to write books or run governments, and pay somebody else to build his walls.
My Times column on the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative in basic medical science:
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, and his wife Priscilla Chan, a paediatrician, have announced their intention to spend $3 billion over ten years on medical research. Having met them last year, I thought I would take the liberty of making a suggestion as to how they spend their money.
My Times column on statins, snus and vaping:
One of the most salutary examples of people in authority getting risks wrong is a paper written in 1955 by the first head of the environmental cancer section of the US National Cancer Institute, Wilhelm Hueper. The title was “lung cancers and their causes” and he was absolutely convinced that “cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer”, because he thought this was a cheap shot by the chemical industry to divert attention away from pesticides.
We now know that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer, whereas pesticides are not. History is littered with example of experts being too reassuring about some risks, too alarmed about others. Washing hands between dissecting women who died in child birth and delivering babies? No risk, said the nineteenth century medical establishment, ostracizing Ignaz Semelweiss who had had the temerity to suggest otherwise. Dietary fats cause heart attacks, insisted the medical establishment for the best part of five decades till very recently. It was once the consensus that tonsils should be removed; no longer.
My essay on invasive species in the Wall Street Journal:
In July, the New Zealand government announced its intention to eradicate all rats, stoats and possums from the entire country by 2050 to save native birds such as the kiwi. It’s an ambitious plan, perhaps impossible to pull off with the methods available today, but it’s a stark reminder that invasive alien species today constitute perhaps the greatest extinction threat to animal populations world-wide.
Birdlife International, a charity that works to save endangered birds, reckons that of the 140 bird species confirmed to have gone extinct since 1500, invasive alien species were a factor in the demise of at least 71—an impact greater than hunting, logging, agriculture, fire or climate change.
My Times column on how the Arctic sea ice has melted in late summer before, between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago:
The sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is approaching its annual nadir. By early September each year about two thirds of the ice cap has melted, then the sea begins to freeze again. This year looks unlikely to set a record for melting, with more than four million square kilometres of ice remaining, less than the average in the 1980s and 1990s, but more than in the record low years of 2007 and 2012. (The amount of sea ice around Antarctica has been increasing in recent years, contrary to predictions.)
My Times column on economic libertarianism:
Last week both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump set out their economic policies in set-piece speeches. Mr Trump’s, delivered in Detroit, so far as one could tell from the fractured syntax and the digressions into invective, involves a trade policy designed to punish consumers and protect producers, a recipe for recession. But Mrs Clinton’s, also delivered in Michigan, was even worse. She too wants to pursue the old mercantilist fallacy of restricting imports and helping exports, but while spending more money, unleashing a blizzard of new regulations and doubling the minimum wage.
Never have the American people been faced with such paternalist, protectionist and authoritarian pair of options. The United States, long a beacon of economic libertarianism, is now being offered a choice between two forms of growth-killing, deficit-boosting, zero-sum, big-government economic nationalism. Long gone are the days when both Republicans and Democrats subscribed to some form of free-market economic philosophy while differing mainly over how to fight the cold war and the culture wars.
My Spectator article on the similarity between trophy hunting in Africa and grouse shooting in Durham. Both have huge benefits for non-target species of wildlife.
The vast Bubye Valley Conservancy in southern Zimbabwe is slightly larger than County Durham, as well as much hotter and drier. Yet both contain abundant wildlife thanks almost entirely to the hunting of game. In Bubye Valley, it’s lions and buffalo that are the targets; in the Durham dales, it’s grouse. But the effect is the same — a spectacular boost to other wildlife, privately funded.
My Times column on the history of opposition to innovation:
The prime minister is to announce today that she would like to redirect some of the future profits of shale gas production to households, rather than councils. This is eminently sensible. It gives local people a stake in the new technology; it recognises that innovation will only be accepted in society when its social effects are beneficial; and it reflects Theresa May’s philosophy that all of society should share in growth.
This is my Times column on why we are paying too much to decarbonise via both nuclear and renewables, but I have expanded various points to give detailed quotes from sources to verify my arguments. [The expansions are in square brackets and italics.]
If Hinkley Point C goes ahead, the cost for consumers of subsidizing it will be £30 billion, according to the National Audit Office, or five times what was originally estimated. The increase comes largely from the fact that fossil fuels are cheaper than even the lowest possibility envisaged by the late and unlamented Department of Energy and Climate Change.
[In 2012 DECC forecast three scenarios for fossil fuel prices. In the “high” scenario, the oil price, per barrel, in 2016 was expected to be $137.2; in the medium scenario, $119.2 and in the “low” scenario, $98.8. The price today is $43, that is less than half the lowest scenario envisaged by DECC just four years ago.]
My Times column on why experts get the future as wrong, or more so, than non-experts:
Michael Gove was mocked during the referendum campaign for saying that “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” Critics asked pointedly if he dismissed the expertise of doctors when ill. But subsequent weeks have left economic experts, at least, looking a bit less than the full Nostradamus.
The expert pollsters told the hedge funds Remain would win right up till when it lost, so the pound and the FTSE 100 rose, then crashed. The expert financial forecasters then told investors the FTSE 100 would fall further, but it quickly recovered all its lost ground and more. The expert analysts told us we should watch the FTSE 250 plunge instead, but that has now returned to the level it was at a week before the referendum.
My Times column on industrial strategy:
In her first speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street Theresa May said that she intends to listen to those who “just about manage”, not to the wealthy and mighty. “When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few.” Dead right: but how?
In pursuit of that objective she has signalled that she may favour an industrial strategy intended to help those areas that have it toughest. Some have interpreted this as a sign that markets are out of fashion and that government intervention is back. That certainly seems to be part of the thinking of her aide Nick Timothy and think-tank influences such as David Skelton. Mr Timothy says it is time that politicians “questioned the unthinking liberalism of the policies they support”. Greg Clark, the business secretary, says he is thrilled to take charge of a “new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy”.
Damian Carrington in the Guardian has attempted to imply criticism of me for writing an email to the energy minister in the House of Lords to draw his attention to a new technology for emissions reduction as a byproduct of an innovative manufacturing process. I explicitly was not lobbying. I have absolutely no interest in the technology or the company, but I happened to meet them through a friend and thought their technology sounded interesting and the British government might be interested, since it might be a way for the UK to generate jobs and revenue while cutting emissions; the company was not asking for a subsidy. I met them over a drink – and I paid. I have acted entirely appropriately, and the Guardian article is trying to make a scandal where there is none.
The source of the Guardian article is a Freedom of Information Request from Friends of the Earth. The FoE individual quoted in the article is Guy Shrubsole, who has a criminal conviction for aggravated trespass as he prevented people getting to work at a surface coal mine in Northumberland on the Blagdon Estate. Mr Shrubsole was given a conditional discharge after pleading guilty to chaining himself to mining machinery to cause disruption at the site. He was also given a three year restraining order preventing him from coming within 50 metres of the mining company’s sites or offices. Mr Shrubsole appears to be under the mistaken impression that I was telling the energy minister about a carbon capture and storage technology. Even if I had been, there would be no scandal.
The real scandal is that the Guardian relies on a criminal as a source.
My Times column on the way social media polarises discourse and raises the political temperature:
Schisms of hatred seem to be fracturing the political landscape wherever you look right now: the police versus the black community in America, Sunni v Shia, Wahhabism v the West, Trump v Hillary, Labour v itself, Brexiteers v Bremainers, climate “alarmists” v “deniers”. All are glaring at each other across cyber-chasms of flaming verbal magma.
My recent Times column on the herbicide glyphosate:
I once tried the organic alternative to the herbicide roundup for clearing weeds from garden paths: a flame-thrower. It was brutal for the environment, incinerating innocent insects and filling the air with emissions. Next week I might have to go back to that. Roundup, the world’s safest, cheapest and most effective weedkiller, may be illegal within days in Europe.
I published this column in the Times recently. Since then it has become clear that Britain will probably have a female prime minister soon (Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom are the bookies' favourites), and a female leader of the opposition (Angela Eagle ditto), as well as a female monarch. In Scotland all three main party leaders are women. America may have a female president next year. It seems timely to discuss whether women bring different skills to the top jobs in politics. I think they do, and for the better:
After an American political party at last picked a woman candidate for president, and after watching a television debate on Europe last week in which one male was surrounded by six females, including the presenter, the idea of women in power has just about ceased to be unusual. The number of women elected as president or prime minister in the world was three in the 1960s, then 5, 8, 24 and 25 in each succeeding decade – and it has already reached 30 in this half-finished decade. Slow, but steady progress.
So, a question: are women sufficiently different from men for this to make a difference? Yet another brain-imaging study, at Stanford University, has found neural differences between men and women. When two men co-operate on a task, one particular part of the brain lights up in each; when two women co-operate, a different part of the brain lights up in each. When a man and a woman co-operate, both brains light up less – but they still co-operate fine. Different, but not unequal, in other words.
Here are three articles on the Brexit referendum of June 2016.
My Times column on the European Union's failure to grow digital giants:
Last week I visited an island and stood among a crowd of puffins. If I turned my head I could see the lighthouse. If I looked up, the arctic terns were above my head. Yet I never left a gallery in Gateshead. How come? I was wearing a virtual-reality mask.
I have tried this “Oculus” technology once before, when visiting Facebook in California (which owns Oculus) and it is truly extraordinary to have an all-round, up-and-down view of the world depending on how you turn your head. All it involves is a special (Samsung) smartphone jammed into a pair of goggles.
My Times column on the threat from zika virus:
Cancelling the Rio Olympics would do little to slow the spread of the zika virus. That horse has already bolted: more than 60 countries and territories already have zika. It will soon be almost anywhere that its mosquito host lives. Now that the link with microcephaly is well established, becoming pregnant in any country with zika carries a small but real risk of birth defects for the baby.
In the 1970s, troubled by the risks of using pesticides, we took our eye off the fight against mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Zika is just the latest evidence that we are paying a heavy price for that. Between 1947 and 1958 Brazil managed to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito from the entire country, as part of a continent-wide campaign against yellow fever. Yet the effort was not maintained, so the mosquito returned and now flourishes in the favelas of urban Brazil as well as most of the warm parts of the world.
My Times comment on a new report on genetically modified crops:
The exhaustive and cautious new report from the American National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine leaves no room for doubt that genetically engineered crops are as safe or safer, and are certainly better for the environment, than conventionally bred crops.
My Times column on why gene editing is not the slippery slope to eugenics:
This summer brings the 50th anniversary of the full deciphering of the genetic code — the four-billion-year-old cipher by which DNA’s information is translated and expressed — and the centenary of the birth of Francis Crick, who both co-discovered the existence of that code and dominated the subsequent 13-year quest to understand it. Europe’s largest biomedical laboratory, named after him, opens this summer opposite St Pancras station.
My Times column on rural broadband:
Compared with most countries, Britain has a fairly healthy rural economy. Barns have been converted into homes or offices rather than left to tumble down, as in parts of France. Remote areas have job vacancies in picturesque villages, rather than drug problems amid piles of dead cars, as in parts of America. The demand for second homes in St Ives and the lack of affordable housing in villages (both in the news these past few weeks) are the result of too much demand for rural assets, not too little.
Yet there is now a golden opportunity to make the rural economy work even better, to make the countryside an engine of growth rather than a theme park and retirement community — and without spoiling it. That opportunity’s name is broadband. The government’s sudden decision to stop rolling fast broadband out for the last 5 per cent of people is madness.
My Times column on Britain's history with Europe:
[The prime minister argues that "when we turn out back on Europe, sooner or later we come to regret it" and cited 1704, 1805, 1914 and 1940 as examples. This is historical nonsense: in each case it was our separation from Europe that enabled Britain to liberate the continent from a monopolistic tyranny. Had we been integrated, the outcomes would have been different. I argued in my Times column that the existence of the Channel, and its narrowness, have made us inevitably involved in European affairs, but also inevitably resistant to absorption into European hegemonies.]
Whatever your views on Brexit, there is no doubting the peculiar agony of Britain’s relationship with its neighbouring continent. Ever since the day at the end of the last ice age that the sea broke through the chalky gorge between Dover and Calais, it has been our dilemma: are we separate from, or close to, the continent?
My Times column on free speech and climate change:
The editor of this newspaper received a private letter last week from Lord Krebs and 12 other members of the House of Lords expressing unhappiness with two articles by its environment correspondent. Conceding that The Times’s reporting of the Paris climate conference had been balanced and comprehensive, it denounced the two articles about studies by mainstream academics in the scientific literature, which provided less than alarming assessments of climate change.
My review in the Times of Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Equality:
It took me two months to read this 650-page, small-type book, the third volume in a trilogy. In that time I read several other books, absorbing Bourgeois Equality in small doses on trains, ships, Tubes, sofas and beds. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s not. I wanted to savour every sentence of this remarkable feast of prose.
My column in the Times on British science and the European Union:
The House of Lords science and technology committee, on which I sit, has produced a report on British science and the European Union. Most scientists are enthusiastic to remain in the EU but many seem to be under the same misapprehension I was until recently: that European scientific collaboration and funding is dependent on being a member of the EU. It’s not.
The main science funding programmes, such as Horizon 2020, are open to European countries, not just to EU members — and indeed to some non-European countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Israel. The same is true of the main scientific collaborations. The European Molecular Biology Organisation, the European Space Agency: these are pan-European, not EU projects. The particle accelerator at CERN actually crosses (beneath) the border between an EU and a non-EU country. CERN gets less than 2 per cent of its budget from the EU.
Here is my reply to an article on "Open democracy" criticising me.
I am surprised to read this lengthy attack on me and to find that no attempt was made to check the facts.
I am genuinely surprised that you should have written this blog post without any attempt to check the facts.
My Times column on pseudoscience:
Science, humanity’s greatest intellectual achievement, has always been vulnerable to infection by pseudoscience, which pretends to use the methods of science, but actually subverts them in pursuit of an obsession. Instead of evidence-based policymaking, pseudoscience specialises in policy-based evidence making. Today, this infection is spreading.
My review of Stephen Moss's book Wild Kingdom from the Times:
The wildlife of the River Tyne, near where I live, has been transformed in my lifetime. When I went pike fishing on the Tyne as a bird-watching-obsessed boy, it was empty of salmon, sea trout and otters. It had no ospreys, peregrine falcons or kites overhead. Buzzards, goosanders and herons were scarce. All are now regular or common residents.
The Tyne is one of the examples used by Stephen Moss in his book Wild Kingdom of the progress we have made bringing back much of Britain’s wildlife. He watches an otter right in the middle of Newcastle, while listening to the kittiwakes that nest on the Tyne bridge. Elsewhere in the country he documents the extraordinary revival, arrival or return of many species: bitterns, little egrets, great white egrets, avocets, cranes, beavers, marsh harriers, cetti’s warblers, ring-necked parakeets.
I have published two articles this week on the crumbing of the dogma that fat is bad for you. This was in the Times:
Britain’s obesity tsar, Susan Jebb, says that it is not fair to blame fat people for their failure to lose weight. Genetically predisposed, many people cannot realistically lose weight by eating less, especially when the food industry tempts them with snacks. Meanwhile, George Osborne is slapping a tax on sugar to tackle obesity.
The new obsession with sugar definitely makes more sense than the low-fat sermons we have heard for decades. And the prevailing idea in the public-health industry that you get fat simply by eating more calories than you burn is misleading to say the least. While of course that’s true, it says nothing about what causes appetite to exceed need by the tiny amount each day that can turn you obese.
My Times column on the role of UK emissions policies in driving aluminium, steel and other industries abroad:
Before Redcar and Port Talbot, remember Lynemouth, where Britain’s last large aluminium smelter closed in 2012. In aluminium, as in steel, China is now by far the largest producer, smelting five times as much as any other continent, let alone country. The chief reason aluminium left (though a small plant survives at Lochaber) was the sky-high electricity prices paid in Britain: electrolysis is how you make aluminium. For extra-large industrial users, British electricity prices are the highest in Europe, twice the average, and far higher than in Asia and America.
My Times column on the sensible proposal to reform the way protected species are helped during development:
Natural England, the government body charged with protecting Britain’s wildlife, is currently consulting on reforming the way protected species are rescued from bulldozers. The rethink is focused on the great crested newt, the bane of developers everywhere, and it sensibly suggests giving the newts new ponds so their populations can expand, rather than the futile gesture of surveying, trapping, deporting and excluding them from development sites one by one.
My Times column on the growing movement for marine protected areas in British overseas territories:
Britain may no longer have an empire, but it still rules a heck of a lot of waves. One of the manifesto commitments of the Conservative party in the last election was to create a “blue belt” of marine protected zones around the 14 overseas territories that still belong to this country. It has started fulfilling the promise and is already protecting more of the sea than any other nation.
My Times column on free trade the European Union:
The late Sir George Martin created substantial British exports. Had the import of his music to America been banned to save the jobs of US musicians, Britain would have missed out on some revenue but the American consumer would have been the biggest loser, missing out on the music. Trade benefits the importing country: that’s why it happens.
My Times column on Britain's delayed and every more expensive EPR nuclear power station
Last week the British and French governments announced that they remained confident that the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset will be built. But EDF, the company that wishes to build it, declined again to say when a “final investment decision” will be made. That decision, originally intended for 2012, was then expected last October, when the Chinese president was in London — a third of the finance is coming from China. Then it was expected in November, then December, then at the February board meeting of the company, then last week. Still no sign of Godot.
It is time to pull the plug. EDF cannot afford to build it and we cannot afford to buy its premium-price electricity. At two other sites, in Finland and France, the European pressurised reactor (EPR) design is beset by technical problems, many years behind schedule and several times over budget. The Chinese are building two and have also encountered technical obstacles. Apart from Hinkley, the order book is empty, so ours would probably be the last EPR to be built.
My Spectator article on what it would be like for the United States to join the American Union:
o the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, thinks his country has a ‘profound interest… in a very strong United Kingdom staying in a strong EU’, and President Obama is planning to join in campaigning for the Remainders too. They say this not because they think it is good for us, but because it is in their interests that we influence Europe in a free-trading, Atlanticist direction.
Well, two can play at that game. How would Americans like it if we argued that it is in our interests that the United States should forthwith be united with all the countries in their continent north of the Panama Canal — Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama — into a vast customs union governed by a trans-national, unelected civil service. Let’s call it the American Union, or AU.
My Times column on why the EU is bad for innovation:
For me, in the end, it’s all about innovation. The European Union is bad at doing it, good at discouraging it, repeatedly sides with those who have vested interests in resisting it, and holds Britain back from achieving it.
This may not be a fashionable reason for voting to leave. Pollsters tell us that safety is the first wish of most voters, not exciting change, and it’s clear that both sides are playing to that rule book: one side arguing for us to take control by leaving, the other saying we are more secure if we stay in. But if history teaches us anything it is that enterprise is the father of peace, that innovation brings not just economic but ethical improvements: it demonstrably makes us kinder and safer as well as richer. There is no security in stagnation.
My Times column on harm reduction
The UN General Assembly is holding a special meeting on drug policy in April, its first since 1998. The mood of member states, as well as many international agencies, is now much less focused on law enforcement and abstinence, and much more favourably disposed to treating drugs as a public health issue, to be tackled by “harm reduction”, a phrase that was actually banned from use within publications of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime ten years ago. Harm reduction means offering safer alternatives, as the lesser of two evils.
When people behave in harmful ways, how do you stop them? You can punish them in the hope of deterrence, as we do murder, theft and fraud. You can hector them, as we do with tobacco, alcohol and sugar. Or you can try to offer safer alternatives, which is how we tackled HIV infection and heroin addiction in this country in particular, and is how we should deal with tobacco.
My Times column on the causes and consequences of low oil prices:
The continuing plunge in the price of oil from $115 a barrel in mid-2014 to $30 today is really, really good news. I know just about every economic commentator says otherwise, predicting bankruptcies, stock market crashes, deflation, political turmoil and a return to gas guzzling. But that is because they are mostly paid to see the world from the point of view of producers, not consumers. Yes, some plutocrats and autocrats won’t like it, but for the rest of us this is a big cut in the cost of living. Worldwide, the fall in the oil price since 2014 has transferred $2 trillion from oil producers to oil consumers.
Oil is the largest and most indispensable commodity on which society depends, the vital energy-amplifier of our everyday actions. The value of the oil produced every year exceeds the value of natural gas, coal, iron ore, wheat, copper and cotton combined. Without oil, every industry would collapse — agriculture first of all. Cutting the price of oil enables you to travel, eat and clothe yourself more cheaply, which leaves you more money to spend on something else, which gives somebody else a job supplying that need, and so on.
My recent essay in the Wall Street Journal on South Georgia:
When you tell people that you’re going to South Georgia, some will ask if you’re changing planes in Atlanta. In fact, the name belongs to an island near Antarctica. It’s about the size of Rhode Island but with mountains rising to over 9,000 feet. It is a wilderness, uninhabited except for two small scientific stations and teeming with spectacular wildlife.
But don’t be fooled: The apparently pristine natural beauty of South Georgia is new. Like an old master painting that was badly damaged but has since been painstakingly restored, South Georgia was once utterly desecrated and is now gloriously refurbished.
My Retrospective article on Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, published in Nature magazine:
Books about science tend to fall into two categories: those that explain it to lay people in the hope of cultivating a wide readership, and those that try to persuade fellow scientists to support a new theory, usually with equations. Books that achieve both — changing science and reaching the public — are rare. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) was one. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is another. From the moment of its publication 40 years ago, it has been a sparkling best-seller and a scientific game-changer.
My column in The Times on Britain's EU membership referendum:
Public opinion about the European Union is divided, like Gaul, into three parts: one third are already firmly in the “leave” camp, one third would remain in whatever happens, and the tussle is over who gets the middle, undecided third. It’s like pulling a Christmas cracker — part of it will go one way, part of it the other; it’s what happens to the middle bit that matters.
The infighting that has broken out among those campaigning to leave is partly about personalities, of course, but it is also about how to appeal to those swing voters in the middle. Specifically, do you win these people over by talking about immigration, the issue that dominates the news, shows the EU at its most incompetent and reverberates strongly outside the metropolis, where people worry about the effect it has on houses, hospitals, schools and local services? That seems to be the view of the Leave.EU campaign, led by Arron Banks and with Nigel Farage as its best-known spokesman. They make the case that the metropolitan elite is out of touch with the bulk of public opinion.
My column in The Times on how South Georgia's environment has been repaired:
In claiming the Falklands, the Argentinian government also claims South Georgia, even though it is 700 miles further away from its coast, was unambiguously claimed by Captain Cook when uninhabited, and is run as a separate territory by the British government. Indeed, as I found out last week when I was lucky to visit courtesy of the island’s government, it is a place where something truly astonishing has been achieved in the world of conservation.
In summer South Georgia teems with wildlife: four million fur seals crowd its shores, elephant seals are piled in somnolent heaps on beaches, penguin colonies boggle the mind in their scale, the cliffs and slopes are alive with more than 50 million albatrosses, prions and petrels, while whales once again blow in the surrounding ocean. This wealth of wildlife is the result of changing economic incentives plus regulation— to stop sealing, whaling and penguinning and to control fishing.
My Times column on the winter floods in Britain:
My invitation to serve on the government’s flood defence review seems to have got stuck in the Christmas post. So here’s a memo, based on Northumberland gossip as well as published papers, for how it should go about its job.
My Times column on the Capability Brown tercentenary:
Next year marks the 300th birthday of Lancelot Brown at Kirkharle, in Northumberland, the man who saw “capability” in every landscape and indefatigably transformed England. In his 280 commissions, Capability Brown stamped his mark on some 120,000 acres, tearing out walls, canals, avenues, topiary and terraces to bring open parkland, with grassy tree-topped hills and glimpses of sinuous, serpentine lakes, right up to the ha-has of country houses.
Brown was not the first to design informal and semi-naturalistic landscapes: he followed Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. But he was by far the most prolific and influential. His is a type of landscape that is now imitated in parks all round the world, from Dubai to Sydney to Europe: it’s known as “jardin anglais” and was admired by Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson.
My Times column on the hedgehog decline, and the effect of badgers:
Hedgehogs, subjects of the Times Christmas Appeal, are to get their own summit, the Environment Secretary Liz Truss said last week. Hedgehogs really are in trouble. Their numbers have plunged, their range has shrunk and they have disappeared from large parts of the countryside altogether. The population has probably at least halved during this century and may now be 3% of what it was in the 1950s.
Yet when asked why this has happened conservation organisations nearly always talk of habitat loss and urban development. This makes no sense because hedgehogs now survive mostly in suburbs, not rural areas. The one thing the pressure groups hate mentioning is badgers. Yet the scientific evidence that an increase in Mr Brock may well be the chief cause of Mrs Tiggywinkle’s demise is – as I have been discovering by reading the scientific literature – overwhelming.
My article on the misuse of Malthus appeared in Standpoint magazine. It is an edited extract from my book, The Evolution of Everything. It is worth asking how John Gray could have reviewed that book and accused me of social Darwinism after reading this!
For more than 200 years, a disturbingly vicious thread has run through Western history, based on biology and justifying cruelty on an almost unimaginable scale. It centres on the question of how to control human population growth and it answers that question by saying we must be cruel to be kind, that ends justify means. It is still around today; and it could not be more wrong. It is the continuing misuse of Malthus.
My Times column on the underwhelming results of the climate conference and Britain's renegotiation with the European Union:
There’s an uncanny similarity between the climate negotiations that climaxed in Paris at the weekend and David Cameron’s European Union reform negotiations, which continue in Brussels this week. The original aims of both plans were far bolder than the outcome. Multilateral negotiation, however well intended, really is one of the great flops of the modern world.
My Times column on the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative:
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan marked the birth of their daughter Max by promising to donate 99 per cent of their Facebook shares during their lifetimes to support good causes. For this they were pilloried by some. The economist Thomas Piketty called it a “big joke”. For author Linsey McGoey it was “business as usual, rebranding as philanthropy, and announced with a deceptive air of selflessness”.
We have reached new depths of cynicism when a couple say in a letter to their newborn child that “our hopes for your generation focus on two ideas: advancing human potential and promoting equality” and some people can only sneer. Much of the carping is deeply confused. The Zuckerbergs have been criticised for not handing their shares to a tax-deductible charitable foundation now, which would net them a big tax break up front, and in the very same breath for not handing over their fortune in tax.
I have written five articles on climate change science and policy in the past week, for Scientific American, The Times (twice), the Wall Street Journal and the Spectator. They follow here in the form of a lengthy essay. Sentences in square brackets have been added back in after being edited out when the pieces were shortened for publication.
First, on the science - from Scientific American:
My Times column on the rise of non-belief:
Fifty years ago, after the cracking of the genetic code, Francis Crick was so confident religion would fade that he offered a prize for the best future use for Cambridge’s college chapels. Swimming pools, said the winning entry. Today, when terrorists cry “God is great” in both Paris and Bamako as they murder, the joke seems sour. But here’s a thought: that jihadism may be a last spasm — albeit a painful one — of a snake that is being scotched. The humanists are winning, even against Islam.
My Times article on wind power is below. An astonishingly poor attack on the article was made in The Guardian by Mark Lynas. He failed to address all the main points I made: he failed to challenge the argument that wind power has not cut emissions, failed to challenge the argument that wind power has raised the cost of electricity, he failed to challenge my argument that wind speeds are correlated across Europe. And he made a hash of attempting to criticise my argument that wind has made the system less reliable. The gist of his case was that the recent short-term emergency that gave rise to price spikes was caused by coal-fired power station outages. But the point was that these coincided with a windless day. In a system of coal and gas, the weather would not matter, but in a system dependent on wind, then coal outages on a windless day cause problems. Surely this was not too difficult to understand, Mark? Note that Germany had a windless day too.
Mark Lynas then took to twitter boasting in troll-fashion that he had debunked my article where he was joined by the usual green cheerleaders. They have shot themselves in the foot, I am afraid. I remain astonished at the fervour with which greens like Mark defend wind power at all costs, despite growing evidence that it does real environmental harm, rewards the rich at the expense of the poor and does not cut carbon dioxide emissions significantly if at all. It might even make them worse, as I argue here. If they really are worried about emissions, why do greens love wind? It isn't helping.
I took part in a Munk debate on 6 November, in which Steven Pinker and I argued that "humanity's best days lie ahead" while Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton argued against us. It was entertaining and we shifted the audience our way a little, although three-quarters were on our side at the start (which is probably not representative of the population as a whole).
Here's a video of the debate: http://www.munkdebates.com/debates/progress
My Times column on the western origin of the one-child policy:
The abolition of China’s one-child policy brings to an end one of the most futile and inhumane experiments in top-down social engineering the world has seen. I say futile because it did not work. China’s birth rate roughly halved in the decade before the policy was introduced, then fell not at all in the next decade. A less coercive policy would probably have slowed China’s population growth just as much, if not more — as it did that of other countries in Asia.
The Wall Street Journal carried an extract from my new book The Evolution of Everything.
The article caused a lot of interest, and was criticised by some as being anti-science. Nothing could be further from the truth and most of those making this case are not quoting the article accurately. The article is about technology and how it changes. It argues that technology is more often the mother than the daughter of science, but that's not a criticism of science. I am a passionate supporter of science, but I think it deserves to be liberated from the straitjacket of being seen as necessarily there mainly to give birth to technology. In addition I argue that science would attract funding from sources other than governments, but again that's not to say I think governments should suddenly cut off funding from science, given how many other things they fund. Anyway, here's what I actually wrote:
My Times column on the constitutional confrontation between the Lords and the Commons:
‘How can you have a constitutional crisis without a constitution?” asked a Dutch friend coming to a meeting in the House of Lords last week. Of course, it is because there is no written constitution that today’s attempts by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to defeat the will of the elected Commons in the unelected Lords on tax credits, or tomorrow’s on the electoral register, are a constitutional outrage, even if not strictly illegal.
My Times Column on the surprisingly large benefits of carbon dioxide emissions:
France’s leading television weather forecaster, Philippe Verdier, was taken off air last week for writing that there are “positive consequences” of climate change. Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus of mathematical physics and astrophysics at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, declared last week that the non-climatic effects of carbon dioxide are “enormously beneficial”. Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, said in a lecture last week that we should “celebrate carbon dioxide”.
This is a longer version of an article I published in the Mail on Sunday:
The Volkswagen testing scandal exposes rotten corruption at the core of regulation. Far from ushering in a brave new world of cleaner air, the technologies adopted by European car makers, driven by policy makers in Brussels, have been killing thousands of people a year through an obsession with lowering emissions of harmless carbon dioxide, at the expense of creating higher emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides.
My Times column on the EU's idiotic attack on vaping:
When regulation goes wrong, people call for more regulation. Sometimes, though, regulation is the cause of the original problem. It is steadily becoming clear that the way the European Union does regulation is especially pernicious. It stifles innovation, often favours danger over safety, plays into the hands of vested interests and is inflexible and unaccountable. Volkswagen’s case is the tip of the iceberg.
In a shocking new case about dangerous emissions coming to court this week, the European Commission has passed regulations that are certain — not likely, certain — to hit the cleanest and lowest-emitting products much harder than their dirty competitors. I am not talking about diesel versus (cleaner) petrol engines, though I could be. Nor am I talking about pesticides versus (cleaner) genetically modified crops. Nor wood-burning versus (cleaner) fracking. I am talking about smoking versus (cleaner) vaping.
My Times column on the possibility that old age might itself be cured now we understand telomeres:
Squeezed between falling birth rates and better healthcare, the world population is getting rapidly older. Learning how to deal with that is one of the great challenges of this century. The World Health Organisation has just produced a report on the implications of an ageing population, which — inadvertently — reveals a dismal fatalism we share about the illnesses of old age: that they will always be inevitable.
My Times column on Britain's renegotiation with the European Union:
So the battle lines are drawn. “Vote Leave, Take Control” (of which I am a vice-president) is the campaign to leave the European Union if the renegotiation is inadequate. It launched last week and “Britain in a Stronger Europe”, the campaign to remain, launches today. Yet one argument increasingly unites both sides: the futility of the renegotiation. At both ends of the spectrum many people are now convinced that little will be asked for, or offered, or won.
My Times column on farm yields and the prospects for feeding the world in future:
This week’s autumn equinox is traditionally the time for the harvest festival. I have just taken a ride on the combine harvester cutting wheat on my farm. It is such a sophisticated threshing machine that long gone are the days when I could be trusted to take the controls during the lunch break. A screen showed how the GPS was steering it, inch-perfect and hands-free, along the edge of the unharvested crop; another screen gave an instant readout of the yield. It was averaging over five tonnes per acre (or 12 tonnes per hectare) — a record.
My Times column on Nicole Kidman's performance as Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51:
It’s not been a good fortnight for actresses and scientific accuracy. Last week Emma Thompson told the BBC that the world will warm by 4C by 2030 — about 3.5C too high, according to the experts. This week Nicole Kidman, whose performance as the DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 begins its run on Monday, said she hopes to “put the spotlight” on the “inequality” of Franklin not getting the Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. “She was not nominated. That’s not right.”
This is a pernicious myth, no less wrong for being well meant. Franklin was not nominated for the Nobel prize in 1962 because she was dead. The rules of the prizes are clear: they are only granted to the living. Had she lived it is highly likely she would have been nominated. Given that the discovery of the double helix in February 1953 was one of the greatest moments in science — up there with gravity, relativity and natural selection — it is crucial we do not let actresses rewrite the history.
My Times column is on the risks of genetic research and therapy:
Fifteen years after the first sequencing of the human genome, the genetic engineering of human beings is getting closer. Will that mean designer babies and the rich winning life’s lotteries from the start? And will we ever stop this slither down the slippery slope to playing God? My answers are: no, and I hope not. Despite dire predictions, almost nothing but good has come from genetic technology so far, and we’ve proved that we don’t slip down such slopes: we tread carefully.
The current excitement is over gene editing. A precise way of doing this, called CRISPR-cas9, is all the rage among the white-coated pipette-users. Last week, Britain’s five leading medical research bodies (one of which, I should declare, counts me as a fellow, the Academy of Medical Sciences) issued a joint statement supporting the careful use of the new technique on human cells for research and possibly therapy. They even recognised that there might one day be a justifiable demand to use the new technique on embryos in such a way that the changes would be inherited.
My Times column on African demography and the migration crisis:
Even the most compassionate of European liberals must wonder at times whether this year’s migration crisis is just the beginning of a 21st- century surge of poor people that will overwhelm the rich countries of our continent. With African populations growing fastest, are we glimpsing a future in which the scenes we saw on the Macedonian border, or on Kos or in the seas around Sicily last week will seem tame?
I don’t think so. The current migration crisis is being driven by war and oppression, not demography. Almost two thirds of the migrants reaching Europe by boat this year are from three small countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. These are not even densely populated countries: their combined populations come to less than England’s, let alone Britain’s, and none of them is in the top 20 for population growth rates.
My Times column on charities:
David Cameron, luxuriating in the prospect of weak opposition, has a chance to think about radical reform of both the private and public sectors. But there is a third sector that requires his attention even more urgently. He is well known to want to harness the generosity of Britain. To do that effectively the charity sector needs some big thinking — because after decades of regulatory neglect it is starting to unravel and is in crisis.
The collapse of Kids Company and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering should ring alarm bells throughout the sector: fear of failure or takeover is one of the things that keep private companies effective and, for too long, charities have not felt that breath on their neck. They have been given the benefit of the doubt because of their noble intent.
My Times Thunderer article on vaping:
The government now says vaping with e-cigarettes is such a good thing that we should be prescribing it and smokers should be rushing to take it up. It’s 95 per cent less harmful than smoking, it’s helping people to quit tobacco and there’s no evidence it’s a gateway into smoking: rather the reverse.
My Wall Street Journal column on how green scares have led to counterproductive actions:
‘We’ve heard these same stale arguments before,” said President Obama in his speech on climate change last week, referring to those who worry that the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon-reduction plan may do more harm than good. The trouble is, we’ve heard his stale argument before, too: that we’re doomed if we don’t do what the environmental pressure groups tell us, and saved if we do. And it has frequently turned out to be really bad advice.
Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living, and it’s a competitive market, so they exaggerate. Virtually every environmental threat of the past few decades has been greatly exaggerated at some point. Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic, as Rachel Carson claimed in her 1962 book “Silent Spring”; acid rain was not devastating German forests, as the Green Party in that country said in the 1980s; the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind, as Al Gore warned in the 1990s. Yet taking precautionary action against pesticides, acid rain and ozone thinning proved manageable, so maybe not much harm was done.
My Times column on the paradox that planets seem to be abundant, but signs of life are rare:
The search for another world that can sustain life is getting warmer. We now know of 1,879 planets outside the solar system. A few weeks ago, we (the planetary we, that is: no thanks to me) found Earth’s twin, a planet of similar size and a habitable distance from its sun, but 1,400 light years from here. Last week we found a rocky planet close to a star just 21 light years away, which means if anybody lives there and tunes in to us, they could be watching the first episode of Friends.
Also last week the Philae lander’s results showed that the comet it is riding on has organic (carbon-based) molecules in its dust, the ingredients of life. Even in our own solar system we know of a moon, Titan, where it rains methane, and another, Europa, with an ice-covered ocean. In short, it is getting ever more likely that there are lots of bodies like Earth in our own galaxy alone: with liquid water and the right sort of temperatures for the carbon chemistry of the kind that life runs on here.
My Times column on the coming summit on climate policy in Paris:
The first council of Nicea, held 1,690 years ago this summer, decided upon a consensus about the nature of God, namely that the son had been “begotten not made, being of one substance with the father”, as Athanasius argued, and not created out of nothing, as Arius argued. Phew. Glad they settled that.
My Times column on the economy of Iceland:
I spent part of last week in Iceland, the antithesis of Greece. It’s been a hard winter and a cold spring up there, but despite the stiff northerly breeze off the Arctic ocean, economically speaking Iceland is basking in real warmth, while Greece shivers in financial winter. Iceland teaches a very acute lesson for Greece, Britain, Europe and the world: independence works.
My recent Times column on tax simplification:
Can we try tax simplification, please?
In June I published a lengthy essay in Quadrant magazine on the effect that the global warming debate is having on science itself:
For much of my life I have been a science writer. That means I eavesdrop on what’s going on in laboratories so I can tell interesting stories. It’s analogous to the way art critics write about art, but with a difference: we “science critics” rarely criticise. If we think a scientific paper is dumb, we just ignore it. There’s too much good stuff coming out of science to waste time knocking the bad stuff.
My Times column on Britain's opportunity to be the world's doctor:
If the 19th century saw extraordinary changes in transport, and the 20th saw amazing changes in communication, my money is on health as the transformative industry of the current century. It is already arguably the biggest industry in the world and it is growing at a phenomenal rate, especially in Asia, where India and China are expanding their health sectors at 15 per cent and 12 per cent a year respectively. And health is ripe for a series of revolutionary advances in biotechnology, digital technology, robotics and materials.
My Times Thunderer article on the pope's encyclical:
Why are people so down on technological progress? Pope Francis complains in his new encyclical about “a blind confidence in technical solutions”, of “irrational confidence in progress” and the drawbacks of the “technocratic paradigm”. He is reflecting a popular view, held across the political spectrum, from the Unabomber to Russell Brand, that technology, consumerism and progress have been bad for people, by making them more selfish and unhappy.
But however thoroughly you search the papal encyclical (a document that does at least pay heed to science, and to evolutionary biology in particular), you will find no data to support the claim that as people have got richer they have got nastier and more miserable. That is because the data points the other way. The past five decades have seen people becoming on average wealthier, healthier, happier, better fed, cleverer, kinder, more peaceful and more equal.
My Times column on the causes of extinction:
Human beings have been causing other species to go extinct at an unnatural rate over the past five centuries, a new study has confirmed. Whether this constitutes a “sixth mass extinction” comparable to that of the dinosaurs is more debatable, but bringing the surge in extinctions to an end is indeed an urgent priority in conservation.
So it is vital to understand how we cause extinctions. And here the study is dangerously wrong. It says that “habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change” are the main factors and that “all of these are related to human population size and growth, which increases consumption (especially among the rich)”.
My Spectator article on meeting the man who invented vaping, Hon Lik.
Few people have heard of Hon Lik, which is a pity because he’s probably saved more lives already than anybody else I have met. Twelve years ago, he invented vaping — the idea of getting nicotine vapour from an electronic device rather than a miniature bonfire between your lips. Vaping is driving smoking out at an extraordinary rate, promising to achieve what decades of public health measures have largely failed to do. And it is doing so without official encouragement, indeed with some official resistance.
My Times column on eco-modernism:
In the unlikely event that the G7 heads of state are reading The Times at breakfast in Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, may I make a humble suggestion? On their agenda, alongside Ukraine, Greece, ebola and Fifa, is Angela Merkel’s insistence that they discuss “sustainability”. The word is usually shorthand for subsidising things that are not commercially sustainable, but if they want to make it meaningful, they have a ready-made communiqué to hand. It comes in the form of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, a short but brilliant essay published online recently by 18 prominent greens. It gets sustainability right at last.
My recent Spectator diary:
Martin Williams, former head of the government’s air quality science unit, has declared that the reason we have a problem with air pollution now is that ‘policy has been focused on climate change, and reducing CO2 emissions, to the exclusion of much else, for most of the past two decades. Diesel was seen as a good thing because it produces less CO2, so we gave people incentives to buy diesel cars.’ Yet another example of how the global warming obsession has been bad for the environment — like subsidising biofuels, which encourage cutting down rainforests; or windfarms, which kill eagles and spoil landscapes; or denying coal-fired electricity to Africa, where millions die each year from the effects of cooking over smoky wood fires.
Greens are too hard on coal. If much of the world had not switched from wood to coal in the 1800s, we would have deforested the planet almost entirely. By 1860, Britain was getting as much energy from coal as a forest the size of Scotland could yield; today, we’d need a forest the size of South Africa. And coal produces less carbon dioxide than wood per unit of energy. I would say this, wouldn’t I? My ancestors were in coal from about 1700 and I still am, hosting a temporary surface mine on my land. It provides good jobs, lots of tax, a community benefits fund and an income windfall for local residents as well as me. Plus opportunities for spectacular restoration schemes, like Northumberlandia (look it up). It also helps keep electricity affordable.
My Times column on unaccountable chairmen of international agencies:
The Fifa fiasco is not just about football. It is also emblematic of a chronic problem with international bureaucracies of all kinds. The tendency of supranational quangos to become the personal fiefdoms of their presidents or directors-general, and to sink into lethargy or corruption, followed by brazen defiance when challenged, is not unique to Fifa or sport. It is an all too common pattern.
My Times column on the U-turn over cholesterol and saturated fat:
If you are reading this before breakfast, please consider having an egg. Any day now, the US government will officially accept the advice to drop cholesterol from its list of “nutrients of concern” altogether. It wants also to “de-emphasise” saturated fat, given “the lack of evidence connecting it with cardiovascular disease”.
My Times column on the flawed fossil-fuel divestment campaign:
Institutions and pension funds are under pressure to dump their investments in fossil-fuel companies. The divestment movement began in America, jumped the Atlantic and has become the cause célèbre of the retiring editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger. The idea is that if we do not “leave it in the ground”, the burning of all that carbon will fry the climate.
Some are resisting: the Wellcome Trust has politely declined to divest, saying it thinks it is better to keep the shares so it can lean on company executives to decarbonise; the University of Edinburgh unexpectedly voted last week not to divest, using a similar argument; and Boris Johnson has just rejected a motion by the London Assembly to divest its pension funds of fossil-fuel shares. The Church of England has cunningly confined its divestment to “thermal coal” and Canadian oil sands companies, getting good publicity but not having to sell many shares.
My review in The Times of Dieter Helm's book Natural Capital:
The easiest way to get a round of applause at a conference of ecologists is to make a rude joke about economists. Nature-studiers think money-studiers are heartless vandals who demand the rape of Mother Nature in the quest to build up piles of financial assets at the expense of natural ones. Dieter Helm, an Oxford professor, is a professional economist but he is bravely crossing the floor into ecology and wants to show how to build up “natural capital”.
Extreme greens — those who advocate giving up civilisation and handing the planet back to nature — will not like it. Not a man to pull his punches, Helm thinks economic growth is a good thing for poor people, that the followers of Malthus have “never appreciated the full impact of technology on resource scarcity” and that “a sort of totalitarianism lurks uncomfortably and implicitly in some of the manifestos of more extreme green groups”.
My Times column on bee declines and neonicotinoid pesticides:
So those beastly farmers want the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides lifted to help them to poison more bees, eh? Britain’s honeybees are supposedly declining and so are our 25 species of bumblebee and 230 species of solitary bee. “Almost all are in decline,” laments one of the green blob’s tame journalists, echoing thousands of other articles.
But it’s bunk. There is no continuing decline in honeybee or wild bee numbers. There was in the 1980s when the varroa mite hit bee hives. But not today. Honeybee numbers are higher today than they were in the 1990s when neo-nics began to be widely used. This is true in Europe, North America and the world. There are about ten million more beehives in the world today than there were in 2000.
My Times column on reform as a political theme:
If there is political paralysis on Friday, as seems likely, and given how many of their powers national politicians have anyway passed to bodies like the Bank of England and the European Commission, perhaps we can look forward to a spell of legislative calm. That might be no bad thing. But there is one thing even a weak minority government can and should do: reform.
The great political battles that shaped the history of parliament, especially in the 19th century, were all about reform. Prison reform, social reform, moral reform, civil service reform, reform of the corn laws, above all parliamentary reform. The very purpose of the old Liberal party, meeting in the Reform Club, was reform.
My Times column on a perverse outcome of the election:
In one respect last week’s election result has made David Cameron’s life more difficult. While gaining seats in the Commons from the Liberal Democrats, he has effectively lost them in the Lords. That is to say, the 101 Lib Dem peers will presumably all cross the aisle from the government benches to the opposition benches when the Lords next meet.
My Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal:
Imagine what it must have been like to look through the first telescopes or the first microscopes, or to see the bottom of the sea as clearly as if the water were gin. This is how students of human prehistory are starting to feel, thanks to a new ability to study ancient DNA extracted from bodies and bones in archaeological sites.
Low-cost, high-throughput DNA sequencing—a technique in which millions of DNA base-pairs are automatically read in parallel—appeared on the scene less than a decade ago. It has already transformed our ability to see just how the genes of human beings, their domestic animals and their diseases have changed over thousands or tens of thousands of years.
My column in The Times is on the undeniable truth that western countries are preventing Africans getting access to the cheapest power, which is fossil-fuelled.
In what is probably the silliest comment on climate since a Ukip councillor blamed floods on gay marriage, a green journalist opined of the refugees dying in the Mediterranean: “This is what climate crisis looks like . . . We know there is evidence that the violence triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were in part fuelled by protests over soaring food prices.”
The soaring prices were actually exacerbated (as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN confirmed) by the diversion of much of the world’s farmland into making motor fuel, in the form of ethanol and biodiesel, for the rich to salve their green consciences. Climate policies were probably a greater contributor to the Arab Spring than climate change itself.
My Times column argues that only high-tech innovation will give us the cash to fund our future, so why won’t Cameron or Miliband talk about it?
Fifty years ago yesterday, a young computer expert called Gordon Moore pointed out that the number of transistors on a silicon chip seemed to be doubling every year or two and that if this went on it would “lead to such wonders as home computers . . . and personal portable communications equipment”.
My review of Nick Lane's book The Vital Question in The Times:
Nick Lane is not just a writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind. He can now tell a story of how, when and where life started, and what happened to it in its early days. Most of that story looks as if it is true.
Life uses information (stored in DNA) to capture energy (which it stores in a chemical called ATP) to create order. Humans burn prodigious amounts of energy — we generate about 10,000 times as much energy per gram as the sun. The sun is hotter only because it is much bigger. We use energy to create and maintain intricate cellular and bodily complexity, the opposite of entropy, just as we do in the economy, where the harnessing of power from burning fuel enables us to build skyscrapers and aeroplanes. But we — and here “we” means all living creatures, including bacteria — have an idiosyncratic way of trapping energy to make it useful. We pump protons across lipid membranes.
My Times column on Britain's remarkable and unexpected plunge in unemployment and what lies behind it:
Five years ago, almost nobody expected that inflation would vanish, as tomorrow’s figures are expected to show, or that unemployment would plummet, as Friday’s numbers will confirm. Whatever else you think about this government, there is no doubt it has presided over an astonishing boom in job creation like nowhere else in the developed world.
The milestones are impressive: an average of a thousand new jobs a day over five years; unemployment down by almost half a million in a year; a jobless rate half the eurozone’s; more jobs created than in the rest of Europe put together; more people in work, more women in work, more disabled people in work than ever; the highest percentage of the population in work since records began. All this while the public sector has been shedding 300 jobs a day.
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 priorities:
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 fossil fuels.
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 progress.
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 sparing:
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 given.
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 longer exist.
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 of commerce.
My recent column in The Times is on wildlife conservation:
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 micturating bats.
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 effect.
My Times column on genetic modification of crops:
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 crops.
My Times column on cancer, luck and good deaths:
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.
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 an end.
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 of automation.
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 thought.
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 average voter.
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 they are.
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 it means:
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 lives”.
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 article below.
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.
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 meat.
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 wind farms.
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 Aids.
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 vindicated.
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 generates.
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 for Education.
My Times column tackles the misleading metaphor of the slippery slope:
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 sticky.
My Times column on the BBC's unbalanced environmental coverage:
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 metres?
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 damned.
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 budget.
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 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 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 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 holiday Moonday.
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 Fund).
My Times column is on economic projections for the year 2100.
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 today.
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"
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 never happened.
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 inconvenient results:
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 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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
My latest column in The Times:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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
I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the
subject of climate sensitivity.
1. The article
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."
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
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.
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 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.
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 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
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 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
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."
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 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
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?
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.
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.
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
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 Journal:
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 unsettling.
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 cent worldwide.
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 turbines'.
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.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on dematerialisation:
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 memory.
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 just might.
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 better shape.
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 it.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the good and the bad consequences of our surprising internet honesty:
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 phone.
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 scientific puzzle.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on gene-culture co-evolution:
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 melanin.
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 wave.
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 Journal: 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 the increase.
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.
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 regions.
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 1975.
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 Journal: 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 their work.
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 text: 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 of 1086.
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 financial newspaper: 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 destruction.
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 dreams:
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 end. 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: http://www.nationalpost.com/search/site/story.asp?id=045D5241-FD00-4773-B816-76222A771778
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 activity:
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 Journal: 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 underlying rock.
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.
Here's an 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 excerpt:
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 wrong.
"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 quasi-scientists."
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 John Hoover.)
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.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
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 billionth.)
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 now.
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 book here.
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 better:
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 Economist.
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 Street Journal:
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 the race.
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 ten years.
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 pipe.
Fenbeagle has done a cartoon featuring a rational optimist...
From My latest Mind and Matter Column at he Wall Street Journal:
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 explanations.
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 without language.
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. national debt.
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 are huge:
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 Street Journal
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 language.
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 take it?
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 theories.
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 750,000 views.
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 forest.
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 other groups.
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 battle.
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.
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.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal
"It's strange that I could become a professional athlete," said the Australian winner of this summer's Tour de France, Cadel Evans. "Physically, I was completely unsuitable for almost all Australian school sports. Nearly all Australian school sports require speed and/or size."
Belatedly, here is last week's Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal.
I once had a soft spot for the yeti, known in my youth as the "abominable snowman." As a teenager I avidly devoured stories of hairy bipeds glimpsed through snowstorms, strange cries echoing across glaciers, or enigmatic footprints in the snow. Slowly it dawned on me that the testimony was unreliable, the ecology implausible, the demography impossible and the lack of specimens conclusive.
The Scientific Alliance newsletter has an interesting update on GM food. The public no longer feels the visceral fear of these crops that they did 13 years ago, even in Europe. But finding ways for politicians to climb off their high horses, without upsetting their masters in the Big Green organisations, is not proving easier. Here are three extracts:
Many farmers seem to like GM crops. Only 15 years after they were first commercialised, 148 million hectares were sown with biotech seeds around the world in 2010, a 10% increase over the previous year. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (www.isaaa.org), 15.4 million individual farmers grew GM crops, over 90% of them in developing countries. This is not unexpected: agriculture has evolved over the centuries by farmers trying and adopting new technology if they see a benefit. Crop biotechnology is just one more step on the road, and certainly not the last...
This anti-biotech activity has firm roots in the broader environmentalist and anti-globalisation movements. For most of the public, crop biotechnology is generally now a non-issue, and greater availability of GM crops - without taking away the critical element of choice - would be unlikely to cause a real furore in many countries, except amongst the activist minority. But that relies on governments taking the scientific advice of EFSA and allowing more approvals...
Update: I failed to make clear that negative numbers in the drought severity index implies worse droughts. The two findings below contradict each other. Here is another "greening", of the Sahel:
Here's (belatedly) a piece I published in the Times last week.
British Gas is putting up the cost of heating and lighting the average home by up to 18 per cent, or about £200 a year. Indignation at its profiteering is understandable. But that can only be a part of the story: the combined profits of the big six energy supply companies amount to less than 1.5 per cent of your energy bill, according to the regulator, Ofgem.
Mark Lynas's new book The God Species contains a few pages that dispute my account of ocean acidification in particular. Mark kindly alerted me to this and asked for my reaction. The result was an exchange, which Mark has put up on his blog here, which I mirror here. I thank Mark for taking my arguments seriously and suggesting an exchange of ideas.
Lynas: In my book The God Species I take science writer Matt Ridley to task for downplaying the dangers of ocean acidification. He responded via email, and I to him. Here is the exchange. Matt's final short responses are also included, indented as 'Ridley2′. Square brackets are mine, for clarification.
Ridley: You say [in The God Species]: "Why not just admit candidly that whilst the human advance has been amazing and hugely beneficial, it has also had serious environmental impacts?" Answer: I do. Human beings have serious environmental impacts. I say so and I do not deny them. For example: "Take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution, silt, nutrient runoff and fishing - especially the harvesting of herbivorous fishes that otherwise keep reefs clean of algae." From megafaunal extinction to alteration of the composition of the atmosphere, I detail lots of changes wrought by humans. On both climate change and ocean acidification, I accept a human alteration of the environment as real. What I argue with is whether the negative impacts are always as great as claimed or the positive ones always as small as claimed. That's quite different from not admitting that there are impacts, serious and otherwise.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the strange phenomenon of contagious cancer in dogs and Tasmanian devils, and whether it could happen to us. Elizabeth Murchison is speaking about this at the TED Global meeting in Edinburgh next week.
Frank Dikotter's fine -- and vital -- book on Mao's Great famine won the Samuel Johnson prize. But you can see a short film and a discussion about my book on the BBC Culture showhere(from minute 17.17 onwards). It's an honour to have made it to the shortlist.
Nic Lewis's discovery of a statistical alteration applied by the IPCC lends strong support to lukwarming
As most people know, I am a lukewarmer -- somebody who accepts carbon dioxide's full greenhouse potential, but does not accept the much more dubious evidence for net positive feedbacks on top, and who therefore thinks that a temperatuire rise of more than 2C in this century is unlikely.
Driving home the other day it occurred to me that almost none of the greenery I could see-trees, garden shrubs, grass shoulders on the highway-was going to be used by humans for food, fuel, clothing or shelter.
New evidence has been published that the Great Barrier Reef is not in trouble from climate change. The effects of bleaching are short-lived and reversible. When I said this in my book, I was patronised from a great height by a bunch of marine biologists in New Scientist. Will they, and New Scientist, now apologise? As I keep saying, coral reefs are indeed under threat from man-made problems -- pollution, overfishing, run-off, but climate change is the least of their worries. Here's the abstract of Osborne et al's paper in PLOS One:
Coral reef ecosystems worldwide are under pressure from chronic and acute stressors that threaten their continued existence. Most obvious among changes to reefs is loss of hard coral cover, but a precise multi-scale estimate of coral cover dynamics for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is currently lacking. Monitoring data collected annually from fixed sites at 47 reefs across 1300 km of the GBR indicate that overall regional coral cover was stable (averaging 29% and ranging from 23% to 33% cover across years) with no net decline between 1995 and 2009. Subregional trends (10-100 km) in hard coral were diverse with some being very dynamic and others changing little. Coral cover increased in six subregions and decreased in seven subregions. Persistent decline of corals occurred in one subregion for hard coral and Acroporidae and in four subregions in non-Acroporidae families. Change in Acroporidae accounted for 68% of change in hard coral. Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) outbreaks and storm damage were responsible for more coral loss during this period than either bleaching or disease despite two mass bleaching events and an increase in the incidence of coral disease. While the limited data for the GBR prior to the 1980's suggests that coral cover was higher than in our survey, we found no evidence of consistent, system-wide decline in coral cover since 1995. Instead, fluctuations in coral cover at subregional scales (10-100 km), driven mostly by changes in fast-growing Acroporidae, occurred as a result of localized disturbance events and subsequent recovery.
Here's what i wrote in my book.
Walter Russell Mead is always worth reading. Now he has written a two-part essay on Al Gore and the climate debate (part one; part two) that is, I think, very perceptive. It is angry, hard-hitting, and I don't agree with everything in it, but it somehow gets to to the core of the issue in a way that so much other commentary has not. This is the sort of old-fashioned polemic from somebody with historical perspective that has been lacking on this subject. Here's his conclusion:
The green movement's core tactic is not to "hide the decline" or otherwise to cook the books of science. Its core tactic to cloak a comically absurd, impossibly complex and obviously impractical political program in the authority of science. Let anyone attack the cretinous and rickety construct of policies, trade-offs, offsets and bribes by which the greens plan to govern the world economy in the twenty first century, and they attack you as an anti-science bigot.
The Rational Optimist is one of 13 books long-listed for the Royal Society Book prize for science books. If I make it to the shortlist, this will be my fifth time on this shortlist. (I have yet to win, though!)
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on cancer and evolution by natural selection:
Last week the American Cancer Society reported that death rates from cancer are falling steadily, at an annual rate of about 1.9% in men and 1.5% in women. A study published this week by the University of Colorado found that most seniors who died after being diagnosed with breast cancer actually lived long enough to have died of something else.
Prevention explains much of the decline in cancer fatalities, especially the drop in smoking. As for treatment, the most promising new options harness the very force that makes cancer so stubbornly virulent in the first place: evolution.
The Rational Optimist has been short-listed for the Samuel Johnson prize for the best non-fiction book of 2010.
From Andrew Bolt:
One German organic farm has killed twice as many people as the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Gulf Oil spill combined.
I have an article in The Conversation, an Australian idea forum:
I missed this news last month. For the second time in history, human beings have eradicated a disease altogether. This time it is rinderpest, which people cannot get, only cattle so it's not such big news as smallpox or (soon?) polio.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about what happens when hoaxers own up and nobody believes them. In the interest of space, I had to leave on the cutting room floor my favourite, though fictional, example. In The Life of Brian, Brian insists he is not the Messiah. A woman in the crowd then shouts: ``Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!''
Here's the column:
I have written the following review of Tim Harford's book Adapt, for Nature magazine:
Charles Darwin's big idea - that blind trial and error can progressively build a powerful simulacrum of purposeful design - got pigeonholed under biology. Yet it always had wider implications in economics, technology and culture. Darwin probably drew some elements of his bottom-up thinking from the political philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment, notably Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Biology is now returning the favour.
Books such as Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From (Allen Lane, 2010), Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants (Viking Books, 2010) and Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009) are suffused with concepts from natural selection, as is my own, The Rational Optimist (Fourth Estate, 2010). Tim Harford's Adapt follows this tradition, focusing on the key role of failure - the 'error' in trial and error - in economic and social progress.
I have the following op-ed in today's Times:
Oxfam's chief executive, Dame Barbara Stocking, claimed this week in a BBC interview that there will "absolutely not be enough food" to feed the world's population in a few decades' time.
Such certainty about the future is remarkable, so I downloaded Oxfam's new "report" with interest. Once I got past the fundraising banners, I found a series of assertions that there is a food crisis caused by failures of government "to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest, which means that companies, interest groups and elites are able to plunder resources and to redirect flows of finance, knowledge, and food". Oxfam is calling for "a new global governance" - effectively the nationalisation of the world food system.
A recent paper in the journal Nature concluded that species extinction caused by habitat loss is happening less than half as fast as usually estimated. The normal method for calculating rates of extinction assumes that doomed species merely cling temporarily to a shrunken patch of habitat, on their way to disappearing (an idea called "extinction debt"). Apparently, this isn't the case: Although a larger patch of habitat has more species in it, shrinking a patch does not lead to a proportional rate of species loss.
According to the authors of the study, the biologists Stephen Hubbell and Fangliang He, estimates of extinction rates based on the usual method are "almost always much higher than those actually observed." Though you need a big patch of forest to attract a rare species, you do not need such a big patch to retain it once it is there. Mr. Hubbell added: "The method has got to be revised. It is not right."
I sent this letter to the Financial Times:
Sir, Gideon Rachman ("In defence of gloomy columnists", May 24) is right to point out that terrible blips will still happen in an improving world. Another way of making the same point is that good news tends to be gradual, incremental and barely visible, while bad news almost by definition comes in sudden, newsworthy lumps: wars, crashes, disasters, epidemics. It is impossible to see a field of wheat growing, but easy to see it washed away by a flood.
My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
It turns out I was right to be sceptical about the Howarth study claiming that shale gas production produces more greenhouse gases than coal.
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.
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 desires?
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.
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 technologies.
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 fuel reserves:
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 drifting south.
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 & Sovereignty.
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 on.
The Rational Optimist has also won a silver medal Axiom 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 system.
DC: "...you start counting some people's votes more than once".
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 examples.]
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 DEBASED"
Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the year than I said. See below.
A meditation on the English spring I wrote for yesterday's Times:
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 drastic.
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 birthday:
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 inflammation.
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.
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."
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 than speech.
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.
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."
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 was
What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?
My answer was this:
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 asserted.
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.
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.
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.
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?
"The broad generalisations that label Africa a continent of failure and business losses are plain wrong. They are part of that same pessimism that insists the only products worth investing in are misery and minerals."
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.
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.
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.
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
Here is Sunday'sNew York Times variety puzzlewhose
solution was a nice surprise for me (hat tip Steve
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.
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.
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
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) -
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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%.
Today at TED Global in Oxford, among other great talks, I was
blown away by this graph, shown by David McCandless.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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:
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
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)
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:
David Brooks in the New York Times has news of a
contrarian finding about the internet:
Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the
Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than
old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association - like meeting
people at work, at church or through community groups. You're more
likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own
I am no expert on jet engines, but my suspicions from the very
beginning that the European authorities were over-reacting to
Iceland's ash cloud are hardening with every day. Of course flying
into an actual ash plume is dangerous, but that does not make a
well dispersed haze of ash dangerous.
It now turns out Europe's reaction was more extreme than
America's would have been. And airlines are increasingly calling
the bluff of the aviation authorities by doing test flights.
Politicians have been characteristically slow and useless. See here:
The International Air Transport
Association...expressed its "dissatisfaction with how governments
have managed it, with no risk assessment, no consultation, no
coordination, and no leadership"
Bishop Hill is doing a great job of following
the various inquiries into the climate emails.
The unthoroughness, biased membership and gullibility of the
Oxburgh and Russell inquiries has the effect on a lukewarmer like
me of driving me further into the sceptical camp. If the case for
man made global warming needs this much flagrant whitewashing, then
maybe, I begin to think, the exaggerations and mistakes are not
just the result of sloppiness, but are part of a deliberate attempt
to camouflage the truth to keep the gravy train on the track. If
the science was any good then it could stand proper scrutiny.
As Christpher Booker writes:
One of the themes in my forthcoming book is that there are huge
vested interests trying to prevent good news reaching the public.
That is to say, in the ruthless free-market struggle that goes on
between pressure groups for media attention and funds, nobody likes
to have it said that `their' problem is not urgent and getting
The lengths that acid rain alarmists in the EPA went to to
prevent the result of the NAPAP study reaching Congress before
crucial votes in the early 1990s is well documented, and this was when this
phenomenon first dawned on me. But now I see it everywhere.
Journalists rarely challenge pressure groups' claims of urgency
and deterioration, because those are the two things that get
editors' attention, too.
The sky's bright blue right now, which is weird because I am
looking up through a 5,000-metre thick plume of volcanic ash from
Iceland. This has stopped all flights in the UK air space and much
of northern Europe.
(As somebody quipped on the radio, `Dear Iceland, we said send
So there are no vapour condensation trails from jets, which
prompts the thought: did anybody ever figure out what con trails do
to the climate?
A scientist does a study of how Arctic seabirds die. It's not a
bad idea: die they do, but not from the usual diseases and
predators that kill birds in more temperate zones. So what does
He pores over thousands of records from birdwatchers in the
Arctic and concludes that weather-related events kill a lot of
them. Fulmars run into cliffs in fog, Murres get buried in
landslides when cliffs collapse. Birds get swept away in
storms. And so on.
Now the scientist has two options. He can say in a paper that a
lot of Arctic birds die due to `factors related to weather' and
bask in perpetual obscurity. Or he can slip in, just before the
word `weather', the phrase `climate and'.
Please look at these four objects below
I will have a lot to say in The Rational Optimist about
It's an easy trap, to think that the past was better or more
free than the present. It's not hard to show that the past was
poorer for most people, but was it more free?
Conservatives and libertarians often like to imply that life was
better in the old days, because the weight of bureaucratic
government rested lighter on people's shoulders, but
even socialists like Rousseau, Engels or William Morris
used to hark back to noble savagery, egalitarian peasantry or
Merrie medieval England before the Norman yoke for their golden
age. Back in the golden age itself, Hesiod was complaining that
things were worse than they used to be.
The thing about tightly coordinated flocks of birds is that they
can't work by top-down planning and they can't be anarchic
free-for-alls either. Now comes news that they are in between:
there is no single leader but some birds are more influential than
others in which way the flock turns.
Here's what the researchers, led by Dr Dora Biro of
The authors say that a hierarchical
arrangement may foster more flexible and efficient decision-making
compared with that of singly led or egalitarian groups. In future
studies, the scientists plan to investigate whether leaders are
better navigators, and whether hierarchies persist in larger groups
and in other types of social animal. "If it's true that there's an
evolutionary advantage to making decisions in this way, then
there's absolutely a reason to assume that it could have evolved in
other species too," Biro says.
Science is not the cataloguing of facts or the
accumulation of knowledge. It is the production of ignorance.
Scientists are in the business of finding new seams of
As Jennifer Doudna at U C Berkeley puts it in Erika Check
Hayden's Nature article about the tenth anniversary of the
first draft of the human genome sequence:
"The more we know, the more we realize
there is to know."
Unintentionally hilarious juxtaposition of remarks in an article
by the climate scientist James Hansen:
This is not the 17th century, when
"beliefs" trumped science, forcing Galileo to recant his
understanding of the solar system
David Brooks on why America's future is
In sum, the U.S. is on the verge of a
demographic, economic and social revival, built on its historic
strengths. The U.S. has always been good at disruptive change. It's
always excelled at decentralized community-building. It's always
had that moral materialism that creates meaning-rich products.
Surely a country with this much going for it is not going to wait
around passively and let a rotten political culture drag it
The Telegraph: Missing link between man and apes found.
The Sunday Times: Fossil from cave is a 'missing link'
From Maggie Koerth Baker at boingboing.net, a fascinating
how fresh and wondrous electricity seemed to Americans in 1916.
Pity she spoils it by an attempt at finding the cloud in the silver
lining at the end.
Centralized electricity changed energy
production from a difficult, in-home process that kept the messy
by-products of progress literally in your face, into something
magical that happened when you threw a switch. The choking smoke
was still there, but not at your house. There was still heavy labor
involved, but it wasn't done by you or your children. For the first
time, people were able to pretend that their standard of living was
provided, free of downsides, by little elves that lived in the
wall. All benefit, no detriment. Action without consequences. In
other words, this is the point where everybody went a little bit
The beauty is that this is still happening in parts of Africa
and Asia. A report on the Philippines estimated that
each family derives $108 a month in benefits from
connecting to the electricity grid - cheaper lighting ($37),
cheaper radio and television ($19), more years in education ($20),
time saving ($24) and business productivity ($8). As the
miracle of electricity reaches a village, people inhale less smoke,
read more school books, cut down fewer trees and find time to do
other things that earn them more money.
Breathless reporting last week of a new estimate of Greenland's
It's higher than it was before:
"The changes on the Greenland ice sheet are happening fast, and
we are definitely losing more ice mass than we had anticipated,"
says study co-author Isabella Velicogna of the University of
A fine analysis by Ted Nordhaus and Michael
Shellenberger of the way that climate science has been
distorted by environmentalism. They write:
"The result has been an ever-escalating
set of demands on climate science, with greens and their allies
often attempting to represent climate science as apocalyptic,
imminent, and certain, in no small part so that they could
characterize all resistance as corrupt, anti-scientific,
short-sighted, or ignorant. Greens pushed climate scientists to
become outspoken advocates of action to address global
warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise
were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate
scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and
misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the
Those of us who love science - the habit of licensed curiosity,
not the bureaucratic machine - have been increasingly dismayed by
the way that its high priests have been behaving over the climate
issue: trying to politicize, propagandise and polarize where
they should be questioning, debating and being awkward. The most
shocking thing to me about 'Climategate' was not the emails, but
the any-excuse-will-do reaction to them from the scientific
Chiffchaffs are the first summer visitors to arrive, around here
at least, and their distinctive song is hard to miss, and one day
near the vernal equinox suddenly there they are. I have
written down the date in my diary most years since 1990. Last night
I went back through the diaries and collated the data. It's hardly
scientific, but notice there is absolutely no sign of a drift
towards earlier arrival: if anything the reverse.
Yet here is whatThe Telegraph says:
Woke to find the newspapers all claiming a new "species" of
human being discovered in central Asia. Here's the Guardian:
"The finding suggests an undocumented human species lived
alongside Neanderthals and early modern humans in parts
of Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago."
Leave aside the fact that it's just a bone from a little finger,
leave aside the fact that they have only sequenced
some mitochondrial DNA, not nuclear DNA. Assume, for the
sake of argument, that they have ruled out contamination. Applaud -
as we should - the achievement of recovering DNA from the fossil
and sequencing it.
So Man flu is not a myth, because testosterone
inhibits the immune response.
This has been known to biologists for ages. In The Red Queen, I challenged readers to explain
why bodies should be designed that way: why set up an immune system
in such a way that it gets hindered by normal hormonal action? I
still find it baffling. Over the years readers took up my challenge
and wrote to me. They still do. Their answers nearly always boil
down to a version of this: to weed out weedy males. That is to say,
if males cannot both keep their testosterone levels up
and resist disease they don't deserve to contribute to posterity's
Trouble is, like all group selectionist arguments, it's
vulnerable to the evolutionary free rider. Along comes a mutant
animal that breaks the link between testosterone and illness and
hey presto it can breed away to its gonads' content, propagating
its subprime genes as if they were triple A.
Very nice piece ofrational optimism
My Times column on skilled versus unskilled migration and Brexit:
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