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 article from The Times:
With tariffs announced against Brazil and Argentina, and a threat against France, Donald Trump is dragging the world deeper into a damaging trade war. Largely unnoticed, the European Union is also in trouble at the World Trade Organisation for its continuing and worsening record as a protectionist bloc.
Last month, at the WTO meeting in Geneva, India joined a list of countries including Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Malaysia that have lodged formal complaints against the EU over barriers to agricultural imports. Not only does the EU raise hefty tariffs against crops such as rice and oranges to protect subsidised European farmers; it also uses health and safety rules to block imports. The irony is that these are often dressed up as precautionary measures against health and environmental threats, when in fact they are sometimes preventing Europeans from gaining health and environmental benefits.
My Times review of Gareth Williams's new book Unravelling The Double Helix.
Who discovered DNA? James Watson and Francis Crick, right? Wrong. Eighty years before they even approached the topic, in 1868, a young Swiss researcher, Friedrich Miescher, working at the University of Tübingen, discovered DNA as a chemical substance, though not its revealing structure.
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 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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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”.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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”.
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?
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 Times column on the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo:
In Waterloo week, I confess I am a sucker for tales of military glory. I cannot get enough of the closing of the doors of Hougoumont, the charge of the Scots Greys, Wellington’s use of the reverse slope, the moment when Ney’s Old Guard broke, or the disappearance of Lord Uxbridge’s leg. Not just Waterloo, but derring-do in general is often by my bedside: I’ve just finished reading books on climbing K2 and the Battle of the Bulge; I am up to speed on seracs and panzers.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
My recent Times column was on the stagnation of European economic growth rates:
The financial crisis was supposed to have discredited the “Anglo-Saxon” model of economic management as surely as the fall of the Berlin wall discredited communism. Yet last week’s numbers on economic growth show emphatically the opposite. The British economy is up 3.2 per cent in a year, having generated an astonishing 820,000 jobs. We are behaving more like Canada, Australia and America than Europe.
If you think one year is too short, consider that (as David Smith pointed out in the Sunday Times) Britain’s GDP is now 30 per cent higher than it was in 1999, whereas Germany, France and Italy are just 18 per cent, 17 per cent and 3 per cent more prosperous respectively. For all Britain’s huge debt burden, high taxes and chronic problems, we do still seem to be able to grow the economy. Thank heavens we stayed out of the euro.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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
My review of Gregory Zuckerman's book The Frackers appeared in The Times on 23
In the long tradition of serendipitous mistakes that led to
great discoveries, we can now add a key moment in 1997. Nick
Steinsberger, an engineer with Mitchell Energy, was supervising the
hydraulic fracturing of a gas well near Fort Worth, Texas, when he
noticed that the gel and chemicals in the “fracking fluid” were not
mixing properly. So the stuff being pumped underground to crack the
rock was too watery, not as gel-like as it should be.
Steinsberger noticed something else, though. Despite the mistake
in mixing the fracking fluid, the well was producing a respectable
amount of gas. Over a beer at a baseball game a few weeks later he
mentioned it to a friend from a rival company who said they had had
good results with watery fracks elsewhere. Steinsberger attempted
to persuade his bosses to try removing nearly all the chemicals
from the fluid and using mostly water. They thought he was mad
since everybody knew that, while water might open cracks in
sandstone, in clay-containing shale it would seal them shut as the
I know very little about what is being discussed
inside the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the
Chinese Communist party, which started at the weekend. The meeting
is being held in secret — although one of the subjects to be
discussed is said to be greater government transparency. About all
we know is that “unprecedented” economic and social reforms are
being discussed, including such things as rural property rights.
But, to judge by a new wave of Mao worship, persecution of
dissidents and reinforced censorship, political reform is less
likely than economic.
In other words, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to
continue pulling off the trick that has served it ever since Deng
Xiaoping defeated the Gang of Four: more economic freedom combined
with less political freedom. The people can choose any good or
service they want — except their government. In many ways it has
worked extremely well. In 1978 Maoism had left the country horribly
poor: more than half the people of China tried to live on less than
a dollar a day. Over the next nine years per capita income doubled,
then doubled again over the nine years after that.
Many a left-leaning Western politician has been heard to muse
about how much better we would grow if only we directed the market
economy with the single-mindedness of the Chinese Communist Party.
In the same way many a right-leaning Western politician has long
admired the Singapore of Lee Kwan Yew on the same grounds. See,
they mutter, a paternalistic government is best at generating
This morning’s brief strike by the Fire Brigades
Union, like the one last Friday evening, will, I suspect, mostly
serve to remind those who work in the private sector just how well
remunerated many in the public sector still are. The union objects
to the raising of the retirement age from 55 to 60, on a generous
final-salary pension scheme, with good job security. These are
conditions few of those who work for private firms or for
themselves can even dream of.
In my case, as somebody always on the look-out for
under-reported good news stories, it also served to alert me to
just how dramatic the fall in “demand” for firefighters has been.
Intrigued by the strike, I looked up the numbers and found to my amazement that in
2011, compared with just a decade before, firefighters attended 48
per cent fewer fires overall; 39 per cent fewer building fires; 44
per cent fewer minor outdoor fires; 24 per cent fewer road-traffic
collisions; 8 per cent fewer floods — and 40 per cent fewer
incidents overall. The decline has if anything accelerated since
That is to say, during a period when the population and the
number of buildings grew, we needed to call the fire brigade much,
much less. Most important of all, the number of people dying in
fires in the home has fallen by 60 per cent compared with the
1980s. The credit for these benign changes goes at least partly to
technology — fire-retardant materials, self-extinguishing
cigarettes, smoke alarms, sprinklers, alarms on cookers — much of
which was driven by sensible regulation. Fewer open fires and fewer
people smoking, especially indoors, must have helped too. There is
little doubt that rules about such things have saved lives, as even
most libertarians must concede.
My Times article on the storm that was to hit
Britain on 28 October. In the event, four or five people died.
Disruption to transport lasted only a few days.
If you are reading this with the hatches battened
down, it may not be much comfort to know that 2013 has been an
unusually quiet year for big storms. For the first time in 45 years
no hurricane above Category 1 has made landfall from the Atlantic
by this date, and only two in that category, confounding an
official US government forecast of six to nine hurricanes in the
Atlantic, three to five of which would be big. Even if the last
month of the hurricane season is bad, it will have been a quiet
My Times article:
The real problem with nuclear power is the scale of it. After
decades of cost inflation, driven mostly by regulations to redouble
safety, 1600 megawatt monsters cost so much and take so long to
build that only governments can afford to borrow the money to build
them. Since Britain borrowing £14 billion extra is not really an
option, then we have to find somebody else’s nationalized industry
to do it, and guarantee high returns, as if it were a big PFI
My 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 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.
Tomorrow the House of Lords gives a second reading
to Lord Sharkey’s Bill to pardon Alan Turing, the mathematician,
computer pioneer and code-cracking hero of the Second World
In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for being gay (he had reported a
burglary to the police and made it no secret that the burglar was a
friend of his consensual lover). Convicted of “gross indecency” he
was offered prison or oestrogen injections to reduce his libido; he
chose the latter but then committed suicide at the age of 41.
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.
Exciting as Britain’s latest shale gas estimate is
— 47 years’ supply or more — it pales beside what is happening in
the United States. There shale gas is old hat; the shale oil
revolution is proving a world changer, promising not just lower oil
prices worldwide, but geopolitical ripples as America weans itself
off oil imports and perhaps loses interest in the Middle East.
One of the pioneers of the shale gas revolution, Chris Wright,
of Liberty Resources, was in Britain last month. It was he and his
colleagues at Pinnacle Technologies who reinvented hydraulic
fracturing in the late 1990s in a way that unlocked the vast
petroleum resources in shale. Within seven years the Barnett shale,
in and around Forth Worth, Texas, was producing half as much gas as
the whole of Britain consumes. And the Barnett proved to be a baby
compared with other shales.
Preventing cancer is proving a lot easier than
curing it. The announcement that the NHS will fund five-year
courses of the drugs tamoxifen or raloxifene for healthy women who
are genetically predisposed to get breast and ovarian cancer is
overdue. The US has been doing “chemo-prevention” for some time and
clinical trials have confirmed that the benefits comfortably
outweigh the side-effects. Tens of thousands of deaths a year could
This is another incremental advance in the prevention of cancer
that began with the gradual recognition (resisted, ironically, by
some of those fighting pesticides in the late 1950s) that tobacco
smoke was a chief cause of lung cancer. Mainly thanks to such
prevention, along with early diagnosis, surgery and some
treatments, deaths from cancer, adjusted for age, are falling.
My column in the Times on 20 June 2013:
In the Energy Bill going through Parliament there
is allowance for generous subsidy for a huge push towards burning
wood to produce electricity. It’s already happening. Drax power
station in Yorkshire has converted one of its boilers to burn wood
pellets instead of coal; soon three of its six boilers will be
doing this and the power station will then be receiving north of
half a billion pounds a year in subsidy. By 2020, the Government
estimates, up to 11 per cent of our generating capacity will be
from burning wood.
My article in the Times on 13 June 2013
‘We are as gods and have to get good at it,” the
Californian ecologist and writer Stewart Brand said recently.
Worldwide there has been a sea change in the ecological profession.
These days most ecologists recognise that there is no such thing as
a pristine wilderness and that the best biodiversity is produced by
active management to control some species and encourage others.
My Times column here.
I have a confession to make. Last week I held a
meeting with representatives of three organisations and offered to
raise an issue for them in the House of Lords. They claimed they
were charities seeking a smidgin of funding to push forward
promising research on a squirrel-pox vaccine, which might help to
save the red squirrel from extinction in this country.
Now I begin to wonder if these three charming people were
actually disguised investigative reporters who were trying to add
my name to that of my three fellow peers who were splashed over the
front page of The Sunday Times. Or perhaps they were
from a front for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. (Tony Blair
apparently spoke at an event hosted by a front for the latter.) I
never checked their credentials or frisked them for hidden
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.
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?
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 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.
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
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.
The Times has published my article on Northumberlandia today.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%?
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.
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.
The Times has been serialising seven chapters of The Rational Optimist for a week each.
The last one is available now.
I wrote this piece for The Times yesterday (original behind paywall)
I have written two articles in the past few days on the implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis (accident?, incident? drama? -- not sure what the right word is).
This was for The Times on 16th March:
This is a draft of a piece that I wrote for The Times last week. The published version was slightly different. I strongly recommend Brian Moynahan's wonderful book on Tyndale:
This month, the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reach a crescendo. Melvyn Bragg, James Naughtie and Adam Nicolson have all presented programmes on the subject. But I have an uneasy feeling that they are they are missing, or underplaying, a key point: that there is a single literary genius behind the authorized bible's wonderful English - William Tyndale.
The Times ran this column by me last week:
When burglars broke into Vodafone's Basingstoke exchange early on Monday morning, they plunged half of southern England into the dark ages. Desolate and desperate figures shuffled through the drizzle wearing sack-cloth and mortifying their flesh in expiation of the sins that had brought this calamity upon them. It did no good and for several long hours the horror continued: blackberries were silent, mute, lifeless.
Is a mobile signal a luxury or a necessity? It would have been unwise to lecture one of Monday's deprived souls on the astonishing marvel of being able to communicate through the ether at all, let alone window-shop the world's information bazaar virtually for free at the speed of light. `Just be grateful that it sometimes works' is not a line that placates me when I lose a mobile signal.
Since its plans to sell off much of the Forestry Commission's land were leaked the press last October, the government has found itself subject to a sustained lobbying campaign. The commission has wheeled out its friends to tell the press what an irreplaceable paragon of environmental virtue it is, and specifically how much access to the countryside will be lost if its land is sold.
I have learned that when the government's proposals are put to public consultation next week, this particular charge will be found to be simply wrong. All sales of land will be subject to the same access provisions as now. So the hyperventilating lobbyists, from ramblers to baronesses, can calm down: the Forest of Dean will not suddenly be closed. It was the Labour government that was quietly selling Forestry Commission land in recent years with no such public-access requirement.
The access row is a smokescreen to cover old-fashioned bureaucratic self-preservation. The Forestry Commission is keen to remain a cosy nationalised monopoly. With more than two million acres (600,000 in England) and over 50% of timber production, plus 100% untrammelled power to set the rules of the industry it competes in and dominates, the Forestry Commission is a walking conflict of interest. It is like the Bank of England running a huge high-street bank, or the BBC owning Ofcom.
I had this article in the Times on 14 January:
The person who tips the world population over seven billion may be born this year. The world food price index hit a record high last month, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Bad harvests in Russia and Australia, combined with rising oil prices, have begun to cause shortages, export bans and even riots. Does starvation loom?
No. Never has the world looked less likely to starve, or our grandchildren more likely to feed well. Never has famine been less widespread. Never has the estimated future peak of world population been lower.
Update: I have misled the reader about the
quantity of neodymium in a wind turbine magnet. The magnet is not
pure neodymium, but an alloy of Nd, iron and Boron. So there's a
lot less than 2.5 tonnes of Nd itself in a 2.5MW turbine magnet.
There's still plenty of it, though. Hat tip Tim Worstall.
2nd Update: I am told 270kg of Nd per megawatt
is about right, though it will vary with different kinds of magnet.
That means about 675kg of Nd in a 2.5MW turbine. Hat tip Alan
We are getting somewhere. There is a long response to my Times
article from ocean acidification scientists
here. This makes me rather happy. The response confirms the
accuracy of my main points. I have sent the following response
to Nature's website, which carried a report on
I am glad to have my main point confirmed by
the reply: that there is in fact no evidence for net biological
harm likely as a result of realistic changes in ocean pH. This is a
huge and welcome change from the exaggerated rhetoric that has been
used on this topic.
The reply also confirms the accuracy of
virtually all of my factual assertions about the likely change in
pH, the natural variation in pH and other issues, including the
involvement of a Greenpeace ship in a research project. Only my
interpretation is challenged.
Here is the letter that David MacKay sent me following my
article in The Times and to which I replied.
(I have gone to weblinks for his charts and in one case
come up with a slightly different version -- the sea ice graph I
could not find the exact one he included so I have found another
from the same source which has more years on it than his version,
but it's the same data and the same source.) Update: all
graphs now correct!
There is a hilarious letter in today's Times from three FRS
professors about my recent artilce on ocean acidification.
Despite conceding the factual truth of my article in detail,
they tell me to brush up on chemistry then give no examples of me
getting anything wrong.
They concede my point that any shift of acidity will be within
natural ranges. Thanks. But say it could be much larger `in the
future'. No numbers, note. They mean in several centuries.
UPDATE: David MacKay's letter is now up in a
separate post here
Some weeks ago I wrote an article for The Times about why I no
longer find persuasive the IPCC's arguments that today's climate
change is unprecedented, fast and dangerous.
My Times column on skilled versus unskilled migration and Brexit:
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