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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I stumbled on a BBC television program this evening (watch it here), which was unintentionally revealing. It was a compilation of extracts over several decades from its flagship science series `Horizon', all on the theme of the `end of the world'. The episodes covered asteroids, supervolcanoes, contagious earthquakes, bird flu, the Y2K computer bug, the greenhouse effect, the melting of Antarctica, the collpase of the Gulf Stream as a consequence of global warming.
In every episode, the alarm was maximised, the worst case emphasised, the language ludicrously extreme. Not one hint was allowed, even in tonight's commentary linking the episodes, that perhaps the failure of these extreme predictions of disaster should lead to just a little caution about continuing apocaholism.
The BBC's unbalanced championing of alarm continues.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about the innovation that leads to the cheapening of technologies, as opposed to the invention that leads to new technologies.
Cheapeners deserve as much credit as inventors.
Last week a Minneapolis firm called TenKsolar announced that it reckons it can soon cut the cost of rooftop solar power in sunny locations to as little as eight cents a kilowatt-hour-which is almost competitive with conventional electricity. It borrows an idea from computer memory technology to wire up solar panels in a new pattern so that the current can take many different paths through the cells in the array. The result is that the output of the panel is no longer limited to the output of the worst-performing cell. Until now, a shadow passing over one cell would cut the output of the whole panel.
I published an article in The Times this week about fossil fuel reserves:
Booming demand and stagnant supply drove oil prices to $125 a barrel last week. Is this a sign that fossil fuels are running out? It is more likely a sign that the cheap-oil age is giving way to the cheap-gas age. As the oil price heads north, the gas price is drifting south.
In 1865 a young economist named W. S. Jevons published a book titled The Coal Question in which he argued that Britain's "present lavish use of cheap coal" could not continue as coal would soon run out and continued prosperity was therefore "physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity." Gladstone, as Chancellor, found Jevons' "grave and ... urgent facts" so persuasive that he proposed to Parliament, with the support of John Stuart Mill, to retire the national debt while the good times lasted.
Read my report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation on The Shale Gas Shock here.
The foreword is by Freeman Dyson.
This is the summary
The Rational Optimist has won the Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute. I will be giving the Hayek Lecture when I accept the prize later in the year. The Hayek Prize honors the book published within the past two years that best reflects Hayek's vision of economic and individual liberty. The Hayek Prize, with its $50,000 award, is among the world's most generous book prizes. It was conceived and funded by Manhattan Institute trustee Tom Smith to recognize the influence of F.A. Hayek and to encourage other scholars to follow his example. The winner of the Hayek Prize is chosen from among the nominations by a selection committee of distinguished economists, journalists, and scholars. Past winners include: William Easterly for The White Man's Burden, Amity Shlaes for The Forgotten Man, and, most recently, Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds for Money, Markets & Sovereignty.
This is a great honour because my central themes about collective intelligence and spontaneous order are in many ways prefigured in F.A.Hayek's work, and his ideas on the evolutionary nature of economic progress are ones that I share and have built on.
The Rational Optimist has also won a silver medal Axiom Business Book Award.
I don't have terribly strong views on the alternative-vote referendum that Britain holds this week. But I found this radio exchange on the BBC between John Humphreys and the prime minister, David Cameron, remarkable. If even Humphreys does not know how the system would allow the second votes of extremists to be counted more than those of moderates (and he clearly does not), then it does not sound like a comprehensible system.
DC: "...you start counting some people's votes more than once".
JH: "No, you don't. That simply isn't true, that you count some votes more than once."
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on grain, fruit and the economic underpinnings of democracy.
When I was young, I had a mug on a shelf in my bedroom, and on it was a poem about a farmer-a simple hymn to self-sufficiency. Here's a bit of it:
I eat my own lamb, My own chickens and ham I shear my own fleece and I wear it. I have lawns, I have bowers I have fruits, I have flowers The lark is my morning alarmer.
Update: the Taxpayers' Alliance has a major report on this issue, by Matthew Sinclair, which concluded that
Over £37 million was spent on taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in 2007-08. That is nearly as much as the £38.9 million all three major political parties combined spent through their central campaigns at the 2005 election. But, the true amount spent on taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning may be much higher as this report has taken a conservative approach, focussing just on the most clear-cut examples.]
Is anybody else as shocked by this as I am?
Master Resource reposts Julian Simon's wonderful and inspiring message of 1 May 1995. For good and bad, it has aged not at all:
"EARTH DAY: SPIRITUALLY UPLIFTING, INTELLECTUALLY DEBASED"
Lord (Chris) Patten, new chairman of the BBC Trust, has been sounding off, militantly, at the militancy of atheists.
He scored a bit of an own goal, though, with this remark:
Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the year than I said. See below.
A meditation on the English spring I wrote for yesterday's Times:
I live on the 55th degree north parallel. If I had gone round the world along that line last week, through Denmark, Lithuania, Russia, Kamchatka, Alaska, Hudson's Bay and Labrador, I would be trudging through snow nearly all the way (there is a handy northern hemisphere weekly snow map on the website of Florida State University, whence I gleaned this fact). Yet instead I ate a picnic on a Northumbrian riverbank as a blizzard of orange-tip butterflies danced over a snowfield of wood anemones in the mild sunshine.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the regulation of genetic testing
I just took a detailed genetic test by sending some spit to a firm in California and looking up the results on the Net. It seems I'm probably descended from a peculiarly fecund fourth-century Irish king called Niall of the Nine Hostages and a slightly more unusual Mesopotamian Neolithic matriarch. Oh, and I have mostly average risk of most diseases: The medical part of the test gave me a bit of risk here, a bit of reassurance there, nothing very drastic.
In my experience, scientists often have a reflexive contempt for economics. Speaking as a scientist who came to understand economics after leaving academia, I find this attitude frustrating, because I see how they miss the fundamentally bottom-up, emergent, evolving nature of human society that the field of economics strives to understand (even as they often acknowledge the bottom-up, emergent nature of evolution and of ecosystems).
Peter Risdon writes to draw to my attention what Mark Twain wrote to Walt Whitman on this 70th birthday:
The BBC has plumbed new depths with its recent reporting on shale gas. Its reporter Richard Black wrote a story about the old Cornell University claim that shale gas production emits more greenhouse-warming gases than coal. I happen to know quite a bit about this study and I know that it is based on very extreme and highly implausible assumptions shared by nobody outside a narrow group of partisans. I also know that it is very, very easy for a journalist to find this out and then at least to mention that there are two sides to the story. Yet nowhere in the entire piece does Black even mention that this study is disputed. As reporting goes, that's truly disgraceful, and I for one will never trust a story from Black again.
So here are a few things he should have told you about the other side of the story, from Energy in Depth, a source that is about as partisan as the BBC.
Alan Carlin has a peer reviewed paper in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which concludes that climate policy is, in my terminology, a tourniquet for a nosebleed:
The economic benefits of reducing CO2 emissions may be about two orders of magnitude less than those estimated by most economists because the climate sensitivity factor (CSF) is much lower than assumed by the United Nations because feedback is negative rather than positive and the effects of CO2 emissions reductions on atmospheric CO2 appear to be short rather than long lasting.
The costs of CO2 emissions reductions are very much higher than usually estimated because of technological and implementation problems recently identified.
The Times has been serialising seven chapters of The Rational Optimist for a week each.
The last one is available now.
The discovery, announced this week, of several genetic mutations that predispose people toward Alzheimer's disease is intriguing, because the genes are associated with cholesterol metabolism and inflammation. The Alzheimer's jigsaw is a long way from being complete, but the pieces are emerging, and this new evidence fits quite nicely with the other pieces in suggesting a role for inflammation.
Piece 1 is the immediate cause of Alzheimer's disease: the appearance of insoluble "plaques" made of a small protein called amyloid beta (A-beta for short) inside brain cells. These plaques block the traffic of molecules in the cells. Eventually another small protein, called tau, also starts to crystallize in this way to form "tangles." Both symptoms are diagnostic of Alzheimer's, and similar ones characterize other neurological syndromes such as Parkinson's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob's.
Puzzle piece 2 is the APOE gene on chromosome 19, long known as a powerful influence on whether you will get Alzheimer's disease. Having two copies of the 4 version of the gene makes you 20 times more likely than average to get the symptoms before the age of 75. (Having at least one copy of the 2 version makes you less likely than average to get the symptoms.) One of APOE's jobs is to break down plaques, and the 4 version is inefficient at this task.
As I keep saying, shale gas is indeed revolutionising world energy supply.
The US Energy Information Administration officially uses the word `vast' for shale gas resources outside the US:
Although the shale gas resource estimates will likely change over time as additional information becomes available, the report shows that the international shale gas resource base is vast
I wrote this piece for The Times yesterday (original behind paywall)
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about trying to evolve, rather than ordain, solution to obesity
Sometimes we find it easy to identify a problem and impossible to think of a solution. Obesity is a good example. Almost everybody agrees that it is a growing burden on health systems and that it requires urgent attention from policy makers. But almost everybody also agrees that no policy for reducing obesity is working.
Some 32% of adult American men and 35% of women are clinically obese. The proportion hasn't swelled in recent years, but it hasn't shrunk either, a study of 2008 data suggests. School posters, virally marketed videos, healthy-eating classes, mandatory swimming lessons, minimum school-recess times, celebrity chefs in charge of school-meal recipes, bicycle lanes, junk-food ad bans, calorie-content labels, hectoring physicians, birthday-cake bans, monetary rewards for weight loss-they've all been tried, and they've all largely failed.
Correlation ain't causation.
But for some time I have been noticing that the correlations between certain aspects of solar activity and certain aspects of climate are getting really rather impressive -- far more so than anything relating to carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide certainly can affect climate, but so for sure can other things, and in explaining the ups and downs of past climate, before industrialisation, variations in the sun are looking better and better as an explanation. That does not mean the sun causes current climate change, but it certainly suggests that it is at least possible that forcings more powerful than carbon dioxide could be at work.
To mark today's UK publication of The Rational Optimist in paperback, I have written an article for The Sun newspaper:
FOR the past month, the news has been all bad - war, recession, riot, tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, inflation, cuts... and the cricket.
Guest post by Andrew Mayne
"Too much choice can be a bad thing-not just for the individual, but for society."
Tim Worstall riffs on William Baumol to fascinating effect:
One way of putting which is that increasing labour productivity in services is more difficult than improving it in manufacturing. Canonically, we cannot get a symphony orchestra to be more productive by playing at twice the speed. So, ally this with wages being determined by average productivity, we'll see the amount we need to spend on labour to get services to rise against the amount we need to spend on labour to get manufactures. Services will become more expensive relative to manufactures over time.
However, this is not certain. A tendency, yes, but not a certainty. For it is possible, through innovation, to turn a service into, if not a manufacture, at least an automated operation. Think replacing bank clerks with ATMs. Skilled typists with dictation software. We can record the symphony once and play it many times on a gramophone/Walkman/iPod.
As a general rule, if George Monbiot agrees with you, start worrying you may be wrong. The Fukushima nuclear crisis has made Monbiot a fan of nuclear power, at just the time when my doubts have been growing.
You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
My latest Wall Street Journal article is on Nick Humphrey's theory of consciousness, as set out in his fine new book Soul Dust
In 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments," published in 1759, Adam Smith boldly recast the question of virtue in terms of what we now call empathy (but which he called sympathy). Smith argued that we are good to each other because empathy allows us to imagine both the pleasure and the suffering experienced by our fellow beings. Even when alone, he suggested, our morality comes from adopting the perspective of an imagined "impartial spectator."
I have written two articles in the past few days on the implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis (accident?, incident? drama? -- not sure what the right word is).
This was for The Times on 16th March:
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