Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.
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My latest Mind and Matter column 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:
James Delingpole is on fine form:
So wind farms don't just despoil countryside, frighten horses, chop up birds, spontaneously combust, drive down property prices, madden those who live nearby with their subsonic humming, drive up electricity prices, promote rentseeking, make rich landowners richer (and everyone else poorer), ruin views, buy more electric sports cars for that dreadful Dale Vince character, require rare earth minerals which cause enormous environmental damage, destroy 3.7 real jobs for every fake "green" job they "create", blight neighbourhoods, kill off tourism and ruin lives, but they also
Robert Hardman in the Daily Mail writes:
Of course, the modern world is better equipped than the ancients to survive these cataclysmic disasters. We have stronger buildings, better communications and international aid agencies to help the recovery process. But older societies had a more realistic sense of their place in the world.
Which would you rather have? A more realistic sense of your place in the world -- or your life? The remarkable thing about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is how many more they would have killed if Japan had still been a poor country.
This is a draft of a piece that I wrote for The Times last week. The published version was slightly different. I strongly recommend Brian Moynahan's wonderful book on Tyndale:
This month, the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reach a crescendo. Melvyn Bragg, James Naughtie and Adam Nicolson have all presented programmes on the subject. But I have an uneasy feeling that they are they are missing, or underplaying, a key point: that there is a single literary genius behind the authorized bible's wonderful English - William Tyndale.
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Photo: Jon Erlandson
The Times ran this column by me last week:
When burglars broke into Vodafone's Basingstoke exchange early on Monday morning, they plunged half of southern England into the dark ages. Desolate and desperate figures shuffled through the drizzle wearing sack-cloth and mortifying their flesh in expiation of the sins that had brought this calamity upon them. It did no good and for several long hours the horror continued: blackberries were silent, mute, lifeless.
Is a mobile signal a luxury or a necessity? It would have been unwise to lecture one of Monday's deprived souls on the astonishing marvel of being able to communicate through the ether at all, let alone window-shop the world's information bazaar virtually for free at the speed of light. `Just be grateful that it sometimes works' is not a line that placates me when I lose a mobile signal.
Latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
When did you last read an account of how microchips actually work? You know, replete with all that stuff about electrons and holes and "p-doping" and "n-doping" and the delights of gallium arsenide. The golden age of such articles, when you could read about them in the mainstream press, was the early 1980s. Today nobody writes about semiconductors, at least not about how they work.
My point? That when a technology is new, everybody wants to understand how it works. When it is mature, nobody is interested in such details. The fascination with how things work fades, and the technology becomes a black box.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Three years ago Queen Elizabeth II asked a group of speech therapists if her father's stutter had been caused by his being forced to write with his right hand despite being a natural left-hander. Though it's a more plausible theory than movie psychobabble about conflict with a domineering father (a theme of Oscar front-runner "The King's Speech"), the experts told the queen that this commonly held explanation for stuttering remains unproven. It may be just an urban legend, based on the fact that stuttering is more common among the left-handed.
The connection between handedness and speech runs deep. Speech is controlled by the left side of the brain and so is motor control of the usually dominant right hand. It is possible that this connection says something about the evolutionary origin of language, if language was first expressed through gestures rather than speech.
The other day at a talk I was asked, as I often am, whether I agree that only putting the state in control can clean up the environment. I wish I had then read this, from the blog at Cafe Hayek: a letter sent to the Los Angeles Times:
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about the weakening of the magnetic field and, more generally, the question of how we scare ourselves by knowing more:
The earth's magnetic field is weakening at an accelerating rate. It is 15% weaker than it was at the time the north magnetic pole was "discovered"-and claimed for King William IV-by a British explorer in 1831. Should we be worried?
There is a lot of fuss about two new papers arguing, from mathematical models, that extreme downpours have become and will become more common in thenorthern hemisphereand specifically inBritainas a result of man-made climate change.
Let's ignore the fact that this looks awfully similar to the habit of blaming specific weather events on climate trends, something we `lukewarmers' (who think climate change is real but slow enough to adapt to through the foreseeable future) are reprimanded for doing when we point out that an especially cold winter or cool summer weakens the case for the alarming version of the theory. So now we can do that too, can we?
Let's ignore the fact that neither paper comes up with any actual evidence that greenhouse gases have caused more extreme downpours - other than circumstantial correlation. Their sole argument is that they cannot think of any other explanation for the increase in downpours. Or as the BBC puts it:
Ever since opening my own eyes by researching my book, I keep a watching brief for egregious examples of pessimistic bias in the media. Once your eyes adjust, the media's tendency to spot a cloud in every silver lining is very striking.
But just as striking is its ability to ignore anything that reaches optimistic conclusions.
As I have mentioned before, almost nobody has heard of the CO2-fertilisation effect. There is a new book by the Idsos that is well worth reading on this: there is a huge peer-reviewed literature on the benefits of CO2 enrichment and it is skilfully summarised here.
My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal is on Dunbar's number.
I was on BBC Radio 4's programme A Good Read (the link allows you to listen again) this week, where I recommended the book that was my favourite as a child, and probably still is: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. The others chose A Game of Hide and Seek and Great Expectations.
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, on `unlearning':
For adults, one of the most important lessons to learn in life is the necessity of unlearning. We all think that we know certain things to be true beyond doubt, but these things often turn out to be false and, until we unlearn them, they get in the way of new understanding. Among the scientific certainties I have had to unlearn: that upbringing strongly shapes your personality; that nurture is the opposite of nature; that dietary fat causes obesity more than dietary carbohydrate; that carbon dioxide has been the main driver of climate change in the past.
I came across a rather good word for this kind of unlearning-"disenthrall"-in Mark Stevenson's book "An Optimist's Tour of the Future," published just this week. Mr. Stevenson borrows it from Abraham Lincoln, whose 1862 message to Congress speaks of disenthralling ourselves of "the dogmas of the quiet past" in order to "think anew."
I took part in a debate on whether we can feed the world on Al Jazeera television with Dvaid Frost. Video here.
Simon Singh and James Delingpole, both of whom I know, like and respect as fine writers, have been disagreeing about climate change.
Beneath Simon's latest blog on the subject there is a debate in which several very sensible and non-inflammatory things are said by Bishop Hill and Paul Dennis. Do read it.
An especially good comment came from Climate Resistance, who spoke for me and I suspect many others when he asked:
Prospect magazine has published my review of Hugh-Aldersey-Williams's delightful chemistry book, Periodic Tales. Here is an extract in which I was struck by the parallels between finding specialised jobs for the metals and finding specialised roles for individuals in society:
The best science writing emulates fiction, creating plots, surprises and characters out of its esoteric material. The science writer's trick is to transmute the dull tinplate of fact and theory into the precious gold of truthful entertainment. Thus James Watson turned the discovery of the structure of DNA into a charming farce (The Double Helix, 1968); Richard Dawkins turned gene-based evolution into a gripping detective story (The Selfish Gene, 1976); and Simon Singh turned the history of mathematics into an epic (Fermat's Last Theorem, 1997).
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.
George Monbiot is advertising a speaking tour with a poster of himself as a boxer about to hit somebody.
And yet he says in the Guardian:
From the Wall Street Journal, my latest Mind and Matter on stability, the moon and aliens
This month saw the discovery of the first small and "rocky" planet like ours outside the solar system, Kepler 10b, orbiting a star more than 500 light years away. This month also saw terrible floods in part of Australia. Here I intend to link these two news stories. But don't worry-I have not gone astrological on you. The link is not a causal one.
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