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 Times column on the urgent need for biotechnology in African agriculture:
An even more dangerous foe than Robert Mugabe is stalking Africa. Early last year, a moth caterpillar called the fall armyworm, a native of the Americas, turned up in Nigeria. It has quickly spread across most of Africa. This is fairly terrifying news, threatening to undo some of the unprecedented improvements in African living standards of the past two decades. Many Africans depend on maize for food, and maize is the fall armyworm’s favourite diet.
Many Africans rely on maize but it is threatened by a rapidly spreading pestWAYNE HUTCHINSON/GETTY IMAGES
My Times column on environmental policy:
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is right to promise higher, not lower, environmental standards once we leave the European Union. Britain has always been a pioneer of environmental policy, and indeed many of our protections pre-date our joining the EU. Besides, thanks to the productivity of our farmers, we can spare land for nature in increasing amounts, and thanks to new science and technology, we can afford ever more effective interventions on behalf of wildlife. Improvement, not just protection, is the aim.
My Reaction article on the disputes within the green movement:
You can always tell when there is a United Nations Climate Conference of the Parties (COP) coming up, because there are any number of carefully timed press releases about how hot it has been or is going to get in the future. The media has been snowed under with such things for a while now, and sure enough, this week sees the gathering in Bonn of the usual circus of thousands of diplomats, bureaucrats, quangocrats, envirocrats and twittercrats.
My Times column on Amara's Law:
Alongside a great many foolish things that have been said about the future, only one really clever thing stands out. It was a “law” coined by a Stanford University computer scientist and long-time head of the Institute for the Future by the name of Roy Amara. He said that we tend to overestimate the impact of a new technology in the short run, but we underestimate it in the long run. Quite when he said it and in what context is not clear but colleagues suggest he was articulating it from some time in the 1960s or 1970s.
My Times column on demography, immigration and the building of houses, roads and runways:
The Office for National Statistics says it expects Britain’s population to grow slightly more slowly than it thought three years ago, partly because of lower immigration after Brexit and partly because of slowing increases in life expectancy. But it still forecasts the figure to pass 70 million in a little more than ten years from now. That is not necessarily a bad thing, unless we remain as reluctant to build new houses, roads, schools and hospitals as we currently are. Britain can thrive as a dense city-state, a big Singapore, but not if it hates development. Openness to immigration and antipathy to building cannot both persist.
My Times column on the scientific and legal scandal behind the attempt to ban a weedkiller.
Bad news is always more newsworthy than good. The widely reported finding that insect abundance is down by 75 per cent in Germany over 27 years was big news, while, for example, the finding in May that ocean acidification is a lesser threat to corals than had been thought caused barely a ripple. The study, published in the leading journal Nature, found that corals’ ability to make skeletons is “largely independent of changes in seawater carbonate chemistry, and hence ocean acidification”. But good news is no news.
My recent Times column on Britain's opportunity for fisheries reform post Brexit:
A richly abundant sea fish population is one of the great wonders of the world that my generation has rarely seen. Last week I was lucky enough to be aboard a boat off California, surrounded by five humpback whales, more than 2,000 common dolphins, plus hundreds of sea lions and shearwaters all gorging on anchovies. There is no reason that properly managed British waters could not be as healthy and diverse as this.
My Times column on how intentions are taken to matter more than what works:
The curse of modern politics is an epidemic of good intentions and bad outcomes. Policy after policy is chosen and voted on according to whether it means well, not whether it works. And the most frustrated politicians are those who keep trying to sell policies based on their efficacy, rather than their motives. It used to be possible to approach politics as a conversation between adults, and argue for unfashionable but effective medicine. In the 140-character world this is tricky (I speak from experience).
My Times column on free markets and free trade:
The “ultimatum game” is a fiendish invention of economists to test people’s selfishness. One player is asked to share a windfall of cash with another player, but the entire windfall is cancelled if the second player rejects the offer. How much should you share? When people from the Machiguenga tribe in Peru were asked to play this game, they behaved selfishly, wanting to share little of the windfall. Not far away, the Achuar in Ecuador were much more generous, offering almost half the money to the other player — which is roughly how people in the developed world react.
My Times column on threats to the enlightenment itself:
Mel Brooks said last week that comedy is becoming impossible in this censorious age and he never could have made his 1974 film Blazing Saddles today. A recent poll found that 38 per cent of Britons and 70 per cent of Germans think the government should be able to prevent speech that is offensive to minorities. If you give a commencement speech at a US university these days and don’t attract a shouty mob, you’re clearly a nobody. “There’s an almost religious quality to many of the protests,” says Jonathan Haidt of New York University, citing the denunciations.
Bret Weinstein tweeted last week: “We are witnessing the sabotage of the core principle of a free society — rationalised as self-defence.” He is a left-wing former biology professor at Evergreen College in Washington state, who objected to white students and professors being asked to stay away from the university for a day on the grounds that this was a form of racism. For this he was confronted by a mob, and the university authorities told the campus police to stand down rather than protect him.
My recent column in the Times on robots in agriculture:
If you will forgive the outburst of alliteration, the harvesting of a “hands-free hectare” at Harper Adams University has made headlines all around the world, in the technology press as well as the farming press. A crop of Shropshire barley was sown, fertilised, sprayed and harvested by robot tractors, drones and a robot combine harvester, without a human being setting foot in the field.
This is the text of a chapter I wrote for a new book entitled Climate Change - The Facts 2017, edited by Jennifer Marohasy. The book is worth buying for Clive James's chapter alone.
Here is a simple fact about the world today:
My recent Times column on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma:
As Hurricane Irma batters Florida, with Anguilla, Barbuda and Cuba clearing up and Houston drying out after Harvey, it is reasonable to ask whether such tropical cyclones are getting more frequent or fiercer.
A Times column on free trade:
Why does the European Union raise a tariff on coffee? It has no coffee industry to protect so the sole effect is to make coffee more expensive for all Europeans. Even where there is an industry to protect, protectionism hurts far more people than it helps. Last October the EU surreptitiously quintupled the tariff on imported oranges to 16 per cent to protect Spanish citrus producers against competition from South Africa and punish the rest of us. It imposes a tax of 4.7 per cent on imported umbrellas, 15 per cent on unicycles and 16.9 per cent on sports footwear.
I find that many Twitter trolls do not even realise that the European “single market” is actually a fortress protected by high external tariff walls. Yet external tariffs are pure self-harm; they are blockades against your own ports, as the economist Ryan Bourne has pointed out. We impose sanctions on pariah regimes, restricting their imports, not to help their economies but to hurt them. The entire point of producing things is to consume things (the pattern of pay shows that we work to live rather than vice versa), so punishing consumers is perverse. As Adam Smith put it, describing the European Union in advance, “in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer”.
My recent Times column on the arguments for Brexit:
More than a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union, I realise we who ended up on the Leave side have probably made a mistake. No, not that we should have voted the other way, but that we thought we had won the argument last year during those weeks when we lived and breathed every detail of the debate. To some extent we then stopped making the case. The Remainers didn’t.
My recent Times column on gene editing:
Britain has an opportunity to seize on the latest breakthroughs in gene editing and pioneer new approaches in agriculture, research and medicine. We are well placed to be bold but responsible gene editors. Bolder than continental countries, looking over their shoulder to the disapproving Roman Catholic church; more responsible than China, where decisions on such matters are taken by officials with little consultation with the public; and without the divisive culture battles over moral and legal issues that so often divide the United States on matters of biology.
This is partly a matter of good regulation. Britain’s pioneering debate in the 1980s on how to regulate embryo research, allowing such work up to 14 days, drew the sting from subsequent arguments over cloning, stem cells and mitochondrial transplants. It is a compromise that has held and shown that the slope to “designer babies” is not slippery. The public is reassured. There have been no major scandals or disasters in genetic research here.
My Times column on Britain's nuclear power fiasco:
Shortly before parliament broke up this month, there was a debate on a Lords select committee report on electricity policy that was remarkable for its hard-hitting conclusions. The speakers, and signatories of the report, included a former Labour chancellor, Tory energy secretary, Tory Scottish secretary, cabinet secretary, ambassador to the European Union and Treasury permanent secretary, as well as a bishop, an economics professor, a Labour media tycoon and a Lib Dem who was shortlisted for governor of the Bank of England.
My Times column on the BBC:
The revelation that disc jockeys and football presenters are paid millions for topping and tailing segments of rehashed music or rebroadcast football, especially if they are male, will almost certainly lead to more pay inflation at the BBC — to correct the gender imbalance. Here’s another gender imbalance: television licence fee evasion accounted for 36 per cent of all prosecutions of women in 2015 and 6 per cent of men.
Are there any arguments left for funding one broadcaster through a compulsory and regressive poll tax? The original argument was that broadcasting was a natural monopoly and the airwaves a limited space. Well, that’s long gone. In the digital world, I can watch or listen to one of many thousands of channels through cable, satellite or the internet.
A review of Tim Harford's book, Fifty things that made the modern economy.
In 2006 the historian David Edgerton wrote a book called The Shock of the Old in which he argued that the 20th century was not really all about space travel and atom bombs, but humdrum things such as corrugated iron and refrigeration. In this enjoyable book Tim Harford makes much the same point: “An alien engineer visiting from Alpha Centauri might suggest it would be good if the enthusiasm we had for flashy new things was equally expressed for fitting more S-bends and pouring more concrete floors.”
My recent column for The Times on the arithmetic behind electric cars:
The British government is under pressure to follow France and Volvo in promising to set a date by which to ban diesel and petrol engines in cars and replace them with electric motors. It should resist the temptation, not because the ambition is wrong but because coercion could backfire.
My column in the Times on recent sensational discoveries relating to human evolution in Africa:
News is dominated by sudden things — bombs, fires, election results — and so gradual news sometimes get left out. The past month has seen three discoveries in Africa that radically change our understanding of a crucial phase in human evolution. For those interested in the common history of all humanity, this should really be among the biggest news of the year.
The first of these discoveries is genetic. Swedish and South African scientists have made the origin of us — modern human beings — an even more mind-bogglingly gradual phenomenon than we used to think. Here is what they found. A skeleton of a boy who died 2,000 years ago at a place called Ballito Bay has yielded a good sample of preserved DNA. He was a Khoe-San, that is to say an indigenous native of southern Africa of the kind once called “bushmen”, who still live in the Kalahari desert.
My review of Chris Thomas's fine book, Inheritors of the Earth:
If human beings were to vanish from the Earth, what would their effect on wildlife have been? A rash of extinctions, a lot of mixing up so that wallabies and parakeets live in England and rabbits and sparrows in Australia, but also — according to Chris Thomas — an eventual doubling in the number of species on the planet: a “sixth genesis”, as he calls it in reference to the five previous times that biodiversity has expanded rapidly after a mass extinction. We are causing a mass speciation.
My Times column on conservation and the British countryside:
Even Michael Gove’s enemies concede he is good at tackling vested interests. Even his friends concede he has a knack for making enemies in the process. In his new job as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, if he is to achieve anything, he may have to do a lot of both. So here’s a field guide to the vested interests he will encounter in the countryside.
Belated posting of my post-election Times column:
For those of us who want a clean Brexit and who champion freedom and innovation rather than socialism, the election result was a shattering disappointment. It reduced the party that most embraces free enterprise to a minority in the House of Commons and leaves us with a diminished and humiliated government less likely to win crucial concessions from a European Union emboldened to be more punitive — all against a background of teenager-murdering theocracy.
But, as the first shock fades, I am finding a few crumbs of comfort. Not optimism exactly, but glimmers of light amid the gloom. Here is my top ten.
My Times column on Britain's general election and the missing optimism about innovation:
Against the background of a terrorist campaign, a Tory government under a determined woman was cruising towards an easy victory against a socialist Labour party in a June election, but stumbling badly in the campaign. It was a dangerous world, with an impulsive American president and an undemocratic Russia and China. There was a funding crisis in the NHS and dire warnings of global environmental disaster: yes, this was 1987, the year of Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory — and of the Enniskillen bombing, shortly after, which killed 12 and injured 63.
Neil Kinnock’s Labour manifesto of 1987 reads very like Jeremy Corbyn’s: in favour of nationalised utilities and more money for the NHS, against nuclear missiles. The two manifestos said “this general election on June 11 faces the British people with choices more sharp than at any time in the past 50 years” (1987), and “what makes this election different is that the choice is starker than ever before” (2017).
My Times column on the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein and the 600th of De Rerum Natura's rediscovery:
It was in May 1817, two centuries ago this month, that Mary Shelley completed the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, which was published anonymously the next year. That first science-fiction novel has come to represent all that is dangerous about science. As well as being enacted almost 80 times in films, the book lends its plot to almost every film in which a scientist goes too far, as they usually do in films, from Metropolis to Jurassic Park. It inspires every campaign against biotechnology: the green movement fatally christened genetically modified crops “Frankenfoods”.
Gothic fantasy has infected reality. Those of us who argue that biological innovation — tinkering with the stuff of life — has proved a great force for good, and that the risk of hubristic disaster from research is largely a myth, could wish that Mary Shelley had not written the darned book, in which a brilliant scientist brings to life with an electric spark
My Times column on an academic hoax:
The latest university prank is embarrassing to academia and hilarious for the rest of us. Philosophy professor Peter Boghossian and mathematician Dr James Lindsay made up a learned paper on the “conceptual penis” as a “gender-performative, highly fluid social construct” that is “the conceptual driver behind much of climate change”, stuffed it full of random jargon and fake references and then got it through peer review into an academic journal.
True, it was a low-grade, pay-to-publish journal of the kind that has proliferated recently as a money-making venture, but the authors were recommended to try that journal by a serious journal, and the peer review was genuine. As the authors have written of their own work: “We don’t understand it either. Nobody does. This problem should have rendered it unpublishable in all peer-reviewed, academic journals.”
My Times column on obesity:
Even optimists admit that some things are undoubtedly getting worse: things like traffic jams, apostrophe use — and obesity. The fattening of the human race, even in middle-income countries, is undeniable. “Despite sustained efforts to tackle childhood obesity, one in three adolescents is still estimated to be overweight or obese in Europe,” said a report last week to the World Health Organisation. That means more diabetes and possibly a reversal of the recent slow fall in age-adjusted cancer and heart disease death rates.
My Times column on malware, ransomware and the battle against viruses:
The WannaCry ransomware cyberattack of last week, which briefly crippled much of the National Health Service, may be the biggest, but it will not be the last outbreak of cybercrime. Remember your Through the Looking-Glass. The Red Queen lives in a world where, she says: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” We, the good guys, are locked in a Red Queen race with hackers, just as we, the human race, are locked in a race with real viruses, and with antibiotic resistance.
It is a race in which permanent victory is impossible, but so is permanent defeat. Perpetual struggle is inevitable. I say this with confidence because for once the biological analogies are apt. The right way to think about cybersecurity is epidemiological. Indeed, the similarity between a computer virus and a real virus is more than a metaphor: both are pieces of linear digital information (one made of binary electronic digits, the other of quaternary DNA bases) capable of getting themselves replicated and spread. One leading theory is that sexual intercourse evolved, a billion years ago, as a security patch against parasites.
My Spectator article on the futile numbers behind wind power:
The Global Wind Energy Council recently released its latest report, excitedly boasting that ‘the proliferation of wind energy into the global power market continues at a furious pace, after it was revealed that more than 54 gigawatts of clean renewable wind power was installed across the global market last year’.
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