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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His new book How Innovation Works is now available in the UK as well as in the US and Canada.
My Times column on the frequent statistical reasoning mistakes that lead to bad policies:
Budget week might be a good time to remind ourselves of the fallacies on which bad policies feed. Last year the University of Michigan’s Professor Richard Nisbett wrote a short book called Mindware, about the ways in which people deceive themselves and others about statistical reasoning. Since reading it, I have been noticing examples of the art everywhere.
Think of Nisbett’s book as a field guide to a nature reserve. Keep an eye out for the Sunk Cost fallacy, wherein you argue that a nuclear power station or a supersonic airliner must be built because you have spent a fortune on it already. It should never matter how much cost has already been sunk into a project: it is only worth spending more if it is cost-effective.
My recent Times column on gene editing's possibilities:
Scientists at the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, said last week that they had edited the genomes of pigs, rendering them immune to a dangerous virus. The announcement is extraordinary precisely because it sounds almost routine these days. Gene editing is already starting to save the lives of human cancer patients and generate healthier crops. Yet the battle to ensure it gains favour with public opinion must be urgently addressed. The usual suspects are already trying to blacken its name.
My Times column on Britain's self-inflicted diesel scandal:
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is right to try to switch the capital away from diesel engines as fast as possible, even if this is tough on those duped into buying diesel cars by years of government incentives and propaganda. Diesel engines do make for worse air quality than petrol engines, and air pollution does almost certainly kill people in significant numbers.
In 2010, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (Comeap) found that in Britain poor air quality “may have made some contribution to the earlier deaths of up to 200,000 people in 2008, with an average loss of life of about two years per death affected”.
A longer version of my Times column on free speech:
"In a free state, tongues too should be free,” wrote Erasmus 501 years ago. In truth, although Britain was often more tolerant than many countries, people have never been entirely free to speak their minds here. Blasphemy and sedition got you into trouble for centuries. There was uproar when Ken Clarke invited Oswald Mosley to address the Cambridge Union in 1961. The law has always rightly forbidden incitement to violence.
An expanded version of my Wall Street Journal article on bees, pesticides and how environmental activists gamed the system:
To those who have engaged with environmental activists in recent years, the concept of fake news is old hat. From Greenpeace’s hundred-fold exaggeration of the oil in the Brent Spar oil platform in 1995 to Friends of the Earth’s slap-down by Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency over fracking untruths in 2017, we have grown used to being told “alternative facts” that later turn out to be wrong by those with green axes to grind. The latest episode of environmental activists playing fast and loose with the facts, however, may be their undoing.
My Times column on the revelations of problems with the global surface temperature record at NOAA:
Back in December, some American scientists began copying government climate data onto independent servers in what press reports described as an attempt to safeguard it from political interference by the Trump administration. There is to be a March for Science in April whose organisers say: “It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”
Well, today they have a chance to do just that, but against their own colleagues who stand accused of doing what they claim the Trump team has done. Devastating new testimony from John Bates, a whistleblowing senior scientist at America’s main climate agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, alleges that scientists themselves have been indulging in alternative facts, fake news and policy-based evidence.
My Times column on British environmental policy:
Andrea Leadsom, the agriculture and environment secretary, is to set out her plans for the British countryside in two green papers: one on the environment this week and one on farming later. She should be ambitious and positive: the future, post-Brexit, could be bright and green.
My Times column on the Industrial Strategy:
Theresa May’s “modern industrial strategy”, launched today, must avoid the ignominious fate of its predecessors. One by one they failed. Diagnosis of Britain’s problems is not difficult; treatment is harder. How can a government close the productivity gap, improve our low investment levels, heal the north-south divide, overcome our habitual pattern of inventing but not exploiting new ideas, and create an economy that “works for everyone”?
I do not presume to know all the answers, but I trust that the prime minister and Greg Clark, her business secretary, have begun by learning a lesson from the history of industrial strategies, Labour and Conservative: top-down solutions will not work; bottom-up ones might.
My Times column on Brexit, Trump and free trade:
In the week that Theresa May reveals the trajectory of Brexit and Donald Trump enters the White House, these two “revolutions” are once again linked by coincidence of timing. For much of the rest of the world, and even in the minds of many people in Britain, the result of last June’s referendum and the outcome of last November’s presidential election are part of the same phenomenon: a revolt against globalisation by a forgotten, provincial, working class.
My Times column on UK university policy:
The government’s higher education bill will run a gauntlet of opposition starting today in the House of Lords, where many members are chancellors, fellows or other panjandrums of the grander universities. Some criticisms will be self-serving and wrong: the bill has good features. But in one central respect, critics are right. This is nationalisation. The bureaucrats of the Department for Education have long wanted to get more control of universities and this bill finally grants their wish.
Britain has some of the world’s best universities, second only to America. The chief reason is that they have been almost as autonomous as the great private universities of the Ivy League. This is for three historical reasons. First, thanks to the Bill of Rights of 1689, they escaped the centralised control that continental universities experienced from first the church and then the Napoleonic or Bismarckian state.
My Times column on the year that marks the centenary of the Russian revolution:
Human beings can be remarkably dense. The practice of bloodletting, as a medical treatment, persisted despite centuries of abundant evidence that it did more harm than good. The practice of communism, or political bloodletting as it should perhaps be known, whose centenary in the Bolshevik revolution is reached this year, likewise needs no more tests. It does more harm than good every time. Nationalised, planned, one-party rule benefits nobody, let alone the poor.
My Times column on Britain's strong track record in the life sciences:
Mitochondrial replacement therapy (misleadingly termed three-parent babies) is to be permitted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. I’m glad. The scientists who have developed the technique, Sir Doug Turnbull, Mary Herbert and others, are friends; the work has been done partly on the premises of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle, of which I am honorary president; I took part in the parliamentary debate last year on whether it was ethical and safe; and I have met some of the families suffering from the dreadful diseases it could cure. So I have emotional skin in the game.
My Times column on the high cost of Britain's climate change policies:
We now know from three different sources that Britain’s climate and energy policy is not just too expensive but has also been dishonestly presented. Peter Lilley MP, an unusually numerate former cabinet minister, has written a devastating new report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, published today, on the costs of Britain’s Climate Change Act 2008. It reveals “at best economic illiteracy and at worst deliberate deception” by government.
It comes as the National Audit Office has rapped the government’s knuckles for “a lack of transparency [that] has undermined accountability to parliament and consumers” in its energy policy. And a non-executive director of the former Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), Tom Kelly, found a systemic underestimation of the costs of the policy as well as “weaknesses in the original governance arrangements that were not rectified over time, a lack of transparency and a tendency to groupthink.” No wonder DECC sat on the Kelly report for a year before releasing it.
My column on European fragmentation in the Times (5 December):
The Italian referendum and close-shave Austrian election are symptoms of a continent that may be teetering on the brink of political disintegration. It’s just possible that an empire may be collapsing before our eyes, as the Habsburg and Ottoman empires did before it, in or around the same neighbourhood.
My Times column on identity politics:
The student union at King’s College London will field a team in University Challenge that contains at least 50 per cent “self-defining women, trans or non-binary students”. The only bad thing Ken Livingstone could bring himself to say about the brutal dictator Fidel Castro was that “initially he wasn’t very good on lesbian and gay rights”. The first page of Hillary Clinton’s campaign website (still up) has links to “African Americans for Hillary, Latinos for Hillary, Asian Americans and Pacific islanders for Hillary, Women for Hillary, Millennials for Hillary”, but none to “men for Hillary”, let alone “white people for Hillary”.
Since when did the left insist on judging people by — to paraphrase Martin Luther King — the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character? The left once admirably championed the right of black people, women and gays to be treated the same as white, straight men. With only slightly less justification, it then moved on to pushing affirmative action to redress past prejudice. Now it has gone further, insisting everybody is defined by his or her identity and certain victim identities must be favoured.
My Times column on the overdone threat from robots:
The tech industry, headquartered in Silicon Valley, is populated largely by enthusiastic optimists, who want to change the world and think they can. But there is one strand of pessimism that you hear a lot there: that the robots are going to take all our jobs. With artificial intelligence looming, human beings are facing redundancy and obsolescence. I think this neo-Luddite worry is as wrong now as in Ned Ludd’s day.
My Times column on Trump's electoral triumph (originally published 14 November):
Years of compensating for the media’s tendency to look on the dark side of everything has taught me that it generally pays to seek silver linings. It’s possible of course that Donald Trump will start a culture war, a trade war and a nuclear war, but it’s also just possible that, while behaving like an oaf, he will preside over a competent administration. So here, after a few days of talking to people in America’s two biggest economies, California and Texas, are ten reasons why I think a Trump presidency may not be as awful as many think, even if, like me, you heard the news of his victory with a sinking feeling.
1 Just as after Brexit, the markets went up, not down. Virtually all analysts agreed that if Mr Trump won the stock market would fall — most estimates ranged from 2 per cent to 7 per cent. Instead the S&P 500 was up 3.8 per cent by the end of last week. The markets are betting that financial deregulation will encourage growth.
My Times column on the wisdom of crowds, published the day before election day in the US:
‘In these democratic days, any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgments is of interest.” So begins an article entitled Vox Populi, which is not about Donald Trump but was published in 1907 by Francis Galton, a pioneer of statistics, by then 85 years old. He had analysed the results of a sweepstake competition held at the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition in Plymouth.
An ox was on display. Visitors could buy a postcard for sixpence and write their guess as to the weight of the ox, once slaughtered and dressed. Of 800 cards filled out, Galton rejected 13 as illegible and averaged the rest. The arithmetic mean of the 787 guesses came to 1,197lb. The true dressed weight of the ox was — yes — 1,197lb (Galton reported slightly different results, but recent reanalysis by Kenneth Wallis of Warwick University finds the match was exact).
My Times column on the surprising correlation between prosperity and improving conservation outcomes:
As foxes move into cities and deer, badgers and otters grow ever-more numerous, along with birds such as ospreys, buzzards and red kites, you might be thinking much of Britain’s wildlife is doing well. Yet last week the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), together with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), published their latest assessment of the state of the world’s mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish: the Living Planet Report 2016. They found that on average populations of such animals declined by about 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012.
The report also provides evidence that while wildlife populations are doing poorly in poor countries, they are generally doing well in rich countries. I spent a happy few hours on virtual safari through the detailed database behind the findings (so I can report that granulated catfish in Paraguay are doing well, while grey-necked picathartes in Cameroon are doing badly), and this pattern emerges clearly.
My Times column on batteries:
Batteries are no longer boring. Whether catching fire in Samsung Note 7s, being hailed as the answer to future electricity grids thanks to breakthrough chemical innovation, or being manufactured on a gigantic scale in Elon Musk’s gigafactory in Nevada, batteries are box office. And though battery technology is indeed advancing by leaps and bounds, there is a considerable quantity of balderdash being talked about it too.
My recent Times column from 10 October on immigration and the European Union:
Michael Kosterlitz, one of the four British-born but American-resident winners of Nobel prizes in science this year, is so incensed by Brexit that he is considering renouncing his British citizenship: “The idea of not being able to travel and work freely in Europe is unthinkable to me.” He has been misled — not by Leavers but by Remainers.
It’s not just that the overseas press have consistently portrayed Brexit as a nativist retreat, despite Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan consistently saying the very opposite. Throughout the referendum campaign — and, shamefully, since — academics have been told by their lobby groups (such as Universities UK) that Brexit probably means losing access to European research funds, European scientific collaborations and European talent.
My recent Times column on the planning paralysis holding back Britain:
At last, the government is about to decide on a third runway at Heathrow airport — by the end of this month, I hear. It’s only been ten years since Tony Blair’s government first proposed the plan. Yet it will be three years until planning permission is granted and another six before the runway is finished. That’s two decades. Heathrow’s original three runways in 1946 took less than two years to build from scratch in a war-ravaged country depleted of funds and fuel. Why do such projects now take so inordinately long?
Land-use planning in Britain is not a joke; it’s a disgrace. The present system is grotesquely biased, not so much in favour of opponents or proponents of development, but in favour of delay and cost. I happen to think HS2 and Hinkley Point C are mistakes, but if I’ve lost those battles — and I probably have — then at least let’s get on and build them quickly, rather than spend the next decade paying lawyers and consultants to slow them down and inflate their costs.
I have sent the following letter to the president of the Royal Society and the Chairman and director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation in response to a highly misleading letter to me that was copied to them.
To Sir Venki Ramakrishnan FRS, Lord Lawson and Dr Benny Peiser
The text of a lecture given at the Royal Society on 17 October 2016:
(Note some minor corrections made subsequent to delivery. These are shown in italics.)
I gave a lecture recently at Haileybury College (the successor to the East India College where the economist Robert Malthus taught), on the topic of "The Misapplication of Malthus". It was based on a chapter of my book The Evolution of Everything:
Parson Malthus casts a long shadow over the past 200 years. He was a good man without a cruel bone in his body. But great cruelty has been done in his name and is still being done in his name. That’s the paradox I wish to explore this evening.
Malthus’s finest legacy is to have sparked Charles Darwin into action. In September 1838, shortly after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin read, or re-read, Malthus’s essay on population and was struck by the notion of a struggle for existence in which some thrived and others did not, an idea which helped trigger the insight of natural selection.
My Times column on free trade after Brexit:
The prime minister wants Britain to be “the most passionate, most consistent, most convincing advocate for free trade”. Under either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and with world trade stagnating, it looks as if the job is increasingly likely to be vacant in March 2019, so Britain has both a vital duty and a golden opportunity. It worked for us before.
Next year sees the 200th anniversary of David Ricardo’s insight of “comparative advantage” — the counterintuitive idea that trade benefits “uncompetitive” countries as much as efficient ones. If one country is better at making both cloth and wine than another, it can still pay it to get its wine, for example, by making extra cloth to swap for the other’s wine. Or, as somebody once put it, even if Winston Churchill is a very good bricklayer (he was) it still makes sense for him to write books or run governments, and pay somebody else to build his walls.
My Times column on the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative in basic medical science:
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, and his wife Priscilla Chan, a paediatrician, have announced their intention to spend $3 billion over ten years on medical research. Having met them last year, I thought I would take the liberty of making a suggestion as to how they spend their money.
My Times column on statins, snus and vaping:
One of the most salutary examples of people in authority getting risks wrong is a paper written in 1955 by the first head of the environmental cancer section of the US National Cancer Institute, Wilhelm Hueper. The title was “lung cancers and their causes” and he was absolutely convinced that “cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer”, because he thought this was a cheap shot by the chemical industry to divert attention away from pesticides.
We now know that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer, whereas pesticides are not. History is littered with example of experts being too reassuring about some risks, too alarmed about others. Washing hands between dissecting women who died in child birth and delivering babies? No risk, said the nineteenth century medical establishment, ostracizing Ignaz Semelweiss who had had the temerity to suggest otherwise. Dietary fats cause heart attacks, insisted the medical establishment for the best part of five decades till very recently. It was once the consensus that tonsils should be removed; no longer.
My essay on invasive species in the Wall Street Journal:
In July, the New Zealand government announced its intention to eradicate all rats, stoats and possums from the entire country by 2050 to save native birds such as the kiwi. It’s an ambitious plan, perhaps impossible to pull off with the methods available today, but it’s a stark reminder that invasive alien species today constitute perhaps the greatest extinction threat to animal populations world-wide.
Birdlife International, a charity that works to save endangered birds, reckons that of the 140 bird species confirmed to have gone extinct since 1500, invasive alien species were a factor in the demise of at least 71—an impact greater than hunting, logging, agriculture, fire or climate change.
My Times column on how the Arctic sea ice has melted in late summer before, between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago:
The sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is approaching its annual nadir. By early September each year about two thirds of the ice cap has melted, then the sea begins to freeze again. This year looks unlikely to set a record for melting, with more than four million square kilometres of ice remaining, less than the average in the 1980s and 1990s, but more than in the record low years of 2007 and 2012. (The amount of sea ice around Antarctica has been increasing in recent years, contrary to predictions.)
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