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 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 Spectator article in the Christmas edition:
Christmas Day marks the birthday of one of the most gifted human beings ever born. His brilliance was of a supernoval intensity, but he was, by all accounts, very far from pleasant company. I refer to Isaac Newton.
Would you like your next child to have the intelligence of a Newton? It may not be long before this is a consumer choice, according to an ambitious new company founded in America a few months ago. Genomic Prediction initially plans to offer people who use in-vitro fertilisation the chance to identify and avoid embryos that would be likely to develop diabetes, late-life osteoporosis, schizophrenia and dwarfism. The key is the application of smart software to gigantic databases of genomic information from the population at large so as to spot dangerous combinations of gene variants. The founders also talk of being able to predict intelligence from genes, at least to some degree.
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 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.
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