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.
I went on The Knowledge Project podcast with Shane Parrish to discuss "writing books about science, the age-old battle between viruses and humans, rational optimism, the difference between innovation and invention, the role of trial and error and the effects of social media on seeing others’ points of view."
It was a wonderful conversation, and good fun!
My article from Warp News:
At a time when the miraculous success of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 has transformed the battle against the pandemic, it is fitting to recall that the general idea behind vaccination was brought to the attention of the western world, not by brilliant and privileged professors, but by a black slave and a woman.
His name was Onesimus and he lived in Boston, as the property of Cotton Mather, a well-known puritan preacher. Her name was Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, the literary wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople.
My article for The Telegraph:
It is a year ago last week since the World Health Organisation conceded, belatedly, that a pandemic was under way. The organisation’s decisions in early 2020 were undoubtedly influenced by the Chinese government. On 14 January, to widespread surprise, the WHO was still echoing China’s assurance that there was no evidence of person-to-person spread: “it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission,” said an official that day. Within days even China conceded this was wrong.
Later that month the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said his admiration for China’s speed in detecting the virus and sharing information was “beyond words”, adding “so is China's commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries”. At the time China’s government was punishing whistleblowers, taking down databases, censoring scientists and ordering samples destroyed.
There is something rather apt in the coincidence of an Italian ban on vaccine exports to Australia and the negotiation by Liz Truss, the trade secretary, of lower tariffs on trade with the United States. One is as pure a demonstration of spiteful EU protectionism as one could imagine; the other a clear demonstration of mutual gains from freer trade.
Supporting Brexit used to be difficult to explain to foreigners. I remember a Mexican friend flatly refusing to believe I voted for it. “Surely you are joking,” he said, finding it hard to imagine me as a racist, isolationist xenophobe – the only kind of Brexiteer recognised by CNN, the Economist and the New York Times.
My article for Discourse:
Innovation is the “main event” of the modern age. It’s the reason why after millennia of comparative stagnation, the last several hundred years featured sudden, dramatic improvements in technology and therefore living standards: from steam engines to search engines, from vaccines to vaping.
It’s also a strangely localized and temporary phenomenon. At any one time, there is usually one part of the world where innovation flourishes best, attracting talent from all over: California in 1960, the U.S. East Coast in 1920, Britain in 1800, Holland in 1650, Renaissance Italy in 1500, Song China in 1000, Abbasid Arabia in 800, ancient Greece in 500 B.C., the Ganges Valley before that. These were places that were relatively wealthy, free and open to trade at the time.
This is a more detailed version of the article co-written with Alina Chan on the origin of the virus causing the Covid pandemic which was published in the Telegraph on 6 February.
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My article for The Spectator:
In the genetic diaspora of an epidemic, there is ferocious competition between strains of virus to get to the next victim first. That leads to apparently purposeful outcomes, as if the virus had a mind. One of the things people find hardest to grasp about evolution is that it appears purposeful but the mutations on which it feeds are random. How come dolphins evolved to swim if all they had to work with were random changes in genes? Viruses also mutate at random — but most people talk as though the rise and fall of these mutant versions is mainly down to chance or luck. It’s not.
Mutations occur all the time in RNA viruses; what matters is which ones find favour in natural selection. The champions of ‘Darwinian medicine’ have been calling for their colleagues to take evolution and adaptation more into account for years, and one of them, Paul Ewald of the University of Louisville, has something very relevant to say about this pandemic. Years ago, Ewald came up with a theory of why some diseases are lethal and others are mild. He argues it is all about the mode of transmission. Infections that you catch from coughs and sneezes are mostly mild; we get more than 200 different kinds of common cold virus and on the whole none of them puts you in bed, let alone kills you. Yet insect-borne diseases such as malaria, plague and yellow fever, and water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, seem quite content to kill you.
My article for the Wall Street Journal, with Dr. Chan:
In the first week of January, scientists representing the World Health Organization (WHO) were due to arrive in China to trace the origins of Covid-19. The team membership and terms of reference were preapproved by the Chinese government, yet at the last minute Beijing denied entry to the investigators. This prompted WHO to take the rare step of criticizing China, which relented and allowed the group to enter the country this week.
The brief standoff highlights a more serious problem: the inadequacy of WHO’s current investigative framework for exploring all plausible origins of Covid-19. The world needs an inquiry that considers not just natural origins but the possibility that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, escaped from a laboratory. The WHO team, however, plans to build on reports by Chinese scientists rather than mount an independent investigation. Given that Chinese authorities have been slow to release information, penalized scientists and doctors who shared clinical and genomic details of the novel coronavirus, and have since demonstrated a keen interest in controlling the narrative of how the virus emerged, this is not a promising foundation for WHO’s investigation.
My latest article, for The Telegraph:
Britain probably leads the world in self-criticism. So maybe we don’t always notice when the country leads the world in something a bit more useful. During the pandemic a lot has been done badly here – the modelling, testing and lockdown policies have been harmful, clumsy, and chaotic – but it’s worth reflecting on what we have done well, especially in science.
My article for The Times:
Tomorrow Britain starts to set its own rules, free of the directives of imperial Brussels. Boris Johnson said recently that his government kept deliberately quiet in 2020 about how it would unleash the British tiger lest it scare Michel Barnier during the free-trade negotiations. Perhaps that is true but it is alarming how much more time this government has spent talking about banning things (gas boilers, petrol cars, trophy hunting, live animal exports, junk-food advertising, beer consumed without Scotch eggs) than liberating them. I can think of no example of a ministerial speech this year that urged less regulation of anything.
At the moment we look like a country that is more Euro-dirigiste than the EU itself, ready to enter into trade disputes with the Commission about their disgraceful failure to be sufficiently bossy to the consumer, while demanding the freedom to give in to industries that refuse to grow unless they get generous “state aid”. That would be a shame. If Britain is to have a roaring Twenties, accelerating economic growth through innovation as a science superpower, then we need a government relentlessly committed to removing obstacles faced by entrepreneurs and to resisting the demands for subsidy from corporatists. Enterprise is sometimes the opposite of capitalism.
Boris Johnson's fondness for the metaphor of the US cavalry riding to the rescue is risky: ask General Custer. With the vaccine cavalry in sight, and just when we thought we had earned a Christmas break, the virus has ambushed us with a strain that seems more contagious, and which is rapidly coming to dominate the epidemic in south-east England.
It is now a race between the virus and the vaccine as to which can get into your bloodstream first.
My article for Spectator:
Almost 60 years ago, in February 1961, two teams of scientists stumbled on a discovery at the same time. Sydney Brenner in Cambridge and Jim Watson at Harvard independently spotted that genes send short-lived RNA copies of themselves to little machines called ribosomes where they are translated into proteins. ‘Sydney got most of the credit, but I don’t mind,’ Watson sighed last week when I asked him about it. They had solved a puzzle that had held up genetics for almost a decade. The short-lived copies came to be called messenger RNAs — mRNAs – and suddenly they now promise a spectacular revolution in medicine.
The first Covid-19 vaccine given to British people this month is not just a welcome breakthrough against a grim little enemy that has defied every other weapon we have tried, from handwashing to remdesivir and lockdowns. It is also the harbinger of a new approach to medicine altogether. Synthetic messengers that reprogram our cells to mount an immune response to almost any invader, including perhaps cancer, can now be rapidly and cheaply made.
My article for National Review:
If you judge by the images used to illustrate reports about energy, the world now runs mainly on wind and solar power. It comes as a shock to look up the numbers. In 2019 wind and solar between them supplied just 1.5 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Hydro supplied 2.6 percent, nuclear 1.7 percent, and all the rest — 94 percent — came from burning things: coal, oil, gas, wood, and biofuels.
As Mark Twain might say, reports of an energy transition away from combustion as a source of energy are greatly exaggerated. True, carbon-dioxide emissions are rising more slowly than energy consumption, but that is mainly because gas is displacing coal. The rise of renewables has so far not even compensated for the recent decline of nuclear — a decline renewables have contributed to causing because intermittent renewable energy hits the profitability of nuclear power hardest. Nuclear cannot be easily switched on and off.
Happy Christmas! The BioNtech/Pfizer vaccine’s approval, with others to come, is the best possible news at the end of a ghastly year. Vaccination is humankind’s most life-saving innovation, banishing scourge after scourge from the face of the earth. It is a technology that is so counterintuitive as to seem magical, but when it works it is unbeatable. The extinction of smallpox in 1977 was probably science’s greatest achievement.
Britain has been among the most incompetent countries at managing the pandemic, taking far too top-down and centralised an approach, but it will be the first to get vaccinating, weeks before America and a month before the lumbering bureaucratic dinosaur across the channel. We can thank Kate Bingham, our brilliant biologists and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. I recall being told by somebody with insider experience long before this that the European Medicines Agency added very little to what we do domestically, except duplication and delay.
'I don’t think that word means what you think it means,’ says the Spaniard Inigo Montoya in the film The Princess Bride, when Vizzini keeps saying it is ‘inconceivable’ that the Dread Pirate Roberts is still on their tail. I muttered those words to myself during a parliamentary debate just before the start of the latest lockdown, when the minister twice said that the wave of infections was increasing ‘exponentially’.
Far from increasing, let alone exponentially, the data showed that the wave was faltering if not cresting already. The lockdown came in on a Thursday. The very next day data from three reliable sources – the Office for National Statistics, the government and the Covid Symptom Study – showed slight falls of the number of positive cases or some levelling off. The fall was steep in some places such as Liverpool. The cynic in me wondered whether the haste with which the government had rushed to bring in the national lockdown, at the urging of its questionably sage advisors, was so that lockdown could be credited with the fall that was coming.
Our fearless leader has descended from the mountain with a 10-commandment plan for a green industrial revolution. At a cost of £12 billion, he will have all Britons driving electric cars powered by North Sea wind turbines and giving up their gas boilers to heat their homes with ground-source heat pumps. He will invent zero-emission planes and ships. This vast enterprise will create 250,000 jobs. I am a loyal supporter of the prime minister, but this Ed Miliband policy makes no sense any way you look at it. Here are 10 reasons why.
First, if it’s jobs we are after then spending £48,000 per job is a lot. Cheaper, as Lord Lawson put it, to create the same employment erecting a statue of Boris in every town. Anyway, it’s backwards: it’s not jobs in the generating of energy that count but jobs that use it. Providing cheap, reliable energy enables the private sector to create jobs for free as far as the taxpayer is concerned.
Ever since Giacomo Pylarini, a physician working in the Ottoman Empire, sent a report to the Royal Society in 1701 that Turkish women believed pus from a smallpox survivor could induce immunity in a healthy person – and was dismissed as a dangerous quack – inoculation has been as much an art as a science. But it has proven to be the greatest life-saver of all time, eliminating smallpox and suppressing many other diseases. In Pylarini’s prescient words, it is 'an operation invented not by persons conversant in philosophy or skilled in physic, but by a vulgar, illiterate people; an operation in the highest degree beneficial to the human race.'
It looks like a vaccine is probably going to work against Covid. That was never guaranteed: it’s been decades since scientists started seeking a vaccine for malaria and HIV, with no luck so far, and flu vaccines only last for a limited time before the virus mutates. But the announcement last week that the German firm BioNTech’s vaccine, developed in partnership with Pfizer, seems to prevent Covid infection is encouraging news. Kudos to Kate Bingham for spotting it early.
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My new book How Innovation Works is available now in the US, Canada, and UK.
I was in favour of a national lockdown in the spring. I am not now, for six main reasons.
Covid is not a very dangerous disease for most people. The death rate is probably around 0.2 per cent of those infected, and most who die are elderly and suffering from other medical conditions. The mortality of those in hospital with Covid has almost halved for the over 80s since the start of the epidemic as treatment has improved.
An expanded version of my article for Spectator:
It is counterintuitive but the current spread of Covid may on balance be the least worst thing that could happen now. In the absence of a vaccine, and with no real prospect of eradicating the disease, the virus spreading among younger people, mostly without hitting the vulnerable, is creating immunity that will eventually slow the epidemic. The second wave is real, but it is not like the first. It would be a mistake to tackle it with compulsory lockdowns (even if called ‘circuit breakers’), whether national or local. The cure would be worse than the disease and it won’t work anyway.
Letter from 12 Conservative peers to The Times:
Sir, It is now clear that a policy of lockdown failed to bring the virus under control while having crippling economic and social side effects. Sweden has achieved a lower death rate from Covid-19 than the UK, with far less economic and social damage, despite being a slightly more urbanised society. If lockdown were a treatment undergoing a clinical trial, the trial would be halted because of the side effects. We suggest the government try a new approach, more in keeping with the Conservative philosophy of individual responsibility. Anyone who wishes to be locked down, whether because they are vulnerable or for other reasons, should be supported in doing so safely. Anyone who wishes to resume normal life, and take the risk of catching the virus, should be free to do so. The choice would be ours.
Lord Ridley; Lord Cavendish of Furness; Lord Dobbs; Lord Hamilton of Epsom; Lord Howard of Rising; Lord Lamont of Lerwick; Lord Lilley; Lord Mancroft; Baroness Meyer; Baroness Noakes; Lord Robathan; Lord Shinkwin; House of Lords
My article for the Wall Street Journal:
The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched the bond between the public and the scientific profession as never before. Scientists have been revealed to be neither omniscient demigods whose opinions automatically outweigh all political disagreement, nor unscrupulous fraudsters pursuing a political agenda under a cloak of impartiality. Somewhere between the two lies the truth: Science is a flawed and all too human affair, but it can generate timeless truths, and reliable practical guidance, in a way that other approaches cannot.
My article with MP David Davis, for the Telegraph:
As we face six tough months of curfews, isolation and economic misery, with vaccines a distant hope, testing struggling to control the virus, and the hospitalisation rate once again rising, it’s surely time to try anything reasonable to slow the pandemic down. There is one chemical that is known to be safe, known to be needed by many people anyway, known to have a clinically proven track record of helping people fight off respiratory diseases, and is so cheap no big firm is pushing it: vitamin D. It is not a silver bullet, but growing evidence suggests that it might help prevent Covid turning serious in some people.
In May, arguments on the link between Vitamin D deficiency and its association with poor Covid outcomes started to gather pace. That month, the Health Secretary’s attention was drawn to two studies showing a strong association between the incidence and severity of Covid-19 with vitamin D deficiencies in the patients. Vadim Backman of Northwestern University, one of the authors of one of those studies, said about healthy levels of vitamin D that “Our analysis shows that it might be as high as cutting the mortality rate in half.”
My review of Unfit for Purpose: When human evolution collides with the modern world by Adam Hart, for The Critic:
Our ancestors have spenta few hundred years in cities at most. Before that, they spent a million years or more on what was essentially a perpetual camping trip, most of it in Africa. Little wonder then that people are more easily scared of snakes than cars, of deep water than speed, of spiders than guns. We are, to a significant extent, adapted to the environment we evolved in, rather than the one most of us now inhabit.
This mismatch explains quite a lot about our modern problems, and Adam Hart, an entomologist and broadcaster, has set out to see just how far, and how convincingly, mismatch can explain things like allergies, obesity, and our addiction to drugs, social media and even fake news. His book is especially valuable because it does not fall for simplistic “just-so” stories without checking the actual evidence first.
When he knew he was dying, the scientist JBS Haldane wrote that he hadn’t walked on the seafloor from England to France, but he had been wounded in war, known the love of two women, tried heroin and bhang, eaten 60g of hexahydrated strontium chloride in an attempt to change the acidity of his blood, and spent 48 hours in a miniature submarine.
His spine was permanently damaged by the convulsions brought on by more than 100 self-experiments, during the Second World War, inside decompression chambers filled with various gases, trying to understand how to save submariners’ lives.
Like the ancient mariner, the virus refuses to leave us alone. Resurging in Blackburn, Spain, and America, it is still going to be around here when the winter comes. As we head indoors, it will be back for a dreaded second wave, disguised among a host of colds and flus. Yet I am now optimistic that the nightmare will end this year or at least by the spring. Here are five reasons.
First, vaccine trials were promising. Having proved safe and capable of raising both a T-cell response and an antibody response, Oxford University’s vaccine, developed in collaboration with Astrazeneca, is now more likely to succeed than to fail, so long as its side effects are manageable in the elderly. And behind it comes a stream of other vaccines, some of which will surely work.
The second half of my much-anticipated interview with Silicon Valley legend Naval Ravikant in May is now available. We discussed my new book How Innovation Works and more.
It was a wonderful discussion, and I appreciated hearing the perspective of a true entrepreneur and innovator.
You can listen to it via his YouTube page below, or download it on Apple Podcasts, or download it elsewhere or read the transcript on his website.
The first half of my much-anticipated interview with Silicon Valley legend Naval Ravikant in May is now available. We discussed my new book How Innovation Works and more.It was a wonderful discussion, and I appreciated hearing the perspective of a true entrepreneur and innovator.
You can listen to it on his YouTube page below, download it on Apple Podcasts, or download it elsewhere or read the transcript on his website.
My article for PERC:
In 1980, the year that PERC was founded, I spent three months in the Himalayas working on a wildlife conservation project. The purpose was to do wildlife surveys on behalf of the Indian government in the stunningly beautiful valleys of the Kulu region in northern India, among forests of deodar cedar and evergreen oak. One species of particular interest was a bird called the western tragopan, a large, spotted gray forest pheasant with red plumage around the neck and bright blue skin on the male’s throat. The bird was found only in a few places and thought to be teetering on the brink of extinction.
Though we saw other pheasant species, we never saw a tragopan that year, but some of the people we met knew of the bird, and one even handed me the remains of a tragopan that had been shot for food. I feared it might be the last one. I wanted to come back in the spring when the birds’ mating calls might give them away in the deep bamboo thickets they preferred, but work prevented me.
My article for the Telegraph:
It is now three weeks since thousands of protesters first gathered in Trafalgar Square, and two weeks since London filled with even larger crowds, few of whom wore masks or kept two metres apart, and some of whom got involved in fights, resulting in arrests and injuries: a perfect recipe for spreading the coronavirus. Yet there has been a continuing decline in new cases of the disease and no uptick in calls to 111 or 999 about suspected Covid-19. By now, some effect should have shown up if it was going to. In June, London has seen fewer deaths from all causes than in a normal year. Why is this?
While respiratory viruses nearly always evolve towards lower virulence, essentially because the least sick people go to the most meetings and parties, this one was never very dangerous for most people in the first place. Its ability to kill 80-year-olds in care homes stands in sharp contrast with its inability to kill younger people. Fewer than 40 people under the age of 40 with no underlying conditions have died in Britain. On board the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, 1,100 sailors tested positive, many had no symptoms and only one died.
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