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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Matt Ridley's latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute, is now available in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
My article for Spectator:
Sir Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust, writes that ‘the last year has been an eye-opener for me. I thought, probably like most people, that the world works through official or formal channels, but much of it operates through private phone calls or messaging apps’. Hence his book, written with the journalist Anjana Ahuja, is a gossipy, sometimes angry, fast-paced tale, which quotes frequently from his own messages sent to other important people. No holds are barred or formal channels kept to.It is therefore a fascinating and valuable account from somebody who was close to the action, as a member of the famous Sage, and one who played a key role in several important initiatives, including, for example, kicking off the successful Recovery trial of anti-Covid treatments after a chance meeting on a bus. Many of his observations are acute, and some of his suggestions are well made, not least his passionate call for Britain to set an example by sending vaccines to the rest of the world rather than vaccinating the relatively invulnerable young.Farrar is full of praise for some people, such as fellow Sage members and Dominic Cummings, and full of contempt for others, including Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and any lockdown sceptic. He may or may not be right, but after a while the reader begins to feel a little uneasy at a certain double standard. ‘Intermittent lockdowns’ are the answer in chapter 5, but reopening after the first lockdown is a disastrous mistake in chapter 6. Johnson is criticised for not paying attention to the crisis in February 2020 a few pages after Farrar describes his own skiing holiday in... February.
My article for the Telegraph:On Twitter this week an unfortunate hiker showed a short video of the midges swarming in their tens of thousands over his backpack and his arms in the Scottish Highlands. It was itchy just to watch. It would be silly to argue that his video is evidence that insects are increasing in number. Yet the evidence for a dramatic decline in insect numbers, an “insect apocalypse”, which activists and journalists have been proclaiming recently, is about as weak as such a claim would be.
A film called Insect O Cide is coming out soon. Its ludicrous central theme is that “human beings are on the verge of extinction due to the rapid decline in the insect populations”. “The Insect Apocalypse is here”, said the New York Times in 2018. “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’” said the Guardian in 2019. The source for this claim was a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation by two Australian scientists that claimed to reveal “dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40 per cent of the world’s insect species over the next few decades”.
This was junk science of the worst kind. As three other scientists then pointed out, “there is so much wrong with the paper, it really shouldn’t have been published in its current form: the biased search method, the cherry-picked studies, the absence of any real quantitative data to back up the bizarre 40 per cent extinction rate that appears in the abstract … and the errors in the reference list.” Of the studies cited by the apocalypse paper, the three said, “we were really surprised to discover how many of them we had to discard, because they contained no data”.
My article for Spectator:It is mystifying to me that organic food is still widely seen as healthier, more sustainable and, most absurdly, safer than non-organic food.
Following the publication of part two of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy last week, the organic movement was quick to suggest that organic food and farming offer a way to achieve the strategy’s vision. ‘The recommendations of the National Food Strategy offer genuine hope that by embracing agroecological and organic farming, and adopting a healthier and more sustainable diet, we can address the climate, nature and health crises,’ said Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association, Britain’s most vocal organic lobbying organisation. Browning also highlighted the strategy’s recognition of the Soil Association’s ‘Food for Life’ programme — essentially a vehicle to promote greater procurement and use of organic food in schools and hospitals.
The trouble is that scientific evidence indicates that the food safety risks of eating organic food are considerably greater than those of eating non-organic food. This is primarily because organic crop production relies on animal faeces as a fertiliser, an obvious vector for potentially lethal pathogens such as E.coli, but also because organic crops can be prone to harmful mycotoxins as a result of inadequate control of crop pests and diseases.
My article for the Telegraph:Back in the early 1950s scientists were baffled by one aspect of life itself. Our cells were full of proteins whose properties depended on their precise shapes, and the key feature of life was the ability to copy itself, but how on earth do you copy three-dimensional shapes? The unexpected answer was that you don’t: you copy a one-dimensional, linear sequence in a recipe book called DNA, which automatically determines how each protein folds into its shape.
Surprisingly, until last week, working out how this folding worked was beyond even big computers: tiny shifts in angles could result in wildly different shapes, and forecasting what shape would result from what sequence was as hard as predicting the weather. Now, thanks to the brilliant London AI firm DeepMind (which sold itself to Google a few years back), a learning algorithm has cracked the problem and has predicted hundreds of thousands of shapes from sequences. It did so as an encore after defeating the world champion at the fiendishly complicated game of Go: in neither case was it taught by experts but learned from examples.
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel prize for figuring out the structure of the ribosome (the machine that translates DNA into proteins), told me last week that he thinks the DeepMind breakthrough is huge: “we probably have not yet grasped its impact and all the ways it will change the way we do biology.”
My interview with Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal:
“Science” has become a political catchword. “I believe in science,” Joe Biden tweeted six days before he was elected president. “Donald Trump doesn’t. It’s that simple, folks.”
But what does it mean to believe in science? The British science writer Matt Ridley draws a pointed distinction between “science as a philosophy” and “science as an institution.” The former grows out of the Enlightenment, which Mr. Ridley defines as “the primacy of rational and objective reasoning.” The latter, like all human institutions, is erratic, prone to falling well short of its stated principles. Mr. Ridley says the Covid pandemic has “thrown into sharp relief the disconnect between science as a philosophy and science as an institution.”
From the "Lords Diary" feature at PoliticsHome:I wandered the ghostly corridors of Westminster hoping to spot a few colleagues and got lost in a one-way system. This hybrid Parliament seems to have made the government’s job more time-consuming, as we all drone on from home, but less challenging, as the cut-and-thrust of debate atrophies: the worst of both worlds.On the day I came to London I had finished writing a new book: always a moment of relief mixed with anxiety about whether it could be better. This time it was especially difficult to sign off the last edits because the topic is a moving target – the origin of the virus that caused the pandemic. New information keeps breaking.Also for the first time I am co-authoring, with Alina Chan, a brilliant young scientist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. I was warned that co-authors often fall out, and we have never actually met in person, but we only really disagreed over one word. I refuse ever to use the word “blueprint” as a metaphor for a genome. It’s inaccurate, because it implies that each bit of a genome maps onto each bit of a creature’s body; and it’s unfamiliar. Who even knows what a blueprint is these days? I prefer “recipe”.As I argued in the Lords the next day, whether the virus jumped species in a wildlife market or a laboratory is an urgent question requiring a full and independent investigation – because, if we don’t find the answer, we risk a repeat. Both kinds of jump have happened in the past, and viruses of precisely this kind were being collected, brought uniquely to Wuhan (more than 1,000 miles away) and experimented on by scientists, so it was wrong of some scientists and the World Health Organization to try to dismiss the possibility of a lab leak prematurely.A laboratory accident is by definition not a “conspiracy theory” and science needs to demonstrate it can investigate itself or its enemies will do so instead. Fortunately, the mood has changed in the last two months, partly sparked by an open letter in the journal Science, calling for a full investigation, signed by 18 scientists and initiated by my co-author.Later I supported Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville’s amendment to the environment bill on the topic of fly tipping. About once a week a new load of rubbish appears overnight in one of the gateways on my farm. Cameras in favoured spots would help, but you have to put up signs saying they are there. My other bugbear is birthday balloons. They are the only form of litter on remote moorland in the Pennines. We should insist that each one carries a manufacturer’s address so you can return to sender.Gareth Southgate’s redemption since his penalty miss in 1996 is a wonderful story. A faster reversal of reputation came to my newly and deservedly en-damed friend Kate Bingham. I asked how it felt like to be widely admired now after being denounced and vilified last year with the help of bad mouthing from her enemies. Memories are fading of how much of the media were determined to bring her down.I told her of a call from a journalist who asked me to comment on the fact that a) Bingham had hired as a PR consultant b) a woman who is married to c) a man who has sat on the board of a small charity with d) the father of e) the wife of f) Dominic Cummings. My answer was to laugh, but Kate reminded me the Financial Times actually ran that story as if it implied corruption. The more we find out about the negotiation she did to acquire vaccines, and the contrast with how other countries did it, the more remarkable the story becomes.
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