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: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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This blog post was adapted from this Twitter thread:
Articles often claim that the Delta variant is more virulent, e.g. "Citing the spread of the more virulent Delta coronavirus variant in the United Kingdom". Earlier in the year the same was said about the Alpha (Kent) variant, that it was more "virulent". That was untrue. Virulent means "harmful", not "infectious".If anything, the evidence suggests that the Delta variant may be less virulent, but more transmissible/infectious—although it is hard to be sure this is true, given that the vulnerable old are now protected by vaccines."The suggestion that the Indian variant is more pathogenic needs to be taken with a big dose of salt. The same was initially suggested for the Kent variant but was later shown not to be true" writes Professor Ian Jones.Respiratory viruses tend to evolve to be more transmissible but less virulent: they do better if you go out and about meeting people. This is not true of insect-borne or water-borne viruses, which don't care how sick you are: insects or water do the going out about about for you.
Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash
My article for The Telegraph:
Britain leads the pack on vaccination, but lags far behind America, Germany and France on liberation. A big reason is that our Government remains in thrall to a profession that has performed uniquely badly during the pandemic: modellers. The Government’s reliance on Sage experts’ computer modelling to predict what would happen with or without various interventions has proved about as useful as the ancient Roman habit of consulting trained experts in “haruspicy” – interpreting the entrails of chickens.
As Sarah Knapton has revealed in these pages, the brutal postponement of Freedom Day coincided with the release of a bunch of alarmist models predicting a huge new wave of deaths. The most pessimistic, inevitably from Imperial College, forecast 203,824 deaths over the next year. It did so by assuming just a 77-87 per cent reduction in hospitalisations following two vaccinations, despite the fact that real world data shows two vaccinations to be between 92 per cent (AstraZeneca) and 96 per cent (Pfizer) effective in preventing hospitalisation. That would cut the Imperial forecast of deaths by a gob-smacking 90 per cent to 26,854.
My article for the Genetic Literacy Project:
The Government was right to make provision for a temporary and limited derogation for the use of the neonicotinoid seed treatment Cruiser SB on sugar beet for the 2021 season, although the colder conditions of recent months mean it will not be required this year.
The impact of virus yellows on last year’s beet crop for many growers was absolutely devastating and explains why the UK, after resisting in previous years, followed 13 EU member states in granting this emergency derogation. But I cannot help calling out the sheer hypocrisy of those in the organic and anti-pesticide lobby who portrayed the Government’s decision as heralding the extinction of all bees and other pollinating insects.
My article for Spectator:
In March last year, it was widely agreed by everybody sensible, me included, that talk of the pandemic originating in a laboratory was pseudoscientific nonsense almost on a par with UFOs and the Loch Ness monster. My own reasoning was that Mother Nature is a better genetic engineer than we will ever be, so something as accomplished at infection and spread could not possibly have been put together in a lab.
Today, the mood has changed. Even Dr Anthony Fauci, the US President’s chief medical advisor, now says he is ‘not convinced’ the virus emerged naturally. This month a letter in Science magazine from 18 senior virologists and other experts — including a close collaborator of the Wuhan lab at the centre of the debate, Ralph Baric — demanded that such a hypothesis be taken seriously. Suddenly, too, journalists have woken up and begun writing articles admitting they might have been hasty in dismissing a lab leak as a Trumpian conspiracy theory last year. CNN reported this week that the Biden administration shut down the State Department’s investigation into this.
My article for the Telegraph:The whole aim of practical politics, said HL Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
It is hard to avoid the impression that officials are alarmed rather than pleased by the fading of the pandemic in Britain. They had a real hobgoblin to hand, and boy did they make the most of it, but it’s now turning into a pussy cat. So they are back to casting around for imaginary ones to justify their draconian – and deliciously popular – command and control over every detail of our lives. Look, variants!
And yes, the pandemic is fading fast. The vaccine is working “better than we could possibly have imagined”, according to Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, based on a study which found that it reduced hospitalisation by 98 per cent. With deaths from the virus now falling by more than 20 per cent a week and with overall mortality from all causes now below the long-term average, “we’ve moved from a pandemic to an endemic situation”, according to Sarah Walker, Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at Oxford and Chief Investigator on the ONS’s Covid-19 Infection Survey. The UK’s covid positivity rate at 0.2 per cent is now the fifth lowest in the world and lower than Taiwan and Israel.
In search of wisdom about how an officious government reluctantly relaxes its grip after an emergency, I stumbled on a 1948 newsreel clip of Harold Wilson when he was president of the Board of Trade. It’s a glimpse of long-forgotten and brain-boggling complexity in the rationing system. ‘We have taken some clothing off the ration altogether,’ he boasts, posing as a munificent liberator. ‘From shoes to bathing costumes, and from oilskins to body belts and children’s raincoats. Then we’ve reduced the points on such things as women’s coats and woollen garments generally and... on men’s suits.’
Does this remind you of anything? One day in November, George Eustice, the environment secretary, uttered the immortal words that a Scotch egg ‘probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service’, only for Michael Gove to say the next day that ‘a couple of Scotch eggs is a starter, as far as I’m concerned’, later correcting himself to concede that ‘a Scotch egg is a substantial meal’. This is the sort of tangled descent into detail that central planning always causes. We have seen it again and again over the past year. What is essential travel? Is a picnic exercise? Can you go inside a pub to get to its outside space? Ask the man from the ministry.
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.
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.
"Viral" by Matt Ridley is coming later this year. Sign up for his newsletter and follow him on Facebook and Twitter to learn when it arrives.
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.
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.
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