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 essay for Freer:
Suppose that millions of Britons were driving a dangerous type of car that was killing 80,000 people a year. Suppose somebody invented a new car that was much, much safer, significantly cheaper, and emitted far fewer fumes, while performing just as well. Would you a) ban the new car, or b) encourage people to buy it? Not that difficult a question, surely. Yet the reaction of many public health professionals and politicians has been to choose a) in an exactly analogous situation relating to nicotine. Why? Because they would rather you did not drive at all.
Take, for example, this recent pronouncement by the mayor of San Francisco: “Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. Tobacco kills more than 480,000 people a year in this country. That’s more than AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined.” Therefore, he goes on — in one of the great non-sequiturs of history — he is going to ban ecigarettes, which have caused none of those deaths and could prevent them, but not ban real cigarettes, which caused nearly all of those deaths.
My article for Reaction on biodiversity:
Driven perhaps by envy at the attention that climate change is getting, and ambition to set up a great new intergovernmental body that can fly scientists to mega-conferences, biologists have gone into overdrive on the subject of biodiversity this week.
My Times review of Gareth Williams's new book Unravelling The Double Helix.
Who discovered DNA? James Watson and Francis Crick, right? Wrong. Eighty years before they even approached the topic, in 1868, a young Swiss researcher, Friedrich Miescher, working at the University of Tübingen, discovered DNA as a chemical substance, though not its revealing structure.
Blagdon estate has hosted parts of two surface coal mines, at Brenkley and Shotton, for several years. We are proud to have done so mainly because of the jobs provided and the income to the local economy. But environmentally, too, these projects have been very positive. Managed by the Banks Group, the landscapes around these mines are surprisingly rich in wildlife, such as hares, lapwings, skylarks and wild flowers, including bee orchids in 2018. After restoration, the land has become a patchwork of good wildlife habitats thanks to sensitive restoration. They helped us to win the Bledisloe award for estate management from the Royal Agricultural Society of England.
I have always been careful to declare my interest in coal mining whenever relevant. I am keen to persuade fellow Northumbrians that surface coal mining elsewhere in the county, where I do not have an interest, can be good for the economy and the environment, and has a positive impact on emissions, because it substitutes for imported coal. I therefore recently wrote to James Brokenshire, secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, in support of the scheme to open a new surface mine at Highthorn in Northumberland. This is what I said:
“I am writing to you about a decision on a planning matter in Northumberland that I believe is vital for the county and the nation. As you will know, the Banks Group applied for planning permission to mine coal at Highthorn; this was approved by Northumberland county council; the government called it in and appointed an inspector, who ruled in favour of the scheme. You predecessor then rejected the inspector’s recommendation, but the court has now overturned his decision.
My Spectator article on a surge in medical and environmental pseudoscience:
‘The whole aim of practical politics,’ wrote H.L. 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.’ Newspapers, politicians and pressure groups have been moving smoothly for decades from one forecast apocalypse to another (nuclear power, acid rain, the ozone layer, mad cow disease, nanotechnology, genetically modified crops, the millennium bug…) without waiting to be proved right or wrong.
An expanded version of the my recent Times article:
Suppose Britain leaves the EU on March 29 with no deal, just a series of last-minute fixes on things such as aviation and data. And suppose it proves to be a fairly damp squib, with a handful of problems, talked up breathlessly by the BBC, but no significant shortages in shops, or disruptions to supply chains.
My article in the Wall Street Journal on the persistent appeal of pessimism:
Has the percentage of the world population that lives in extreme poverty almost doubled, almost halved or stayed the same over the past 20 years? When the Swedish statistician and public health expert Hans Rosling began asking people that question in 2013, he was astounded by their responses. Only 5% of 1,005 Americans got the right answer: Extreme poverty has been cut almost in half. A chimpanzee would do much better, he pointed out mischievously, by picking an answer at random. So people are worse than ignorant: They believe they know many dire things about the world that are, in fact, untrue.
My Review in The Times of Robert Plomin's new book:
For a long time there was an uncomfortable paradox in the world of behaviour genetics. The evidence for genes heavily influencing personality, intelligence and almost everything about human behaviour got stronger and stronger as more and more studies of twins and adoption came through. However, the evidence implicating any particular gene in any of these traits stubbornly refused to emerge, and when it did, it failed to replicate.
Ten years ago I recall talking to Robert Plomin about this crisis in the science of which he was and is the doyen. He was as baffled as anybody. The more genes seemed to matter, the more they refused to be identified. Were we missing something about heredity? He came close to giving up research and retiring to a sailing boat.
My Times column on the European Court of Justice's bizarre decision to treat genome edited crops as if they were transgenic:
The European Court of Justice has just delivered a scientifically absurd ruling, in defiance of advice from its advocate general, but egged on by Jean-Claude Juncker’s allies. It will ensure that more pesticides are used in Britain, our farmers will be less competitive and researchers will leave for North America. Thanks a bunch, your honours.
This is recent Times feature article I wrote on the incredible new discoveries of what seabirds get up to far from land, and on the man who first visited seabird colonies with a scientific eye in the 1660s. It's sometimes still possible to write this kind of discursive essay! This one is about two of my friends from the same research group at Oxford.
My recent Times essay on the history of vaping and why the UK became such a hub of electronic cigarettes:
Britain is the world leader in vaping. More people use ecigarettes in the UK than in any other European country. It’s more officially encouraged than in the United States and more socially acceptable than in Australia, where it’s still banned. There is a thriving sector here of vape manufacturers, retailers, exporters, even researchers; there are 1,700 independent vape shops on Britain’s streets. It’s an entrepreneurial phenomenon and a billion-pound industry.
The British vaping revolution dismays some people, who see it as a return to social acceptability for something that looks like smoking with unknown risks. Yet here, more than anywhere in the world, the government disagrees. Public Health England says that vaping is 95% safer than smoking and the vast majority of people who vape are smokers who are partly or wholly quitting cigarettes. The Royal College of Physicians agrees: “The public can be reassured that ecigarettes are much safer than smoking.”
My Times column on the parliamentary battle over Brexit:
Dominic Grieve, MP, and Viscount Hailsham are clever barristers both, and agreeable company. I was at Oxford with one, sit in the Lords with the other, and count them as friends. But what they are up to infuriates me. Their amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill — for it is a joint effort — is a masterpiece of ingenuity and subterfuge, and it has nearly succeeded in wrecking Brexit altogether, which was undoubtedly its purpose all along. Tonight in the Lords comes the latest and probably not the last battle.
Before the 2017 election Mr Grieve said he did not want to “fetter the government’s hands in negotiations, or indeed the government’s right to walk away from the negotiations”. Like many at that time he wanted to get the best possible deal in the softest possible Brexit. What changed?
My Times column on artificial intelligence:
As a member of the House of Lords select committee on artificial intelligence, whose report is released today, I was struck by two things during the course of our inquiry: how well placed Britain could be to take advantage of the new technologies that go under the name of AI, should we choose to play our cards right; and how pervasive and invisible this technology will prove to be.
The first point was driven home during an evidence session with a more than usually brilliant German professor, Wolfgang Wahlster, chief executive of the German Research Centre for AI. He said: “We have a very special approach that is based on Germany’s industrial strengths . . . This is quite different from the US approach, which is based more on internet services. We are more in the physical domain; you know that Germany is well known for its engineering and manufacturing.” He added: “Historically, the UK was the leading country in Europe in AI. It started in Edinburgh.”
My Times column on the rent-seeking crony-capitalists who stifle innovation:
While the world economy continues to grow at more than 3 per cent a year, mature economies, from Europe to Japan, are coagulating, unable to push economic growth above sluggish. The reason is that we have more and more vested interests against innovation in the private as well as the public sector.
Continuing prosperity depends on enough people putting money and effort into what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. The normal state of human affairs is what The jurist Sir Henry Maine called a “status” society, in which income is assigned to individuals by authority. The shift to a “contract” society, in which people negotiate their own rewards, was an aberration and it’s fading. I am writing this from Amsterdam and am reminded we caught the idea off the Dutch, whose impudent prosperity so annoyed the ultimate status king, Louis XIV.
My Times column on the evolution of urban wildlife:
Easter Monday bank holiday feels like a good moment to put aside politics and consider something far more portentous: evolution. Recently I was walking alongside a canal in central London, surrounded by concrete, glass, steel and tarmac, when I heard the call of a grey wagtail. Looking to my right I saw this bold, fast, yellow-bottomed bird, which I associate with wild rocky rivers in the north, flitting into a canal tunnel. Later that week I stared up at two peregrine falcons circling high above parliament — and got funny looks from passers-by.
My Times column on genes, intelligence and selective schools:
The good news is you can save on school fees. A new study finds that selective schools add almost nothing to the exam results of students, because the advantages teenagers come out with are mainly ones they arrived with, and are for the most part genetic. The bad news is that this implies genetic stratification of society is happening, and more than we thought. But then that is bound to happen in a meritocracy. If you make everything else equal, differences will be increasingly determined by genes.
The new study comes with impeccable credentials, from a team led by Robert Plomin, a professor at King’s College London and the acknowledged leader in the genetics of intelligence. Co-authors include the researcher Emily Smith-Woolley and the prominent school reformer (and social media witch-hunt victim) Toby Young, whose father coined the word “meritocracy” 60 years ago.
My Times column on Britain's energy options:
Until 2004 Britain was a net energy exporter. Today, it imports about half its energy. Some of that, in the form of coal and liquefied natural gas, comes directly from Russia, which also supplies a third of Europe’s gas through pipelines. The unprecedented “gas deficit warning” of March 2 was a sharp reminder of our dependence on imports.
My Times column on the how pessimism bias affects the way we think:
‘Deadly new epidemic called Disease X could kill millions, scientists warn,” read one headline at the weekend. “WHO issues global alert for potential pandemic,” read another. Apparently frustrated by the way real infectious diseases keep failing to wipe us out, it seems that the nannies at the World Health Organisation have decided to invent a fictitious one.
My Times column on Britain's housing crisis:
Sajid Javid, the Housing (etc) secretary, is right – and brave -- to go on the warpath about Britain’s housing crisis in his new national planning framework, to be launched today. Britain’s housing costs are absurdly high by international standards: eight times average earnings in England, 15 in London. A mortgage deposit that took a few years to earn in the early 1990s can now take somebody decades to earn. Average rents in the UK are almost 50% higher than average rents in Germany, France and crowded Holland.
Britain really is an outlier in this respect. Knightsbridge has overtaken Monaco in rental levels. Wealthy, crowded Switzerland has falling house prices and lower rents than Britain. Over recent decades, most things people buy have become more affordable – food, clothing, communication – and the cost of building a house has come down too. Yet the price you pay for it in Britain, either as a buyer or a tenant, has gone up and up.
My Times column on the liberal case against the protectionism in the EU customs union:
If reports are accurate, there is at least one thing in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech today with which I will agree: “The EU is not the root of all our problems and leaving it will not solve all our problems. Likewise the EU is not the source of all enlightenment and leaving it does not inevitably spell doom for our country. Brexit is what we make of it together.” Yet this makes his overall conclusion, that we should stay in “a” customs union with the European Union, all the more baffling. That would be the worst of all worlds. It would be, in an inversion of the Labour Party’s phrase, “for the few, not the many”.
My Times column on the Russian encouragement and perhaps origin of the now discredited theory of "nuclear winter":
So, Russia does appear to interfere in western politics. The FBI has charged 13 Russians with trying to influence the last American presidential election, including the whimsical detail that one of them was to build a cage to hold an actor in prison clothes pretending to be Hillary Clinton.
My Times thunderer column on shale gas and shale oil and Britain's opportunity:
Gas will start flowing from Cuadrilla’s two shale exploration wells in Lancashire this year. Preliminary analysis of the site is “very encouraging”, bearing out the British Geological Survey’s analysis that the Bowland Shale beneath northern England holds one of the richest gas resources known: a huge store of energy at a cost well below that of renewables and nuclear.
My Times column on how the censorious and prudish young are a bit like Victorians:
I am sure I am not alone in finding the cultural revolution that we are going through difficult to understand. Like a free-living Regency rationalist who has survived to see Victorian prudery, like a moderate critic of Charles I trying to make sense of the Cromwellian dogma, like a once revolutionary Chinese democrat hoping not to be denounced and sent for re-education under Chairman Mao (or John McDonnell), I am an easygoing Seventies libertarian baffled by the aggressive puritanism and intolerance that seems to be everywhere on the march.
My Times column on the impartiality of public servants:
Last week saw political eruptions on either side of the Atlantic about a similar issue: whether government officials are neutral. The row over the leaked forecasts for Brexit, and whether civil servants were being partisan in preparing and perhaps leaking them, paralleled the row in America about the declassified Congressional memo on the FBI and Donald Trump. “Trump’s unparalleled war on a pillar of society: law enforcement”, said TheNew York Times. “Brexit attacks on civil service ‘are worthy of 1930s Germany’ ” said The Observer.
To summarise, in London a government forecast that even a soft Brexit would be slightly worse for the economy than non-Brexit was conveniently leaked. This happened just as some politicians and commentators were trying to shift the country towards accepting a form of customs union with the European Union — that is to say, not really leaving at all.
My Times column on Britain's opportunity to diverge from the EU:
At the risk of infuriating both sides in the parliamentary civil war over Brexit, I humbly suggest a compromise. The central issue is divergence: how much should Britain aim to veer away from the Continent in how it regulates products and services, and how much would the 27 countries and the European Commission allow us to diverge before denying us a trade deal at all?
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.
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