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 way social media polarises discourse and raises the political temperature:
Schisms of hatred seem to be fracturing the political landscape wherever you look right now: the police versus the black community in America, Sunni v Shia, Wahhabism v the West, Trump v Hillary, Labour v itself, Brexiteers v Bremainers, climate “alarmists” v “deniers”. All are glaring at each other across cyber-chasms of flaming verbal magma.
My recent Times column on the herbicide glyphosate:
I once tried the organic alternative to the herbicide roundup for clearing weeds from garden paths: a flame-thrower. It was brutal for the environment, incinerating innocent insects and filling the air with emissions. Next week I might have to go back to that. Roundup, the world’s safest, cheapest and most effective weedkiller, may be illegal within days in Europe.
I published this column in the Times recently. Since then it has become clear that Britain will probably have a female prime minister soon (Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom are the bookies' favourites), and a female leader of the opposition (Angela Eagle ditto), as well as a female monarch. In Scotland all three main party leaders are women. America may have a female president next year. It seems timely to discuss whether women bring different skills to the top jobs in politics. I think they do, and for the better:
After an American political party at last picked a woman candidate for president, and after watching a television debate on Europe last week in which one male was surrounded by six females, including the presenter, the idea of women in power has just about ceased to be unusual. The number of women elected as president or prime minister in the world was three in the 1960s, then 5, 8, 24 and 25 in each succeeding decade – and it has already reached 30 in this half-finished decade. Slow, but steady progress.
So, a question: are women sufficiently different from men for this to make a difference? Yet another brain-imaging study, at Stanford University, has found neural differences between men and women. When two men co-operate on a task, one particular part of the brain lights up in each; when two women co-operate, a different part of the brain lights up in each. When a man and a woman co-operate, both brains light up less – but they still co-operate fine. Different, but not unequal, in other words.
Here are three articles on the Brexit referendum of June 2016.
My Times column on the European Union's failure to grow digital giants:
Last week I visited an island and stood among a crowd of puffins. If I turned my head I could see the lighthouse. If I looked up, the arctic terns were above my head. Yet I never left a gallery in Gateshead. How come? I was wearing a virtual-reality mask.
I have tried this “Oculus” technology once before, when visiting Facebook in California (which owns Oculus) and it is truly extraordinary to have an all-round, up-and-down view of the world depending on how you turn your head. All it involves is a special (Samsung) smartphone jammed into a pair of goggles.
My Times column on the threat from zika virus:
Cancelling the Rio Olympics would do little to slow the spread of the zika virus. That horse has already bolted: more than 60 countries and territories already have zika. It will soon be almost anywhere that its mosquito host lives. Now that the link with microcephaly is well established, becoming pregnant in any country with zika carries a small but real risk of birth defects for the baby.
In the 1970s, troubled by the risks of using pesticides, we took our eye off the fight against mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Zika is just the latest evidence that we are paying a heavy price for that. Between 1947 and 1958 Brazil managed to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito from the entire country, as part of a continent-wide campaign against yellow fever. Yet the effort was not maintained, so the mosquito returned and now flourishes in the favelas of urban Brazil as well as most of the warm parts of the world.
My Times comment on a new report on genetically modified crops:
The exhaustive and cautious new report from the American National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine leaves no room for doubt that genetically engineered crops are as safe or safer, and are certainly better for the environment, than conventionally bred crops.
My Times column on why gene editing is not the slippery slope to eugenics:
This summer brings the 50th anniversary of the full deciphering of the genetic code — the four-billion-year-old cipher by which DNA’s information is translated and expressed — and the centenary of the birth of Francis Crick, who both co-discovered the existence of that code and dominated the subsequent 13-year quest to understand it. Europe’s largest biomedical laboratory, named after him, opens this summer opposite St Pancras station.
My Times column on rural broadband:
Compared with most countries, Britain has a fairly healthy rural economy. Barns have been converted into homes or offices rather than left to tumble down, as in parts of France. Remote areas have job vacancies in picturesque villages, rather than drug problems amid piles of dead cars, as in parts of America. The demand for second homes in St Ives and the lack of affordable housing in villages (both in the news these past few weeks) are the result of too much demand for rural assets, not too little.
Yet there is now a golden opportunity to make the rural economy work even better, to make the countryside an engine of growth rather than a theme park and retirement community — and without spoiling it. That opportunity’s name is broadband. The government’s sudden decision to stop rolling fast broadband out for the last 5 per cent of people is madness.
My Times column on Britain's history with Europe:
[The prime minister argues that "when we turn out back on Europe, sooner or later we come to regret it" and cited 1704, 1805, 1914 and 1940 as examples. This is historical nonsense: in each case it was our separation from Europe that enabled Britain to liberate the continent from a monopolistic tyranny. Had we been integrated, the outcomes would have been different. I argued in my Times column that the existence of the Channel, and its narrowness, have made us inevitably involved in European affairs, but also inevitably resistant to absorption into European hegemonies.]
Whatever your views on Brexit, there is no doubting the peculiar agony of Britain’s relationship with its neighbouring continent. Ever since the day at the end of the last ice age that the sea broke through the chalky gorge between Dover and Calais, it has been our dilemma: are we separate from, or close to, the continent?
My Times column on free speech and climate change:
The editor of this newspaper received a private letter last week from Lord Krebs and 12 other members of the House of Lords expressing unhappiness with two articles by its environment correspondent. Conceding that The Times’s reporting of the Paris climate conference had been balanced and comprehensive, it denounced the two articles about studies by mainstream academics in the scientific literature, which provided less than alarming assessments of climate change.
My review in the Times of Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Equality:
It took me two months to read this 650-page, small-type book, the third volume in a trilogy. In that time I read several other books, absorbing Bourgeois Equality in small doses on trains, ships, Tubes, sofas and beds. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s not. I wanted to savour every sentence of this remarkable feast of prose.
My column in the Times on British science and the European Union:
The House of Lords science and technology committee, on which I sit, has produced a report on British science and the European Union. Most scientists are enthusiastic to remain in the EU but many seem to be under the same misapprehension I was until recently: that European scientific collaboration and funding is dependent on being a member of the EU. It’s not.
The main science funding programmes, such as Horizon 2020, are open to European countries, not just to EU members — and indeed to some non-European countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Israel. The same is true of the main scientific collaborations. The European Molecular Biology Organisation, the European Space Agency: these are pan-European, not EU projects. The particle accelerator at CERN actually crosses (beneath) the border between an EU and a non-EU country. CERN gets less than 2 per cent of its budget from the EU.
Here is my reply to an article on "Open democracy" criticising me.
I am surprised to read this lengthy attack on me and to find that no attempt was made to check the facts.
I am genuinely surprised that you should have written this blog post without any attempt to check the facts.
My Times column on pseudoscience:
Science, humanity’s greatest intellectual achievement, has always been vulnerable to infection by pseudoscience, which pretends to use the methods of science, but actually subverts them in pursuit of an obsession. Instead of evidence-based policymaking, pseudoscience specialises in policy-based evidence making. Today, this infection is spreading.
My review of Stephen Moss's book Wild Kingdom from the Times:
The wildlife of the River Tyne, near where I live, has been transformed in my lifetime. When I went pike fishing on the Tyne as a bird-watching-obsessed boy, it was empty of salmon, sea trout and otters. It had no ospreys, peregrine falcons or kites overhead. Buzzards, goosanders and herons were scarce. All are now regular or common residents.
The Tyne is one of the examples used by Stephen Moss in his book Wild Kingdom of the progress we have made bringing back much of Britain’s wildlife. He watches an otter right in the middle of Newcastle, while listening to the kittiwakes that nest on the Tyne bridge. Elsewhere in the country he documents the extraordinary revival, arrival or return of many species: bitterns, little egrets, great white egrets, avocets, cranes, beavers, marsh harriers, cetti’s warblers, ring-necked parakeets.
I have published two articles this week on the crumbing of the dogma that fat is bad for you. This was in the Times:
Britain’s obesity tsar, Susan Jebb, says that it is not fair to blame fat people for their failure to lose weight. Genetically predisposed, many people cannot realistically lose weight by eating less, especially when the food industry tempts them with snacks. Meanwhile, George Osborne is slapping a tax on sugar to tackle obesity.
The new obsession with sugar definitely makes more sense than the low-fat sermons we have heard for decades. And the prevailing idea in the public-health industry that you get fat simply by eating more calories than you burn is misleading to say the least. While of course that’s true, it says nothing about what causes appetite to exceed need by the tiny amount each day that can turn you obese.
My Times column on the role of UK emissions policies in driving aluminium, steel and other industries abroad:
Before Redcar and Port Talbot, remember Lynemouth, where Britain’s last large aluminium smelter closed in 2012. In aluminium, as in steel, China is now by far the largest producer, smelting five times as much as any other continent, let alone country. The chief reason aluminium left (though a small plant survives at Lochaber) was the sky-high electricity prices paid in Britain: electrolysis is how you make aluminium. For extra-large industrial users, British electricity prices are the highest in Europe, twice the average, and far higher than in Asia and America.
My Times column on the sensible proposal to reform the way protected species are helped during development:
Natural England, the government body charged with protecting Britain’s wildlife, is currently consulting on reforming the way protected species are rescued from bulldozers. The rethink is focused on the great crested newt, the bane of developers everywhere, and it sensibly suggests giving the newts new ponds so their populations can expand, rather than the futile gesture of surveying, trapping, deporting and excluding them from development sites one by one.
My Times column on the growing movement for marine protected areas in British overseas territories:
Britain may no longer have an empire, but it still rules a heck of a lot of waves. One of the manifesto commitments of the Conservative party in the last election was to create a “blue belt” of marine protected zones around the 14 overseas territories that still belong to this country. It has started fulfilling the promise and is already protecting more of the sea than any other nation.
My Times column on free trade the European Union:
The late Sir George Martin created substantial British exports. Had the import of his music to America been banned to save the jobs of US musicians, Britain would have missed out on some revenue but the American consumer would have been the biggest loser, missing out on the music. Trade benefits the importing country: that’s why it happens.
My Times column on Britain's delayed and every more expensive EPR nuclear power station
Last week the British and French governments announced that they remained confident that the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset will be built. But EDF, the company that wishes to build it, declined again to say when a “final investment decision” will be made. That decision, originally intended for 2012, was then expected last October, when the Chinese president was in London — a third of the finance is coming from China. Then it was expected in November, then December, then at the February board meeting of the company, then last week. Still no sign of Godot.
It is time to pull the plug. EDF cannot afford to build it and we cannot afford to buy its premium-price electricity. At two other sites, in Finland and France, the European pressurised reactor (EPR) design is beset by technical problems, many years behind schedule and several times over budget. The Chinese are building two and have also encountered technical obstacles. Apart from Hinkley, the order book is empty, so ours would probably be the last EPR to be built.
My Spectator article on what it would be like for the United States to join the American Union:
o the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, thinks his country has a ‘profound interest… in a very strong United Kingdom staying in a strong EU’, and President Obama is planning to join in campaigning for the Remainders too. They say this not because they think it is good for us, but because it is in their interests that we influence Europe in a free-trading, Atlanticist direction.
Well, two can play at that game. How would Americans like it if we argued that it is in our interests that the United States should forthwith be united with all the countries in their continent north of the Panama Canal — Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama — into a vast customs union governed by a trans-national, unelected civil service. Let’s call it the American Union, or AU.
My Times column on why the EU is bad for innovation:
For me, in the end, it’s all about innovation. The European Union is bad at doing it, good at discouraging it, repeatedly sides with those who have vested interests in resisting it, and holds Britain back from achieving it.
This may not be a fashionable reason for voting to leave. Pollsters tell us that safety is the first wish of most voters, not exciting change, and it’s clear that both sides are playing to that rule book: one side arguing for us to take control by leaving, the other saying we are more secure if we stay in. But if history teaches us anything it is that enterprise is the father of peace, that innovation brings not just economic but ethical improvements: it demonstrably makes us kinder and safer as well as richer. There is no security in stagnation.
My Times column on harm reduction
The UN General Assembly is holding a special meeting on drug policy in April, its first since 1998. The mood of member states, as well as many international agencies, is now much less focused on law enforcement and abstinence, and much more favourably disposed to treating drugs as a public health issue, to be tackled by “harm reduction”, a phrase that was actually banned from use within publications of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime ten years ago. Harm reduction means offering safer alternatives, as the lesser of two evils.
When people behave in harmful ways, how do you stop them? You can punish them in the hope of deterrence, as we do murder, theft and fraud. You can hector them, as we do with tobacco, alcohol and sugar. Or you can try to offer safer alternatives, which is how we tackled HIV infection and heroin addiction in this country in particular, and is how we should deal with tobacco.
My Times column on the causes and consequences of low oil prices:
The continuing plunge in the price of oil from $115 a barrel in mid-2014 to $30 today is really, really good news. I know just about every economic commentator says otherwise, predicting bankruptcies, stock market crashes, deflation, political turmoil and a return to gas guzzling. But that is because they are mostly paid to see the world from the point of view of producers, not consumers. Yes, some plutocrats and autocrats won’t like it, but for the rest of us this is a big cut in the cost of living. Worldwide, the fall in the oil price since 2014 has transferred $2 trillion from oil producers to oil consumers.
Oil is the largest and most indispensable commodity on which society depends, the vital energy-amplifier of our everyday actions. The value of the oil produced every year exceeds the value of natural gas, coal, iron ore, wheat, copper and cotton combined. Without oil, every industry would collapse — agriculture first of all. Cutting the price of oil enables you to travel, eat and clothe yourself more cheaply, which leaves you more money to spend on something else, which gives somebody else a job supplying that need, and so on.
My recent essay in the Wall Street Journal on South Georgia:
When you tell people that you’re going to South Georgia, some will ask if you’re changing planes in Atlanta. In fact, the name belongs to an island near Antarctica. It’s about the size of Rhode Island but with mountains rising to over 9,000 feet. It is a wilderness, uninhabited except for two small scientific stations and teeming with spectacular wildlife.
But don’t be fooled: The apparently pristine natural beauty of South Georgia is new. Like an old master painting that was badly damaged but has since been painstakingly restored, South Georgia was once utterly desecrated and is now gloriously refurbished.
My Retrospective article on Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, published in Nature magazine:
Books about science tend to fall into two categories: those that explain it to lay people in the hope of cultivating a wide readership, and those that try to persuade fellow scientists to support a new theory, usually with equations. Books that achieve both — changing science and reaching the public — are rare. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) was one. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is another. From the moment of its publication 40 years ago, it has been a sparkling best-seller and a scientific game-changer.
My column in The Times on Britain's EU membership referendum:
Public opinion about the European Union is divided, like Gaul, into three parts: one third are already firmly in the “leave” camp, one third would remain in whatever happens, and the tussle is over who gets the middle, undecided third. It’s like pulling a Christmas cracker — part of it will go one way, part of it the other; it’s what happens to the middle bit that matters.
The infighting that has broken out among those campaigning to leave is partly about personalities, of course, but it is also about how to appeal to those swing voters in the middle. Specifically, do you win these people over by talking about immigration, the issue that dominates the news, shows the EU at its most incompetent and reverberates strongly outside the metropolis, where people worry about the effect it has on houses, hospitals, schools and local services? That seems to be the view of the Leave.EU campaign, led by Arron Banks and with Nigel Farage as its best-known spokesman. They make the case that the metropolitan elite is out of touch with the bulk of public opinion.
My column in The Times on how South Georgia's environment has been repaired:
In claiming the Falklands, the Argentinian government also claims South Georgia, even though it is 700 miles further away from its coast, was unambiguously claimed by Captain Cook when uninhabited, and is run as a separate territory by the British government. Indeed, as I found out last week when I was lucky to visit courtesy of the island’s government, it is a place where something truly astonishing has been achieved in the world of conservation.
In summer South Georgia teems with wildlife: four million fur seals crowd its shores, elephant seals are piled in somnolent heaps on beaches, penguin colonies boggle the mind in their scale, the cliffs and slopes are alive with more than 50 million albatrosses, prions and petrels, while whales once again blow in the surrounding ocean. This wealth of wildlife is the result of changing economic incentives plus regulation— to stop sealing, whaling and penguinning and to control fishing.
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