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.
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 CAPX:
One of the subtexts of the debate over the origin of the pandemic concerns the role of the scientific journals. The magazines that publish scientific papers have become increasingly dependent on the fees that Chinese scientists pay to publish in them, plus advertisements from Chinese firms and subscriptions from Chinese institutions. In recent years observers have noticed that the news coverage of China in these magazines has begun to look a little less objective than it once did.
Springer-Nature, the Anglo-German publisher of the world’s leading scientific journal Nature, announced in 2017 that in some of its publications it was censoring articles that used words like “Taiwan”, “Tibet” and “cultural revolution”, when printing in China. In April 2020 Nature ran an editorial apologising for its “error” in “associating the virus with Wuhan” in its news coverage.
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.
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.
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