I visited reddit’s r/IAmA community Wednesday to answer your questions. Here are some highlights.
Can you briefly summarise your position on climate change?
Yes, though it’s not an issue I am focusing on much at the moment. My view is summarised in a lecture I gave in 2016 called Global Warming versus Global Greening. I’ve covered climate change for over 30 years since I was science and technology editor of the Economist. In that time my view has changed. I have always accepted that man-made climate change through CO2 emissions is real. I used to worry that it would prove very dangerous. Having seen it occur slower than was predicted in the first IPCC report in 1990, and have less effect on the frequency of droughts, floods and storms than was then predicted, and having seen estimates of climate sensitivity come down, I now think it is likely that it will be at the bottom of the range of possibilities considered by the IPCC, do relatively little harm at least for several decades, that there are other environmental problems we should be more concerned about, that the measures we are taking to combat it will in some cases do more environmental harm than good, and that the way to tackle it is to encourage innovation in energy systems while ensuring maximum prosperity to pay for adaptation and research.
While, as I said, it’s not an issue I am focusing on much, I was happy to remind everyone of my position.
I am interested in many fields and disciplines both within and outside science, so I consider myself a generalist as opposed to a specialist. A piece of advice I like is that to make the world better stick to what you’re good at and change what you can. As a generalist, if I want to make the world better, but don’t want to stick to one specialty, how can I do that?
It is a good question, because I think human beings have achieved great things through specialisation accompanied by exchange: becoming narrower in what they produce and wider in what they consume. That’s the main theme of human history in one reading. In that sense, doing what I do, which is to comment on and engage with several different areas of human endeavour is probably a mistake. One might achieve more by sticking to one thing. But you are only on the planet once; seems a shame to be too narrow! Actually I think I am fairly narrow, in that mostly I write and I speak – that is my specialisation.
Could you give your view on the precautionary principle in the context of innovation? At what level of safety assessment you would say we can declare an innovation with potentially huge consequences (e.g. GM crops, research in AI, etc.) safe enough?
This is a topic I am very interested in. One version of the precautionary principle is essential: better safe than sorry. However, as interpreted by the EU especially, another version has become essentially a device for preventing innovation often on behalf of incumbent interests. Here are the main problems with it: it holds the new to a higher standard than the old, demanding hazard-free innovations when they are replacing existing technologies that have huge hazards. For example, vaping is required to pass tests for toxicity that cigarette smoke is not; and, it ignores the benefits of an innovation, requiring authorities to consider only the hazards. Thus the fact that biotechnology has resulted in a lower reliance on chemicals in agriculture is not taken into account… If the precautionary principle had been in use during the invention of the motor car, that technology would never have been allowed because it brought several new hazards.
It needs to be balanced by an innovation principle in my view: that regulation must not deter or prevent potentially beneficial innovation. I strongly recommend the chapter about this in Ed Regis’s new book on Golden Rice.
What made you choose innovation as the topic of your next book?
I have become increasingly fascinated by the topic of innovation. It’s such a mysterious process, crucial to the modern world, but we have very little idea of why it happens when and where it does and to what technologies or institutions. I am always interested in mysteries and I decided to tackle this one head-on, having touched on it in my two previous books.
Considering the rise of Crispr, what is your opinion on designer babies?
We have been worried about those ever since the 1960s. First artificial insemination was going to cause people to choose designer babies; then in vitro fertilisation, then genetic testing; then cloning, then gene sequencing, now genome editing. It’s largely a non problem for two reasons: 1. There is very little demand; unexpectedly people choose these technologies to have their own children rather than super-babies, and they like kinds that are like themselves. 2. The genetic determination of features like intelligence or musical ability is, we now know, achieved by thousands of genes working together, and it’s highly impractical to pick one or two out. So crispr is going to be used to delete serious genetic disorders, not to enhance abilities, I think.
Thank you for all your questions! I answered about a dozen overall. For those who didn’t get to ask one, I hope to visit again.