Thank you so much for all the great questions back in February.

My new book How Innovation Works just came out Tuesday, so I'd love to tell stories about innovation today--I believe it's a bottom up process that cannot be predicted, and flourishes in freedom--but you're free to ask me about anything else as well, including the 2011 film Rampart. My marketing helper tells me you love that movie?

I’m also known for my TED talk “When ideas have sex” which has been viewed several million times, my other seven books on science and politics/economics, writing for The Times and The Wall Street Journal, editing at The Economist, and perhaps most importantly my Ph.D thesis on bird behaviour!

I'll be back around 12:15pm ET / 1715 BST to ask questions for at least an hour, and if it's OK, will PM a couple of you about helping me to get rid of these last two signed copies of the new book I have left.


Edit 1:25pm ET: OK, signing off now. Winners will be messaged shortly. Thank you so much for all the wonderful questions yet again, reddit! Keep in touch.

Best wishes!

Comments: 140 • Responses: 35  • Date: 

cisxuzuul19 karma

What is your view on climate change?

derickinthecity39 karma

Fan here. Not sure why he didnt answer this one but he identifies as a "lukewarmer". Believes it's real but believes the Al Gore / Greta / Extinction Rebellion scenarios are exaggerated, and that fossil fuels are hard to replace. Supports nuclear and other realistic solutions, though.

He is sometimes smeared as a "climate change denier" by political activists who can't distinguish actual science from what their own moral and political ideology says the government should do about a problem. But he doesn't "deny" it.

mattwridley28 karma

That summarises my view very well. I had missed the question.

Wiro874310 karma

Hi Matt, big fan. Do you think the pandemic will lead to innovation that will positively impact the world beyond simply responding to (hopefully temporary) problems caused by the virus, or will it delay innovation that otherwise would have occurred?

(And I'd love a copy of the book if there's one going!)

mattwridley7 karma

Yes, I think we will see a burst of innovation -- in vaccine development, in diagnostics, in track-and-trace apps, but also in home working, and even social habits (no more hand shaking?). But the recession that is coming will also delay some innovation too.

Copies of the book now on sale in the US, 25 June in the UK.

derickinthecity5 karma

He probably means a signed copy, Matt. 😅

mattwridley2 karma

/u/Wiro8743, send me a message! I will get you at least a signature plate.

Ben--Affleck8 karma

Is social networking good or bad for innovation? Is there a "too many cooks" downside? Do ideas have orgies, and are they all they're cracked up to be?

Big fan of your books on evolution and The Rational Optimist. Cheers Matt.

mattwridley13 karma

Ha! Idea orgies...

I was naive in thinking social media would result in global harmony and sharing, rather than polarisation and echo chambers. But it's still a net force for good, I think, for all its faults.

Ajw797 karma

Innovation seems to come in two types - the gradual refinement and the giant leap. It feels like in many areas, particularly consumer-focused ones, that we're in a gradual refinement rut. What are the circumstances in which giant leaps become more commonplace, e.g., 1950-70? And can this be "driven" or will it just emerge?

mattwridley17 karma

I think the giant leap is a bit of a myth. Most breakthroughs look pretty gradual when you look closer: the first integrated circuit was not much better than the last set of single transistors. The first motor cars could barely compete with the horse. The first planes could not carry very many people. The first fruits of genomics are very small, but gradually increasing. In my book I argue that the breakthrough is mostly a myth, as is the sudden "eureka" moment of inspiration.

balquihidder5 karma

Hi Matt - love your books, particularly The Rational Optimist which gave me hope in dark times. My question is do you think the massive debt and unfunded liabilities in the West will cause such a drag on the economy that we will see much lower innovation and thus growth for the foreseeable future? If so, are there any countries that are better positioned for innovation?

mattwridley4 karma

Debt and unfunded liabilities are a huge drag on western economies, true. But the world as a whole is not in debt. The creditors (savers) correspondingly have more opportunity to do innovation with the interest they earn. So long as the debts don't default.

lstv_vdsv4 karma

Europe dominated the world in intellectual and technological innovation during the age of of enlightenment and the industrial revolution. However, today, Europe has ceded that role to the United States, and to a lesser extent, east Asia. Interestingly, most of the top-10 richest people in the UK are real estate/banking barons, while most of the top-10 richest people in the US are innovative, self-made tech founders (same for China).

Why has this change come about? Have Europeans lost the spiritual hunger to innovate and discover? Any particular reason why innovation is mostly taking place only in specific parts of the world today?

mattwridley9 karma

I find this topic endlessly fascinating. Innovative economies often sink into rent-seeking, finance-dominated conservative systems. This happened to The Netherlands after its golden age, likewise Renaissance Italy. The money and the talent goes into lending rather than innovating. Britain has certainly experienced this, without yet entering terminal decline, and that's one reason why I want it to become a dynamic and innovative economy. Actually Britain's richest person at the moment, Sir James Dyson, is a tech entrepreneur, so we have hope. The USA has kept a balance of financial New York and innovative California. The European continent has certainly lost its innovation mojo to some extent and I blame the European Union system which is systematically anti innovation, anti entrepreneur and pro big lobbies at present. It policy of harmonisation -- making sure everything is the same everywhere -- is exactly the policy that caused Ming China to destroy Song China's innovative habits and is the opposite of what led to Europe's success between 1500 and 1900: it was then split up into competing polities, allowing entrepreneurs to choose congenial regimes.

Upbeat_Research4 karma

Matt. I guess we evolved to understand mid-size things like tigers etc, not quantum particles or black holes. Do you think our evolutionary history is a fundamental barrier to truly understanding, say, quantum physics? And I’d love a signed book please!

mattwridley4 karma

Yes, you're right. Intuitive physics is based on a mid-sized world. Signed books are to be sent to some lucky winners in a competition. Good luck.

57829305093 karma

Lord Ridley, thank you for being here today. I’m an enormous fan of your work and have really enjoyed all the podcasts and Zoom calls you’ve done over the past few weeks. I hope you’ll return to the U.S. soon after things clear up because I’d love for you to sign my copy of “How Innovation Works.”

My question: Do you think the Western world should punish China (or perhaps try to extract some form of reparation from them) due to their government’s deception and mishandling of the coronavirus?

mattwridley2 karma

I think we must not punish the Chinese people, but I think we do deserve answers from the Chinese regime about why they were not more transparent and helpful, and why they allowed this to happen, especially in wet markets, when warnings about such viruses were frequent.


What advice do you have for succeeding as an investor through the coming decades of disruption (both private & public markets)?

mattwridley3 karma

None! Hopeless at calling the market. Get the balance right between not following the herd, and spotting where the herd is going, seems to be key. If that sounds contradictory, it is.

wtench3 karma

What do you think about reform of the House of Lords? Does it have a place in modern Britain?

mattwridley8 karma

Big subject. Very hard to achieve meaningful reform of the Lords because anything that makes the house more influential is resisted by the Commons. So evolutionary change is the best bet, especially after the failure of the 2013 reform attempt. My ideal house of lords would be one in which legislators were picked at random to serve 5 or 10 year terms, like a giant jury.

DoctorPewdiepie2 karma

Lord Ridley, I suppose I call you that, How did you become a member of the House of Lords? Did you inherit the title? Also, what's it like being a Lord? Is it better than being an MP? Do you wish you were an MP? Have you ever met Her Majesty? And about biology, what's your favorite part or cool thing about the human body? Thanks. Have a good day

mattwridley2 karma

The thumb

centreofthefray2 karma

Do you see greater Localism (and by its nature less centralisation and central bureaucratic control) as a mechanism to drive innovation from the ground up? Allowing those individuals with ingenuity and drive the regulatory, fiscal and social environment to tinker, fail, succeed - innovate.

As opposed to the Silicon Valley model of monopolisation and being good at raising money from VCs and controlling the regulatory environment to exclude potential disruptors from attaining the necessary scale.

mattwridley6 karma

On the whole yes, decentralisation is good for innovation. That's why empires are often bad at innovation, despite having a lot of wealth to invest: Ming, Ottoman, Roman empires all produced disappointingly few innovations, compared with city states in Asia or Europe, or indeed American states. Top down centralised direction gets hijacked by vested interests to keep innovators out all too often. But of course localisation is not enough in itself to cause innovation.

tkclon2 karma

Hi Matt, huge fan of your work. I had the pleasure of re-reading The Rational Optimist last week. Do think that the poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by liberal states is a cause for concern for a rational optimist? Essentially, are you concerned that an unpredictable or unlikely global catastrophic event could halt or even reverse the progress of the human colossus after seeing the incompetence of the COVID-19 response?

mattwridley2 karma

Yes, it is a huge worry. Countries like the Uk have forgotten the lesson of the market and evolution -- that logistics are never easily solved by central planning -- and have tried to behave like central planners in solving the epidemic.

GPSauthor1 karma

Does your book cover GPS? It obviously started with the DOD but private industry quickly found a myriad of applications. In the first Gulf War, the majority of receivers used by coalition forces were civilian. It illustrates well the innovations made by free people.

mattwridley2 karma

Good example - thanks. I don't write very much about GPS in the book, but that sounds about right.

biggabul1 karma

In Latin America, our production is on oil and agricultural products without added value. Do you believe that changes produced by the pandemic will be an incentive for innovation or will it move us further from development?. Thank you, greetings from Ecuador.

mattwridley1 karma

Yes, I hope that Latin America does move more into the knowledge economy and perhaps this period will be an opportunity to do so.

rapidla011 karma

It seems that most innovation these days is concentrated in information technology, whereas in eras that are commonly thought of as more innovative, inventions seemed to come up in more visible areas, such as machinery or transportation.

Thinkers like Ross Douthat seem to think that this is a sign of decadence, that as a society we have decided to focus more on entertainment than on other goals. Do you agree with the sentiment that the innovation in say the Last 20 years can be seen as lacking or slower than usual?

mattwridley3 karma

Peter Thiel has also made this point. Clinton's e-commerce legislation which was very permissive and libertarian unleashed a lot of digital innovation. The opposits has happened in innovation in drugs or devices: more and more sluggish regulation.

supertyfon1 karma

Which fields or areas are most likely to see disruptive innovations in the near future? Like Air BnB in hospitality or Uber in transport, which other sectors can we expect to be revolutionized through creative destruction soon?

mattwridley3 karma

If I knew I'd be making money doing it. Forecasting these things is always hard.

mzeemartin1 karma

What is the relationship between innovation and creativity?

mattwridley3 karma

I'm never sure what people mean by creativity. In my book I try to get away from the notion that all innovators are somehow uniquely creative and different from ordinary people.

LiberalBanana1 karma

Are we headed for worldwide stagflation due to the fallout of the shutdown?

mattwridley2 karma

It's a worry. I suspect deflation first.

ranttila1 karma

Matt, thanks for doing this AMA.

If you had to give advice to a college freshman looking to be on the cutting edge of innovation throughout his or her career, what would you advise them to do? Would you recommend learning a technical skill (e.g. computer science) and getting into the workforce or going through a PhD to attain deep knowledge about research and technology?

mattwridley2 karma

Depends on the person, but a technical skill is really useful and there is no substitute for working in the real, commercial world. I think going back into college in mid career to get a higher degree is something that more people might consider.

KillingSnore1 karma

What was the innovation you researched that you though most impressive? Two ways if you don't mind.

  1. The leap that the innovator made
  2. The luck in it happening

mattwridley2 karma

I like the story of the mosquito net impregnated with insecticide. I tracked down the original, very impressive experiment. And it's such a low tech thing with such a huge life-saving result.


Matt I am a huge fan of your Global Greening content.

The ex CEO of reddit wrote a blog post recently about solving global warming by engineering the biome of Sahara desert back to forest.[1]

He says it must be done with solar panels (for water desalination, by far the main cost) and the cost is $3T - nearly entirely from solar panel costs.

My questions are: What are your thoughts on doing this, as a lukewarmist? Can we desalinate the water using generators and fossil fuels if we GM African trees to be more carbon hungry (already being done with nonAfrican trees), or will the CO2 be too great? Does global greening work anywhere or do the trees need to be near where the carbon emissions are?


mattwridley2 karma

The Sahara was damp and green 7000 years ago, during a warmer spell. So it's not impossible. And it's true that if we had cheap electricity we could desalinate water and irrigate large areas. I suspect it is not a bad use of solar power given that it does not mater that it won't work at night. Like fertilising the oceans with iron, to increase biomass of plankton and fish, I think these biological ideas are well worth considering -- much less likely to be dangerous than sun screens in space and so on. But don't let's forget that the CO2 increases we have caused have already caused a lot of greening in the Sahel region. That's not in doubt now.

mrlj11 karma

Hello Lord Ridley. Thank you for taking the time to do this - it's most appreciated.

I have quite alot of questions which I'm eager to get your thoughts on. There are quite a few, but one doesn't get opportunities such as this that often so I want to make the most of it.

Q1: To what extent to you think that the introduction of Innovative Finance ISAs has been beneficial for small businesses in securing start-up financing, and for making such investments more accessible than the traditional VC model? Related, do you think that the Innovative Finance ISAs should also include equity-based forms of crowdfunding?

Q2: What approaches do you think should be taken to boost democratic political participation across the board? There's a very noticeable decline in party membership numbers across the last century and continuing into the present, which seems to be part of what fuels the perception that Politicians do not understand the lives of the populace very well.

Q3: Do you believe that CANZUK would be worth pursuing? Having similar political and legal institutions, a common head of state, a shared language, and relatively good economies suggests that it might be workable. Does it however risk acquiring similar issues to those under EU membership?

Q4: How would you appraise the overall response of the Government to the pandemic? Merits and criticism.

Q5: What foreign policy approach should we be taking towards China? There seems to be a minor conflation between reducing reliance on imports from China to reducing trade with them; surely relative trade dependency matters more. For the development of 5G, would you rather use Huawei with risk limitation or instead pursue alternatives with our long-standing international allies?

Q6: How would you evaluate the ongoing trade negotiations with the EU? In particular, with reference to the pandemic. Perhaps also considering the constitutional battle between Germany's high court and the ECJ.

Q7: What are your initial thoughts on the new opposition leader?

Q8: Should policymakers be thinking more about the risks identified in the National Risk Register? The chance of influenza pandemic has been rated as quite high in recent years, and I've not yet seen any reason to think it has dropped.

Q9: Am I right in understanding that you had a bit of a falling out with Nassim Taleb over the matter of GMOs? As I understand it, his core point is that genetic modifications of a particular plant do not affect only that plant; rather it affects the entire ecosystem that that plant is in. Hence be more cautious. What do you say in response?

Q10: What do you make of the reliance on predictive modelling in making policy decisions?

Q11: Top 5 Books?

mattwridley2 karma

I can't answer all of these, too many other people waiting. On 9, I have always liked Taleb's stuff and him personally, but it's true he has taken to attacking me recently. I don't respond when he does so.

On GMOs there is ample empirical evidence now from decades that it is a safe and environmentally beneficial technology.

BusWanker881 karma

Thanks for doing the AMA. Pertaining to politics, what are some must read books?

mattwridley3 karma

Anything by Dan Hannan, Douglas Carswell, Deirdre McCloskey.

not-a-romantic1 karma

Antitrust laws are generally promoting sustaining over disruptive innovation (for instance, when ordering companies to share information to ensure product compatibility, as it fosters competition in the market rather than for the market). What does a new and better antitrust agenda look like for you?

mattwridley2 karma

It's a difficult topic. Generally I think monopolies are a bad thing, but only because they drive up prices and drive down innovation and quality. If a dominant company drives down prices as sometimes happens, then I think we are overreacting when we try to break it up (eg Microsoft). Competition is always good, though, so it needs to be fostered.

brentclark221 karma

Here's my question: Is overoptimism in the ability of technology/innovation to solve societal problems a net good (e.g. it stimulates long shots and entrepreneurial persistence) or net bad (e.g. it hampers efficient resource allocation)?

mattwridley3 karma

Probably it can be either. Overoptimism in fusion, or in renewable energy has probably been wasteful and harmful. But overoptimism in aiming to land a man on the moon achieved something spectacular.

RSharkey20001 karma

What are the limits of encouraging innovation? What if it runs counter to certain cultural aspects etc? This may be explored in the book, is not sure. Would love to find out!

mattwridley3 karma

I reckon you cannot encourage innovation to go where it is not possible to go. Google had a project to try to make fuel out of water, basically. they cam up against the second law of thermodynamics, and to their credit pulled out fairly soon. You cannot invent search engines before you invent the internet - obvious, but it is surprising how often people think you can leapfrog over intermediate innovations.

totosterone1 karma

Hi Matt!

What impact on innovation do you foresee with regards to increase in remote work?

This week alone we had some of the most innovative companies (Twitter, Facebook, Square, Shopify) announcing a permanent shift to remote work. True they are all software engineering, not manufacturing.

However, the behaviors in other industries will be impacted as well e.g. less travel, less people sharing the same space, social distancing.

Are you concerned at all that ideas will have less sex due to this new reality, at least for the foreseeable future?

mattwridley2 karma

It will be interesting to see if the trend towards knowledge-working people gathering in cities, despite being able to work from home, comes to a halt now as a result of the pandemic, and if it does whether idea-sex slows down. I suspect we will return at least partly to city-centre bustle at some point, but that a critical mass of people have now discovered online meetings.

alexandercrhammond1 karma

Matt, thanks for doing this. Is the biggest driver of innovation really ambition? Or instead, would dissatisfaction be a more apt description?

mattwridley2 karma

I don't think dissatisfaction is that much of a driver. Lots of really poor people in the world are very dissatisfied but don't get the chance to innovate much.

cahaseler1 karma

Hi Matt, please add your proof to your post!

mattwridley2 karma


BalaaClaava0 karma

Has science come up with a definition for what gravity is yet? Is it leptons?

mattwridley2 karma

Don't know the answer!

FzBtz0 karma

Do you have any techniques for balancing a quest for knowledge on a subject and paralysis through over analysis?

mattwridley1 karma

Good question. Sometimes I find I get a good feel for a subject after a few days research, then lose my way after another few days work. Seeing the forest for the trees is never easy. But relentlessly discarding extraneous and irrelevant details, while not biasing your analysis as a result, is a key skill, I think. I have never found that knowing more about a topic is a bad thing, but there does come a point where what you know has too much influence on what you think and so you have to remind yourself there are other aspects you need to consider. Philip Tetlock's work on expert forecasters found that they were often worse than ordinary people, because their particular expertise got in the way of seeing the whole picture.

oren0-2 karma

Hi Matt, I'm a big fan of The Rational Optimist and it's near the top of my list of book recommendations I tend to give out.

Much of the decision to essentially shut down the world's economy was based on epidemiological models predicting millions of deaths if we didn't, and the parallel to climate models (which you have criticized) is certainly interesting. Statistician William Briggs argues that there is no scientific evidence that these lockdowns do anything, but that politicians are essentially "committed" to keeping them and reinstituting them in case of a second wave because they have to appear to be doing something, regardless of the economic impact.

Do you think that essentially shutting down the world's economy was a good decision? Given that the severity of lockdown has varied greatly around the world, is there a "sweet spot" that any particular country has hit in terms of preventing spread versus keeping the economy alive? Do you think there is any validity to the comparison of the COVID reaction and some of the more drastic proposals to combat climate change (for example, eliminating all fossil fuel use by 2030)?

EDIT: I see that you have already co-authored an article that appears to be about the inaccuracy of COVID models in the UK, though sadly it's behind a paywall so I can't read it.

mattwridley3 karma

I now think voluntary social distancing, combined with test, track and trace would have been a better policy. I think we will regret the lockdowns - they have added little epidemiologically, but will cause huge economic and human harm.

mattwridley2 karma

OK - I am signing off now!