MATT RIDLEY is one of the best-selling--and best-regarded--science and economics writers on the planet. He wrote recently that in the face of the coronavirus pandemic "we are about to find out how robust civilisation is" and that "the hardships ahead will be like nothing we have ever known." Given that Ridley's best-known book is 2010's The Rational Optimist, those dire words caught some of his fans by surprise.
Ridley's next book, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom (Harper), will be published in May. It touches on many questions now of acute interest, including how to set the stage for major breakthroughs in medicine and technology. Innovation, the book argues, "cannot be modelled properly by economists, but it can easily be discouraged by politicians."
In late March, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Ridley via Skype from their respective selfquarantines in New York and Northumberland, England. They discussed the political response to COVID-19, Ridley's longstanding distrust of viruses and bats, and when we'll be able to reopen the world economy.
Reason: You are the rational optimist. But when the coronavirus hit North America and Europe, you wrote a couple of pieces that were striking to me because of the pessimism involved. You talked about how you thought we would never be faced with something like this. Can you explain how the emergence of this pandemic has shaken some of your beliefs about progress?
Ridley: Well, the first thing I should say is that I've never believed that the world is the best of all possible worlds and can't be improved--you know, that we've already reached nirvana. One of the things I'm very clear about in The Rational Optimist is there are still problems to be solved. There are still threats. There are still risks. I personally think we've been worrying about the wrong risks, and this is a reminder that we have been doing that. But I'll hold my hands up and say I was not out there saying, "Watch out. There's a pandemic coming." I wish I had been.
But back in 1999,1 was asked to write a short book about the future of disease, and I did say in that if we do have a pandemic that goes crazy--that combines high contagiousness with high lethality--then it will be a virus, not a protozoan or a bacteria. We're on top of those enemies pretty well. It's not going to be like the plague or like malaria. We're too good at beating those big organisms. It's the tiny ones, the viruses, that we're still pretty bad at.
I also said it's gonna be a respiratory virus. Why? Just look around you: People are coughing and sputtering all the time. There are up to 200 different kinds of respiratory viruses that we give each other every winter. We call them the common cold or flu. Some of them are rhinoviruses, some of them are coronaviruses. So there's clearly something pretty irresistible to the virus tribe about the urban human population.
And the third thing I said was that it might come out of bats. I said that because a whole bunch of relatively new diseases have come out of bats in recent decades. And in fact, that's been even more true since I said that, because [the 2003 outbreak of] SARS was after I made that remark. The reason is because bats are mammals like us, and it's relatively easy for a virus to jump from a mammal to a mammal. Bats are animals that live in huge crowds--in huge densities. There's a cave in Texas that has a famous bat roost in it. It has roughly the population of Mexico City living in that cave. So respiratory viruses are going to enjoy bats, and they're going to enjoy humans, and there's going to be a crossover between them.
We didn't learn from SARS, which was a really good canary in the coal mine--a very clear warning that these wet wildlife markets in China were a dangerous place for crossover between species. That's because the animals are alive in the markets. The problem is not bringing meat to market.
The problem is bringing live animals that are coughing and sputtering. We had a dry run with a virus that wasn't very contagious, but it was very dangerous: SARS. We should have said, "Look, this is a real threat."
I had taken some comfort from the degree of improvement in molecular biological knowledge. The fact that we could sequence SARS in three...