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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Niall Ferguson Examines Disasters of the Past and Disasters Still to Come

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If the book’s vast temporal scope leads it to resemble histories written in earlier times, its drive to pronounce on events in cultures spanning the globe and its heavy reliance on cutting-edge theories makes “Doom” very much a product of our moment. It belongs on the shelf next to recent ambitious and eclectic books by authors like Jared Diamond, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Steven Pinker. What unites these writers is their disregard for traditional disciplinary boundaries and a determination to reach for synoptic knowledge of stupefyingly complex subjects.

The result, in Ferguson’s case, is a book containing some genuine wisdom, but also some perplexing lacunae. One of its concluding lessons for the current pandemic, for example, is that lockdowns, which do great economic damage, should be avoided in favor of more precisely targeted measures, among them the quarantining of superspreaders — people who interact with far more people than most and therefore play an outsize role in spreading disease.

That sounds reasonable. Yet 300 or so pages earlier, in a section of the book’s introduction titled “Confessions of a Superspreader,” Ferguson tells us he “first spoke and wrote publicly about the rising probability of a global pandemic” long before most Western journalists, in late January 2020, while he was in the midst of a round of travel that took him from the United States to Asia, Europe and then back to North America. His travels continued over the following weeks, despite his awareness of the risk and the fact that he was “ill for most of February, with a painful cough I could not shake off.” The globe-trotting finally came to an end on March 15, when Ferguson flew with his wife and two youngest children to Montana, where they would ride out the pandemic in rural isolation.

Since one of the central purposes of the book is to show his readers that “all disasters are at some level man-made,” one might have expected Ferguson to reflect, beyond a cleverly self-deprecating section title, on his own possible role in spreading Covid around the world. This is a book, after all, containing a chapter titled “The Fractal Geometry of Disaster,” about how “nested within a massive event like the collapse of an empire are multiple smaller but similar disasters, each one, at each scale, a microcosm of the whole.” Yet Ferguson’s own arguably irresponsible actions do not inform his analysis in any notable way.

This is probably a function of Ferguson’s preference for highlighting systemic, as opposed to individual, failures. Eschewing great man theories of history, Ferguson treats political leaders as “hubs” within complex networks of information. When those hubs communicate efficiently with one another, the results are good. But when communication breaks down or information is less than accurate, a cascade of failures ensues that makes a disaster far worse. Superspreaders are hubs, too, within social networks, though in their case the more connections they have with others, the worse, since those connections spread disease far and wide. Hence, Ferguson says, the need to build an institutional infrastructure that can disrupt social networks in times of emergency to halt contagion.

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