I am not famous, nor Oxford educated. I don’t hold a prestigious position at the Hoover Institution, nor have I won “many awards,” as Neil Ferguson’s biography concludes at the end of his book. Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, Declaring so I begin this review with several obvious disadvantages compared to the esteemed author.
But much like Ferguson I wrote a something pieces related to covid During the recent pandemic. I also have a multi-disciplinary perspective on issues and have a lot of sympathy for the political perspective he brings to this work. So I am not here to unduly praise or disparage the book. However, it has to be acknowledged for what it is.
First of all, it’s kind of a crazy mess. It’s like trying to drink water from a fire hydrant, using a straw Keeping up with Ferguson’s learning and narrative stories that supposedly help illustrate various points can be exhausting. His reliance on lists and terms from writers and thinkers across the social sciences can be overwhelming. Second, there is the nature of the project. Is it history? Is it social science? Is it policy prescription? Is it three? And finally one has to ask now, in 2022, are its observations of the pandemic and the US government’s response to the crisis timely and helpful in understanding what went wrong and how to prevent similar crises in the future?
Rather than trying to cram them into one essay, I’ve chosen to break them into three parts. In this first part, I am going to address this issue, academically, of what he is doing here by asking a question that I often ask my history colleagues, namely what exactly is the nature of history and how should we approach the study of it?
His very timely and relevant introduction to the edited volume Capitalism and Historians, FA Hayek writes about controversial political questions that any historian should face, that is, which questions are relevant and important to study.
There is indeed no valid reason why, in answering questions of fact, historians of different political views cannot agree. But at the very beginning, in deciding which questions are worth asking, individual value judgments are bound to arise. And it is more than doubtful whether a coherent history of an era or a series of events can be written without explaining these. Light, theorizes not only about the interconnectedness of social processes, but also about particular values – or at least whether such a history would be worth reading.
Hayek aims to present a series of essays defending the Industrial Revolution in the context of left-wing history that focuses on the suffering of workers during the development of modern industrial growth. Ferguson’s agenda here is much more ambiguous, and therefore much more difficult to determine. What kind of history is it exactly?
In the first main chapter, he explores the nature of death, which seems more philosophical and volatile than direct and obvious. In the next chapter he briefly examines cliodynamics, which focuses on data collection as a means of understanding social and national decline. But then he quickly moved on to the works of Jared Diamond on social and economic decline and then on human heuristics and biases. Is it a book about social and economic decline? Is it about population dynamics and environmental forces? disease? It’s a bit confusing and we’re about 70 pages into it.
Ferguson then takes the reader to a variety of disasters that seem to this reviewer to be unrelated to epidemic issues such as population carrying capacity, social collapse based on environmental forces, and human bias. I mean, how do we relate catastrophic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to heuristics and biases? Such disasters appear to be unexpected external shocks, not errors based on human nature. I’m not sure we can reasonably expect that ancient Roman or Chinese authorities in the 15th century were able to use seismic data to predict earthquakes and relocate cities accordingly.
None of this is to say that the information Ferguson provides the reader is not interesting, clearly written, or inaccurate. But it is not organized in a coherent way to deal with the theme we presented at the beginning. Moreover, it is not clear what his historiography is. Is it history? Stop showing one’s intellectual breadth? Showing how crazy we all were during the lockdown? I’m not sure, but I think this effort could use a little thematic clarity in the first third to help readers who may be frustrated with the nature of the project.
G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund.