Niall Ferguson — Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe


Setting the annus horribilis of 2020 in historical perspective, Niall Ferguson explains why we are getting worse, not better, at handling disasters. Disasters are inherently hard to predict.

The Michael Shermer Show | Skeptic

Pandemics, like earthquakes, wildfires, financial crises, and wars, are not normally distributed; there is no cycle of history to help us anticipate the next catastrophe. But when disaster strikes, we ought to be better prepared than the Romans were when Vesuvius erupted, or medieval Italians when the Black Death struck. We have science on our side, after all.

Yet in 2020 the responses of many developed countries, including the United States, to a new virus from China were badly bungled. Why? Why did only a few Asian countries learn the right lessons from SARS and MERS? While populist leaders certainly performed poorly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Niall Ferguson argues that more profound pathologies were at work — pathologies already visible in our responses to earlier disasters. Drawing from multiple disciplines, including economics, cliodynamics, and network science, Ferguson offers not just a history but a general theory of disasters, showing why our ever more bureaucratic and complex systems are getting worse at handing them. Doom is the lesson of history that this country — indeed the West as a whole — urgently needs to learn, if we want to handle the next crisis better, and to avoid the ultimate doom of irreversible decline.

Niall Ferguson is one of the world’s most renowned historians. He is the author of 16 books, including Civilization, Empire, The Great Degeneration, Kissinger 1923–1968: The Idealist, The Ascent of Money, The Square and the Tower, The Pity of War, and The War of the World. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the managing director of Greenmantle LLC. His many prizes include the International Emmy for Best Documentary (2009), the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service (2010), and the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award (2016).

Shermer and Ferguson discuss:

  • comparing 2020/2021 to 1968/1972, the 1918 Spanish Flu, and The Black Death,
  • catastrophes vs. general background noise of entropy,
  • doomsday vs. disaster: plagues and wars,
  • covering laws of history and why predictions are so hard to make,
  • Cassandras vs. Pollyannas: who should we listen to? (Cassandras have predicted 9 of the past 5 recessions, and 100 of the past 0 doomsdays),
  • Gray Rhinos (disasters foreseen), Black Swans (unexpected), Dragon Kings (excessive disasters beyond excess mortality),
  • disasters natural vs. man-made, or political and economic,
  • social networks and disasters,
  • counterfactual history for assessing causality,
  • Titanic, Challenger, and Chernobyl disasters and what we can learn from them,
  • fundamental attribution bias applied to disasters: we attribute too much of the responsibility for political disasters and military tragedies to incompetent leaders instead of circumstances,
  • impediments to forecasting: availability heuristic, negativity bias, and contingency,
  • what masks and guns really represent,
  • political polarization,
  • tight and loose cultures in a time of pandemic,
  • what it means to be a conservative or a Republican post-Trump,
  • conspiracy theories and how the world really works,
  • Henry Kissinger in perspective,
  • WWI in perspective (should the UK and US have stayed out of it?),
  • tech companies, Section 230 (platforms or publishers), trust bust them all?
  • modern monetary theory,
  • cryptocurrency.