Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE GHOST MAP, by Steven Johnson

I think that it must be a very rare thing indeed for an author to not want a book he or she has written to sell a lot of copies–or at least for them not to sell a lot of copies for a bad reason. For example, I enjoyed GHOST FLEET, an imaginative thriller about a possible Chinese invasion of Hawaii, and while I certainly would like to have the book earn a wide readership, I would not want that to happen because China had, in fact, invaded Hawaii. (I imagine that the authors would agree.)

THE GHOST MAP, as I write this in January 2021, is selling well, and is selling well not because the book is so well-written and well-researched, but because the world is struggling with a global pandemic. Although there is not a great deal of similarity between the mid-nineteenth-century cholera outbreak in London and the twenty-first century outbreak of COVID-19, there is a commonality in terms of the fear of infection and frustration about how the crisis can be dealt with.

THE GHOST MAP is only sort of a history of the cholera outbreak that devastated (and, as the author points out, decimated, in the literal sense) the Soho neighborhood of London. It is primarily an intellectual history of the outbreak, and illustrates both the “knowledge problem” as set forth by Friedrich Hayek, and its corollary, written by Mark Twain, writing decades before Hayek.

The “knowledge problem” can be summarized thusly:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

Or to summarize, nobody can know everything that he or she would need to know to make rational decisions. And as Twain observed, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Both the lack of knowledge and the persistence of what we may call anti-knowledge are ubiquitous in society, and are especially troublesome in the time of pandemic.

For London, the facts were that the bacteria that causes cholera was both unknown and unseen, and as so, there was no consensus on how it was transmitted. John Snow, a Victorian (in the most literal sense of the word) surgeon had determined that cholera was transmitted through the water supply. But the scientific community at large had determined that cholera was spread via bad smells, of which there were an abundance in London.

Snow was as close as anyone could be to solving the knowledge problem; he had exactly the set of medical, social, and analytical skillsets needed to determine the source of the cholera outbreak. As Hayek stated, Snow was “in the best position to command all the best knowledge available.” But he had to fight against those who believed the alternate theory, and he was unable to prove his theory until a local clergyman–seeking to disprove Snow– became  the “man on the spot,” with the specialized local knowledge to find the specific cesspit located next to the specific well which was the cause of the epidemic.

Johnson’s story is, happily, triumphant, and the the problems of cholera have, in the Western nations, largely been licked. (Outside of Western nations, cholera is a real problem, causing thousands of deaths each year.) Removing the handle of the pump on the contaminated well was a perfect solution–effective, cheap, and simple. (Treatment of cholera, which was unknown at the time, is basically Gatorade–Johnson has a hearty laugh at the quack nostrums sold in London to battle cholera.

THE GHOST MAP concludes with a long essay about how the work of John Snow impacts modern times–which I thought was a bit too long, until Johnson made some very prescient comments about the next pandemic and what it will look like. The knowledge problem related to COVID-19 is much more fiendish. COVID-19 is everywhere, not just in one impoverished London neighborhood. It is spread (or we think it is spread) by airborne particles or close contact, and up until recently we thought it was spread by asymptomatic patients. Although we seem to have a solution to the outbreak, the logistics in getting vaccines to billions of people is several orders of magnitude higher than removing one handle from one pump. The anti-knowledge, or misinformation, about COVID-19 has spread faster and farther than the virus itself.

There’s no doubt that the current popularity of THE GHOST MAP is due to COVID-19, which may be one of the few good things that has occurred as a result. It’s outstanding history, sociology, and epidemiology all in one. I hope that we are fortunate enough to have enough John Snows in this generation, and that we’re able to cut through the misinformation in time to save lives.