You’re a fool. So am I. We’re serious nincompoops. And it’s only getting worse as the world gains complexity. But we don’t have to be “Faucian” fools.

We’ve been fools for a long time. The unavoidability of this state of affairs was captured in 1958 by Leonard E. Read in an essay (back when public intellectuals wrote essays) called I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard E. Read. In this charming allegory, Read tells the story of a pencil in the first person, as if relayed to the author by that most everyday of writing instruments.

“I am a lead pencil,” the text opens. “The ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.” Quite sensibly, Read suggests the reader “may wonder why I should write a genealogy”. After all, how interesting could the life of a pencil be? With the right kind of eyes, very interesting indeed. “I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe”.

The story of the pencil

Consider the vast complexity of just a pencil’s foundational years: “My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods.”

Read turns to the logistics of getting timber from stage to stage. “Imagine the individuals who make flat cars and rails and railroad engines and who construct and install the communication systems incidental thereto?” Next stop is the mill, where “the cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again.” Pencil asks, “How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires?”

Ponder the complexity around just the ingredient of “lead”. Read explains, “My “lead” itself — it contains no lead at all — is complex. The graphite is mined in Ceylon. Consider these miners and those who make their many tools and the makers of the paper sacks in which the graphite is shipped and those who make the string that ties the sacks and those who put them aboard ships and those who make the ships.”

Finally, several transmogrifications later, there is “my crowning glory, inelegantly referred to in the trade as ‘the plug’, the part man uses to erase the errors he makes with me. An ingredient called ‘factice’ is what does the erasing. It is a rubberlike product made by reacting rapeseed oil from the Dutch East Indies with sulfur chloride.”

The conclusion is apt. “Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

Complexity

He’s right. The humble pencil is so incredibly complicated that not one soul alive knows how to contribute more than a tittle of the skills demanded to create one. Now, multiply that by a billion. Heck, make it a zillion. It doesn’t really matter what number we put on it. There is more complexity in this world than we can sensibly attempt to imagine. From pencils to brain surgery and literature to architecture. As with the pencil, not one of us can claim to be anything better than a fool outside of the most incredibly, infinitesimally small sliver of all of this.

At one extreme of understanding, the most successful professors dive so deep into one topic – one facet of one type of molecule or one style of art from some nearly forgotten civilisation – that their sliver of the world wanes dangerously thin.

Covid-19 response

This all matters to the response to Covid-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci is a physician-scientist and immunologist. He serves as the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the chief medical advisor to the president of the United States. Applying the lens I have built above, he is also, by definition, a fool in very nearly all human endeavours.

Academia has tools to show just how much of a fool participants are. The more papers you write, and the more highly rated journals they are published in, as well as how many times each is read and cited by other authors, is recorded. Google Scholar provides Fauci’s level of foolery via his h-index of 224. That is an impressive number, and an indicator of relatively excellent limits to his foolery. His 229 243 citations is astronomical in its suggestion of anti-foolery.

So, while Fauci’s nincompoopery is enviably limited, his nincom is nonetheless severely pooped regarding almost every facet of every field of endeavor outside of his.

This makes the recommendations of Fauci – and by implication every expert around the world – in favour of universal, state-mandated lockdowns in response to Covid-19 both flummoxing and dangerous.

First, the burden of proof lies entirely on those advocating for lockdowns. We were open. We liked it. We had gone through the trouble and strife needed to ratify laws and constitutions (certainly in the case of the 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa) that not being locked down is a right. Limits to that right are potentially legitimate, but they face a strong burden of proof.

Add to that the near total novelty of lockdowns. Never before have we attempted anything like the breadth and depth of the lockdowns unleashed on the world in 2020. This necessarily opened indescribably large recesses of unexplored human foolery.

It is reasonable to give credence to the credentials of the likes of Fauci and defer to their expertise as regards their respective fields. For the context of Covid and the purposes of this argument, let’s call that “measures that impact the transmission of viruses among people and the degree to which they do that successfully”. While I dispute some of Fauci’s claims on this, we can safely acknowledge that he is highly knowledgeable on this. And therefore that he is adequately positioned to make recommendations in this field. That is, things like, “In my expert opinion, and based on this and that evidence, wearing a mask of a given type in a specific setting ought to have X impact on transmission of Covid-19.”

Scope for foolery

However, that leaves terrific scope for foolery. For Fauci and friends to recommend universal lockdowns enforced by the state monopoly on violence, they must also have a sound understanding of a great deal of the other results of lockdowns. Those that exceed their formal expertise.

So, does Fauci have a rich appreciation of, for example, “the short-run and long-run relationship between health, proxied by life expectancy, and income using panel cointegrating analysis and panel Granger causality,” as explored in 2020 by Aliona Neofytidou and Stilianos Fountas? That is available in Volume 21, June 2020, of the Journal of Economic Asymmetries. He would have to, at a minimum by now, know in some detail the “impact of social distancing and isolation on mental health in older adults”. Edward Baker and Louise L. Clark published on this in the British Journal of Community Nursing in May last year (Vol. 25, No. 5). Not being education specialists, Fauci et al. would need to do hard but necessary work to get to grips with the nuances of “Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic”. [Answer: “Despite favorable conditions, we find that students made little or no progress while learning from home. Learning loss was most pronounced among students from disadvantaged homes.”] It is unclear whether Fauci has spoken with Per Engzell, Arun Frey, and Mark D. Verhagen about this recent work of theirs in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America (Vol. 118, No. 17). That was published on 27 April 2021, so we can grant another week or two for our experts to get to this one.

I’ll stop there – well short of a teeny fraction of the available set of potential foolery, and hopefully before my sarcasm goes beyond its useful life. Dr. Anthony Fauci is fully qualified and entitled to make certain claims and give associated advice. There is a far larger field in which he entirely is not.

By making recommendations for universal lockdowns, Fauci and many like him across the world have defiled science. They have tacitly lied, abusing the implication that, as scientists, they have considered all issues necessary to reasonably consider. They have claimed mastery in realms where they cannot possibly have more than foolery. They have played politician, thereby damaging science.

Everyday foolery is not a choice. Faucian foolery is.

 The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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contributor

Ian Macleod studied business science at the University of Cape Town, and journalism at Rhodes University. He completed his MBA at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) during 2016-2017, penning his thesis on the challenges inherent in private equity investments into family business. During his studies he worked at professional services firm EY in their People Advisory Service (PAS) consulting wing, working primarily on change management. Macleod returned to GIBS shortly after graduating to help launch the school’s new Africa centre, the Centre for African Management and Markets (CAMM), and to drive an exploration into the viability of a family business network for Africa housed at GIBS. He combines his interests in journalism, business and academia in his online platform, Investment Narrative (https://www.investmentnarrative.com/). Macleod has run five Comrades Marathons, and once rode his bike 900km off-road from Joburg to Scottburgh in nine days.