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Non-Sissy Uncertainty: Why I Inflict Nassim “Black Swan” Taleb on My Students

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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What’s the point of the humanities? I mean, in addition to supplying jobs for humanities teachers? I am a faculty member within the College of Arts & Letters, a.k.a. CAL, of Stevens Institute of Technology, a university dedicated primarily to engineering and the hard sciences. And so naturally I and my CAL colleagues—who include professors of history, philosophy, psychology and social science as well as the literature, music and art—frequently fret over our purpose.

I think our purpose is, or should be, to sow skepticism in students’ minds, to encourage them to doubt society’s dominant belief systems, whether political, economic, religious or scientific. After all, our certainty arguably gets us into trouble more than our skepticism does. When I look at our country and the rest of the world, I see fanatics, not the diffident, causing most of the mayhem. Hence I’m always on the lookout for works that can undermine my students’ faith, whatever forms it might take.

Lately, I’ve been urging them to check out the writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, (and a week ago I brought him to my school to give a talk). Just a few months ago, I thought I knew all I needed to know about Taleb. He was a guy who graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, made moola as a Wall Street trader and wrote a couple of books, notably The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House, 2007), a bestseller about the unpredictability of the stock market.

I knew some big shots were impressed with Taleb. New York Times columnist David Brooks credited Taleb with predicting the economic crisis of 2008. The Sunday Times of London ranked The Black Swan as one of the most influential books since World War II. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson called Taleb “idiosyncratically brilliant.”

But I still assumed that Taleb was basically a Wall Streeter who wrote about Wall Street for other Wall Streeters. Then I read The Black Swan, and I discovered that my assumptions about the book and its author had been wrong. Taleb is not a Wall Street guy. He is really a philosopher, or what used to be called a free thinker, devoted to figuring out the world.

In The Black Swan, Taleb explores the limits of knowledge, and not just economic knowledge but knowledge of all kinds. Taleb contends that scientists, engineers, doctors, economists, politicians, journalist and all of us overestimate our ability to comprehend and foresee events; our models of reality can never account for “black swans,” events that cannot be foreseen based on extrapolations from the past. Our excessive confidence in our knowledge can lead to all sorts of problems, including depressions, wars, nuclear meltdowns and medicine that makes us sicker.

Taleb rubs a lot of people the wrong way, understandably so. He can be almost comically arrogant and dismissive of other wisdom dispensers, including journalists and economists in general and Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman in particular. Taleb reminds me of one of his heroes, the philosopher Karl Popper, who was also mightily certain about his own uncertainty.

Perhaps because he is a more entertaining writer, Taleb pulls off the trick of being an egomaniacal preacher of epistemological humility more effectively than Popper. I often tell my students that their papers will be more compelling if they let their personalities shine through. The Black Swan exemplifies this kind of writing. The narrative is driven both by reason and by passion, and as a result it engages readers—or at least this reader—on all levels. The book is outrageous, angry, exuberant and very funny.

Taleb embeds his arguments in a kind of memoir, a tale of personal discovery. He begins by describing his childhood in Lebanon, during which he survived a civil war that made him acutely aware of life’s fragility. He also takes us through his experiences as a businessman and, even more, as a voracious reader, who responds on a personal, visceral level to other free thinkers, from Plato to Popper.  This is philosophy with heart and guts.

During his visit to Stevens, Taleb previewed his next book, Antifragility, which proposes how we can reduce the threat of black swans and reap their potential benefits—in the realms of engineering, medicine, business and politics as well as economics. Taleb defines antifragility (his coinage) as the capacity of a system to thrive in response to randomness, disorder, the unexpected—that is, black swans. As Ashley Hiller reports in my school’s student newspaper, The Stute, Taleb’s next book “promises to uphold the spirit of his work and elaborate on the same thought-provoking ideas he sparked with The Black Swan.”

Here’s a quote from the prologue of Antifragility, which should give you a sense of Taleb’s substance and style: “This book is about how to domesticate, even dominate, even conquer, the impenetrable, the unseen, the non-understood, the opaque, the perplexing, and the inexplicable. Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness: you want to use it, not hide from it. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind. This summarizes my non-sissy attitude toward randomness and uncertainty.” Non-sissy uncertainty? That’s a message I’ll enjoy imparting to my students.

Photo by Sarah Josephine Taleb.


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. keithforest 3:18 pm 01/30/2012

    The Taleb interviews on econtalk are a great introduction to his work.

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  2. 2. QuantApology 5:36 pm 01/30/2012

    With respect, you’ve been had.

    Taleb is not presenting counter-establishment thinking at all, but lazy, unscientific banter. The real establishment is Wall Street and it isn’t particularly scientific, much less theoretical so Taleb’s failure to acknowledge probability theory (or large parts of statistics) is not exceptional but very much the norm for traders on Wall Street – not to mention those that regulate them, rather more unfortunately, and certainly those that manage them.

    In fact pissing on probability theory is entirely standard behaviour for uneducated schmucks given trading accounts who prefer to re-invent tiny parts of theory and screw it up in the process, then revel in the seeming profundity of their ‘paradoxical’, ‘novel’ insights. It goes a little far though when, in encouraging everyone to eschew the only weapons that work, our ‘thought leaders’ influence our elected leaders, thereby guaranteeing the fleecing of another generation. Only the tools of probability can create true market transparency, automate traders, and stem the leak from main street to Wall street. Only things that actually make sense can be incorporated into technology that thwarts cynical oligopolies where it matters most: the fixed income markets where the crisis played out.


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  3. 3. jstaf 1:09 pm 01/31/2012

    I met Nic Taleb at a PopTech event shortly after finishing the Black Swan, and it was apparent that he was way ahead of the Wall Street thinkers in 2001.

    Sure now everyone likes to talk about probabilities as if they were well understood on Wall Street, despite the clear evidence against that in the behavior and comments, even in the posts on this thread you see the”Smart” guys attack him because he knows despite the Ivy degrees these people are practicing alchemy and pretending it is science.

    I don’t think Taleb work is as important as Simon, Kahnemann, or even Deiner as to breaking through the absurd myths that are now taught as economics, but he shone a light on a dark corner of idiocy that has been slowing progress and allowing criminals to prosper.

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  4. 4. mtobis 4:09 pm 01/31/2012

    “Antifragility” is an awkward and needless neologism. The word in common usage is “resilience”.

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  5. 5. Stevevied 11:46 am 02/5/2012

    Taleb has gotten much attention for his Black Swans, but much of it has been wrongly described. Often these are predictable and, often, preventable surprises as described by Max Bazerman of HBS. Definitely worth a look.

    Among the many recent predictable surprises, not Black Swans, was the 2008 financial crisis, predicted as early as 2005.

    Asking the right questions ahead of time can identify issues that demand attention and action.

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