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Nassim Taleb Is Annoying, but Antifragile Is Still Worth Reading

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


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Nassim Nicholas Taleb can be a pain in the ass. After I invited him to speak at Stevens Institute of Technology a year ago, he made all kinds of demands about where, when and how the event should take place and be publicized—or rather, not publicized. He loathes journalists so much that he almost backed out of his talk after learning that local media might attend. Of the 40-plus speakers I’ve brought to Stevens, none gave me nearly as much agita as Taleb.

I put up with Taleb’s prima donna antics because—as I explained in a post last year–he’s brilliant, funny and fearless and tackles consequential topics. What are the limits of science? Of understanding and prediction? Given our limited ability to know and control the world, how should we live our lives? How can we prosper in spite—and even because—of life’s vicissitudes? A former derivatives trader, Taleb made his reputation by bashing conventional economics and finance, but his scope has always ranged far beyond Wall Street. His Big Idea is that life inevitably serves up surprises, or “black swans”–from AIDS and nuclear weapons to the 9/11 attacks and the internet—that our necessarily retrospective models of reality cannot foresee.

Unlike writers who have big personalities on the page but not in in the flesh (like incendiary blogger PZ Myers, who was surprisingly mild-mannered when I interviewed him for Bloggingheads.tv), Taleb is just what you’d expect in person, if not more so. The first time I met him, for lunch at a café in Manhattan, he spoke with manic intensity, as if he had a hard time keeping up with his own epiphanies. You could almost see the light bulbs flashing around his head.

At Stevens, Taleb previewed a book he was still working on, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, which has just been published by Random House. A common criticism of Taleb has been that he harps on life’s unpredictability without telling us what we should do about it. In other words, he offers us a diagnosis but no treatment. Antifragile represents Taleb’s response to that complaint.

Here is how he sums up his message in The Wall Street Journal: “We should try to create institutions that won’t fall apart when we encounter black swans—or that might even gain from these unexpected events… To deal with black swans, we instead need things that gain from volatility, variability, stress and disorder.” That is what Taleb means by “antifragile.” He offers some suggestions for achieving antifragility in government, business and other spheres: “Think of the economy as being more like a cat than a washing machine.” “Favor businesses that learn from their own mistakes.” “Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.” “Trial and error beats academic knowledge.” “Decision makers must have skin in the game.”

Reading Taleb, I am reminded of other big-egoed thinkers: The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who like Taleb emphasized life’s randomness, or “contingency,” as Gould put it. (I summed up Gould’s view of life as “shit happens.”) The mystical philosopher Ken Wilber, who fashions his neologisms into grandiose diagrams of existence. The anarchist Kirkpatrick Sale, who rails against the tyranny and corruption of big governments and corporations. The journalist Kevin Kelly, who extols the chaos and freedom of decentralization over top-down control. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who cherished his status as a cross-disciplinary maverick and had a knack for gnomic aphorisms. The psychedelic visionary Terence McKenna, who shared Taleb’s obsession with novelty.

In short, Taleb resists categorization. If I had to pigeonhole him, I’d call him an anti-guru guru. That is, he mercilessly bashes other gurus, pundits and prophets and warns you not to fall for them. He depicts himself as a brave, lonely truth-teller in a world of fools and frauds. In so doing, he becomes a guru himself, with a cult-like following. Many gurus—from Socrates to Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the most successful gurus of the 1960s—have successfully employed this anti-guru schtick.

Like Taleb’s 2007 bestseller The Black Swan, Antifragile brims with bluster, mean-spirited diatribes and chest-thumping self-congratulation. I nonetheless recommend it, because the book is entertaining and provocative in the best sense. That is, even if you question what Taleb is saying—and you certainly should—he forces you to examine your own biases and assumptions. Yes, he can be irritating, but so are many of our most original thinkers.

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. curiouswavefunction 3:04 pm 12/5/2012

    Taleb on his website: “Important (only): gamma -at- fooledbyrandomness-dot-com. (Please keep very short (postcard style); please avoid attachments and links. I beg journalists & members of the media to leave me alone; they should get in contact with the publishers if they need to. Also, no documentary films, no newspaper articles, no interviews beyond book launches: I write only books and technical papers: I do NOT wish to have a public life or public intellectual life outside of book events).”

    Link to this
  2. 2. gesimsek 5:38 pm 12/5/2012

    Another confirmation of a historical position of Western philosophy since Enlightenment; we agree on not to agree on anything. Unfortunately, an economy at the edge of fiscal cliff does not agree with this either.

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  3. 3. LarryW 10:29 pm 12/5/2012

    I’ve read several of Taleb’s books and though I’m sure he has something interesting to say, he doesn’t actually say it, and I remain unenlightened with just a hint of what to look for in other authors who will explain the issues more clearly and not treat his/her readers like fools.

    An authors I like are Mlodinow, Kahnen, Cleveland and the like who are mathematical and statistical sophisticates but are focused and linear in their development of ideas. I emphasize development, as Taleb simply does no development of any kind of his theses.

    “Antifragile” sounds like a good idea, but I prefer to review material that are either more technical (AI, neural networks) or that look at analogies, of which there are many, from biological systems, to understand how flexible systems develop and operate.

    Link to this
  4. 4. blackswanerror 7:34 pm 12/9/2012

    The black swan thesis has a serious error. There is a short essay here:

    http://blackswan.fhost.com.au

    Link to this
  5. 5. albeit 2:38 am 03/16/2013

    Nassim Taleb is NOT annoying at all. I enjoy listening to someone that actually sees through all the logical errors policymakers are making.

    Link to this
  6. 6. blackswanerror 4:44 pm 05/26/2013

    The black swan thesis has a serious error. The short essay is now available at this page:

    http://www.geocities.ws/blackswan

    (It appears that the page at FHost was attacked and so the host had to disable it.)

    Link to this
  7. 7. freyir 5:17 pm 05/29/2013

    blackswanerror,

    From your essay:

    “[These events] certainly could not have been highly improbable. They actually occurred.”

    The author (you?) needs to reflect on the meaning of randomness and improbability.

    I’m headed to the casino after work, where I’ll play roulette. I’m going to put my life savings on the number 26. Is it improbable that I’ll win? What happens after the ball lands on 26? It went from an improbability to a certainty? Or was it never an improbability to begin with? Should I go double or nothing?

    There are certain natural phenomena that we can accurately model using math and reason. These phenomena tend to be causal relationships where the result or output is affected by a small number of dominant inputs.

    There are certain other systems that are extremely difficult to accurately model due to their inherent complexity. Perhaps there are too many inputs, or we don’t know all the inputs, or the inputs change over time in unpredictable ways, or the inputs (or the outputs) don’t fit to mathematical functions that are amenable to analysis, etc. Many people argue that the stock market falls in this second category: it is too complex and dynamic to be consistently modeled accurately. The same goes for weather. Or even the roll of a roulette ball.

    When a system is governed by sufficient complexity such that we cannot reliably predict the output, that system is effectively random. All the underlying inputs and mechanisms may be deterministic, but the output is random to us. In this sense, “randomess” is just another mathematical tool, rather than a complete description of reality. And in many scenarios, it is the best tool we have.

    Taleb suggests that historical events are too random to be predicted. Judging by the dismal track record of futurists and political forecasters, this appears to be true at the present time.

    But Taleb goes off the rails (in my opinion, and seemingly in the essay’s author’s opinion), when he attributes historical events entirely to randomness.

    Take, for example, Microsoft’s success, which he essentially dismisses as an accident of history. Bill Gates got lucky, he claims, when IBM chose Microsoft to provide its operating system. He doesn’t suggest why this should be considered random (did IBM execs throw darts at a board and land on Microsoft?). He doesn’t credit the effort Gates put into getting Microsoft to even be considered by IBM. But why stop there? Looking further back in time, we realize that an infinite combination of improbable events had to occur for Microsoft (and Gates, and Taleb) to exist at all. It’s a slippery slope. Maybe we’re all just monkeys banging away on keyboards.

    Link to this
  8. 8. benkz123 7:18 pm 04/23/2014

    If he’s smart enough for Kahneman, he’s smart enough for me.

    Link to this

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