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


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.


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

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