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Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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Some dare call it
Conspiracy
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What THEY don't want
you to know!
Sheeple wakers
If a GMO-imbecile ask you for "a citation", answer: "Pls *provide a citation* about requirement for a citation for a logical argument."
—Taleb on joined-up thinking[1]

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, statistician, and risk analyst, whose work focuses on problems of randomness, probability, and uncertainty. While being a celebrated, bestselling author (with his book, The Black Swan, reaching cult status) and a professor at several universities, he nevertheless delved in several questionable activities. Among these:

Taleb is pretty smart, though not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. (It's impossible for anyone to be as smart as Taleb thinks he is.) This means everyone who disagrees with him is stupid, probably to the point of being a nonthinking animal.

To quote Taleb himself:

A part man-part animal is vastly more horrifying than a full wild animal. Extremely eerie are monsters who look like humans with small differences.

The uncanny resides in the resemblance, not the difference.

So I finally figured out why I am gripped with so much revulsion at BS vendors dressed in the garb of high priest of scientists, intellectuals, or logicians, (say Pinker or Shermer or Harris or some scientist under Monsanto's control), to the point of total maddening anger, and why I do not experience any disgust when I see a fortune teller, a market commentator, or some new age meditation guru such as Deepak Chopra. [2]

Sam Harris discussed Taleb's bullying tactics and character in an AMA podcast [3] (starting at around 48:50).

Questionable activity[edit]

Social media[edit]

He is very active on social media. His modus operandi seems to be attacking popular thinkers, baiting them into an exchange while his many fans revel in the spectacle.

His twitter is spluttering incoherency in general. Taleb + editor = best-seller; Taleb - editor = Time Cube. Also, everyone he objects to is a "prostitute".

Guru & circlejerk[edit]

While publicly stating his disdain for fakery, he openly tolerates hordes of sycophants on his Facebook page whose only contribution is to praise him as the next Isaac Newton, constantly sucking up to him by cheering him on whenever he picks on someone, going as far as getting in on the baiting and bullying.

On the subject of his fans, Eric Falkenstein writes [4]:

His many fans highlight the effect of Taleb's thinking as they speak like Renfield discussing Count Dracula:
excellent; it's a must read ... I'll refrain from demonstrating my foolishness and ignorance by trying to interpret any of them in this forum. ?????


Those who understand the book will refrain from summarizing its message. ?????

They sound like a cult of scared guru worshipers.(...)

He has not added any new significant idea to any of these richly researched threads, rather merely tries to convince readers he and his followers are the only ones in the world who really understand them. For example, he extensively documents that financial time series are not exactly Gaussian, something financial standard bearer Eugene Fama investigated in his 1960's dissertation. He meticulously proved something everybody in the field has known for decades.

His fans especially revel in repeating Taleb's slogans such as "skin in the game" without actually bothering to understand them. As previously noted, they also compete with each other on which one can suck up most to their guru, by repeating things he already agrees with.

For example, you can find dozens of comments criticizing Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by people who haven't even read the book, and accuse it of saying things that are explicitly contradicted by the book's text. It has become somewhat of an urban legend among Taleb's followers: everyone "knows" that Steven Pinker believes there will be no more wars in the future. Pinker actually denies this explicitly in his book, but why bother to read a book when you can aim for a pat on the head from your guru?

John Vos caught on to this as well:

Wow, did you note that inference too?? [Pinker inferring about the future from past data about violence] If not, you’re obviously not a member of Taleb’s cult, so consider yourself lucky. [5]

What could be the explanation for Taleb's misinterpretation of Pinker's book (and everything else he distorts), and his continuing acceptance of the adulations of his shameless groupies?

A commenter on John Vos' website, Martin, offers the following suggestion:

True, those conclusions are never drawn by Pinker. What Taleb is doing is taking advantage of the benign Better Angels as a political launchpad to prove he has something more important to say. It’s a common tactic for gaining notoriety. I think that’s about all you can really say about this debate.

So the most benign interpretation, the one that assumes Taleb actually knows what he is doing, is that he is committing a "pious fraud", that is, engaging in a "pious lie" in order to warn the world not to get complacent (ironically, by accusing other people of being frauds and taking an intransigent position against fraud). If that is the case, did it work? Obviously not.

His apostles are more busy with worshiping his every utterance and sucking up to him, rather than heading forth into the world and preaching about non-complacency.

The fallback explanation is that Taleb doesn't know what he's talking about and he doesn't care, he just loves the attention and controversy, to the point of masochism, and hopes an accident of history might paint him as a visionary genius, a household name. (He does sell himself as the man who warned the 2007 economic crisis was coming but nobody listened). Why does he do this? Perhaps because he feels he can't reach that status legitimately, without engaging in apocalyptic predictions about the evils of modern thought, all the while being involved in internet catfights, and is too vain to acknowledge it.

The logic of academic warfare[edit]

Blogger John Vos captures precisely how Taleb's social media activity works: [6]

The logic of academic warfare


1. Scholar says A.
2. Taleb hears B, takes offense and declares war.
3. After firing a first salvo of noisy blanks and stray bullets, Taleb decides it’s time to hire a mercenary.
4. Looking forward to fighting at the side of a famous warlord, mercenary accepts the mission.
5. Taleb & mercenary pull out an impressive arsenal of missiles, and launch them in an all-out attack against their enemy.
6. When the dust settles, it turns out they’ve been bombing an undisputed patch of land in the desert. None of their missiles ever came close to the target.
7. Impressed by the huge clouds of smoke, Taleb’s followers cheer at their leader’s glorious victory.

Zapping[edit]

Taleb loves "zapping", that is, blocking people who disagree with him and deleting their messages. When he does offer an explanation, it's usually a misrepresentation of what they actually said. [7] Him deleting their messages makes it awfully hard for letting their words to speak for themselves, but Taleb's fans don't care, they cheer on.

Anti-GMO[edit]

Taleb is against GMO technology. As an article that documents his opinions says: "Genetically Modified Organisms Risk Global Ruin, Says Black Swan Author" [8]:

Experts have severely underestimated the risks of genetically modified food, says a group of researchers lead by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (...)


Their argument begins by dividing potential harm into two types. The first is localised and non-spreading. The second is propagating harm that results in irreversible and widespread damage. Taleb and co say that traditional decision-making strategies focus on the first type of risk where the harm is localised and the risk is easy to calculate from past data.

In this case, it is always possible to make a mistake when decision-making about risk. The crucial point is that when the harm is localised, the potential danger for a miscalculation is bounded.

By contrast, the harm that is able to propagate on a global scale is entirely different. “The possibility of irreversible and widespread damage raises different questions about the nature of decision-making and what risks can be reasonably taken,” say Taleb and co. In this case, the potential danger from a miscalculation can be essentially infinite. It is in this category of total ruin problems that the precautionary principle comes into play, they say.

Taleb includes GMO lobbyists + sponsored scientists on the "Villains of 2014" list [9]:

The Villains of 2014. (Harmful to the collective). + GMO Lobbyists working for Monsanto or others, along with the "sponsored" scientists and, easy to buy/influence, science journos. Likewise companies s.a. Starbucks financing lawsuits against states mandating labelling.

In a now-extinct tweet, Taleb writes: [10] [11]

Market is not stupid, as with "organic" nonGMO will be a marker of quality, upper class.

"How to argue with GMO propagandists"[edit]

On August 9, 2015, Taleb published a guide on "how to argue with GMO propagandists": [12]

- The error is to try to win a public argument against a propagandist. GMO shills will come up with canned responses largely provided by Monsanto, to drown the debate. Just expose shills, do not engage them. You will never convince a propagandist with a financial interest. Remember nobody won the war against the mafia by "convincing" them that what they did was against morality.


- Typical arguments and programmed scripted responses: "we do science", "we have evidence", "you do not have evidence", "naturalistic fallacy", "you take risks to cross the street", "a tomato is the same", "we have been doing so since agriculture", "you are against progress", "we save lives with golden rice or silver apples", "genetic fallacy", "shill gambit", "Monsanto funds did not influence my research", etc. Do not, I say, do not engage them. We have debunked these arguments as fallacies and catalogued them in our PP paper.

- Check the history of how tobacco companies spread disinformation. And note that people who take bribes have historically spun the same stories that "there is no connection". Remember that the GMO shills are going against centuries of the refinement of rules identifying and governing conflicts of interest.

- Bon courage! Vale! In the end truth and rationality prevails and those who take the most risks are heroes.

Truth wins and, unlike the mafia with tentacles, corporations are monstrously fragile. The fact that they need so much lobbying and spinning indicates how fragile they are.

One commenter replied:

So, essentially, the strategy is to rely on name-calling and avoid giving evidence for your argument at all costs. Just "expose" people as "shills," but "do not engage."


Because if you do, the "shills" will defeat you with some kind of underhanded, dishonest trick such as pointing out that "you have no evidence."

If your argument can be defeated by pointing out that you refuse to substantiate it as evidence, you're simply wrong, and no amount of ad hominem will make up the difference.

To which Taleb responds:

Exactly. The method is to treat people like you as if they were nonthinking animals. What can you do about it?

Taleb promoted a screenshot of this exchange, adding his own description [13] [14]:

Example of how to respond to a GMO Shill trying to harass you: Play with him. Make him feel deeply, insulted. Get him angry. Have fun.

Taleb thinks his page is getting invaded by shills, not realizing it is simply an effect of him getting discovered by the skeptical community [15] [16]:

We had an organized bunch coming here. We automatically zapped them.
Note that it costs only a few dollars a day for someone to zap systematically suspicious posters who have not participated on this page before.

Shill list[edit]

Not unlike the Anti-vax Enemies List [17], Taleb has his own list of "trapped shills" where he included those he banned from his Facebook page for disagreeing with him on GMOs. [18]:

nntaleb: If you are harassed by GMO shills-tards, good news: there are few unique persons on FB. We trapped half.

The PDF ([19]) is no longer available at the given URL. The introduction said:

TRAPPED SHILLS AND SOCIAL MEDIA

OPERATORS INTIMIDATING GMO Skeptics
Using standard Ketchum script (PR firm)

About 5% might be loners, regular trolls.

This is consistent with previous Taleb activity. It is not the first case where something he posted on Twitter is no longer available. Other examples include [20]: "BS artists invoke "science" with GMOs without considering error: science = accepting error and Risk= consequence of error."

Kevin Folta[edit]

As part of his anti-GMO rants, Taleb has picked on and bullied Kevin Folta, calling him a shill and openly insulting him in an exchange on Twitter and continuing the rants on Facebook. Here is one Twitter exchange, dated 7 Aug 2015: [21]

nntaleb: It turned out that Kevin Folta is paid by Monsanto to say these things and many more. A disgusting man.
kevinfolta: You realize what you just wrote is incorrect, libelous, and legally actionable, right?
nntaleb: Mr Folta, I take intimidation & legal threats very seriously. Also please provide a definition of "liar"
LukeMcElligott1: @nntaleb you guys need to work together. @kevinfolta why not invite NNT for a visit so you can collaborate?
kevinfolta: @LukeMcElligott1 @nntaleb Sure. I'd love a pizza and a beer with Nassim. I'm game.
nntaleb: @kevinfolta @LukeMcElligott1 Mr Folta I am sorry but I find you a disgusting fellow & do not break bread with lowly individuals like you.

On 15 Aug 2015, YouTube vlogger Jeff Holiday published a video titled "The Belligerent Bullying of Public Scientist Dr. Kevin Folta" [22]

Endorsement by Food Babe[edit]

Food Babe has praised Nassim Taleb on her Facebook page, quoting his quack conspiracy beliefs: [23]

Friends, Ralph Nader called me recently to warn me that I was going to be subjected to a smear campaign by Monsanto and friends, throwing anything they can to undermine my credibility, "throwing everything except the kitchen sink". They care so much about their business there is nothing they wouldn't throw at me. Nothing. He, himself, was subjected to a nasty smear campaign by GM fifty years ago.

Fughedabout the "victim" business. And it is not about enemies building you up, that's not the point. There a *real thrill* feeling that you are risking something for your ideas. The more risk, the more skin-in-the-game, the more thrill.

The more they attack you, the more skin-in-the-game, the more you feel honorable. I cannot describe the sentiment: all I can say is that it is the exact opposite of shame.

Writing style[edit]

Eric Falkenstein criticizes Taleb's writing style [24], accusing him of playing the arrogance card (making his readers think they have stumbled upon some deep insight that the high and mighties are ignorant about):

Taleb’s style is to severely criticize experts and authorities--lots of 'morons', 'idiots', and 'fools' out there--while implying that both he and his reader or listener are exempt from their many biases. Reading someone deflating puffed-up egos, criticizing the insular world of academics, and suggesting the experts have a huge blind spot on something important, can be fun reading. But it has to be making points that are true if new, or important if true, and here he fails to deliver.

He also criticizes Taleb's self-contradictions (doing the same things he accuses his targets of doing):

For someone advocating doubt and criticizing expert and 'regular' people’s overconfidence and arrogance, Taleb’s writings are filled with certainty, anger, and immodesty, having the Godelian impossibility of someone shouting 'I am the most humble!' Indeed, his current popularity based on prescience in forecasting recent events, and his emphasis that this proves him correct is exactly the kind of naive confirmation based on small samples that he argues is sloppy thinking. Consistency is not a hobgoblin in Taleb's mind.

"Science"[edit]

Taleb talks a great deal about science. He seems to think everything he believes is backed by real science, while everyone who disagrees with him in scientific matters is a charlatan who either misunderstands science or is paid by Monsanto.

Why does he think what he thinks is science? Because he writes papers (which he never fails to constantly reference) which he publishes on his own website. This is his "peer-reviewed" science. How exactly is it "reviewed"? In two ways. Either it is hailed as the next "Principia Mathematica" by his Twitter & Facebook fans (who are thus the "reviewers"), or otherwise it is "peer-review" because he considers himself as the "peer" who does the reviewing of other peoples' work.

In this view, any rabble-rouser with few-and-fixed ideas is a scientist, as long as he manages to save a document as .PDF and to publish it on his own website, and then to switch the burden of proof to those who disagree with him, requiring them to write their own papers debunking his obscure mathematics premised on faulty assumptions about the issues discussed.

Taleb has, in fact, written real papers with collaborators such as Philip Tetlock. So it is indeed strange that he fails to make the difference.

Taleb's Sokal Hoax[edit]

In Taleb's latest book he mentions a little trick he played on academics:[25] basically, he created a bunch of nonsense in abstruse mathematics just to highlight what fools they are. Here's his description of this work in Antifragile:

According to the wonderful principle that one should use people’s stupidity to have fun, I invited my friend Raphael Douady to collaborate in expressing this simple idea using the most opaque mathematical derivations, with incomprehensible theorems that would take half a day (for a professional) to understand ... Remarkably—as has been shown—if you can say something straightforward in a complicated manner with complex theorems, even if there is no large gain in rigor from these complicated equations, people take the idea very seriously. We got nothing but positive reactions, and we were now told that this simple detection heuristic was “intelligent” (by the same people who had found it trivial).

The paper was presumably accepted by Quantitative Finance, a journal where Taleb often publishes and seems highly favorable towards his work. This seems identical to the infamous hoax by Alan Sokal, a physics professor who submitted an intentionally meaningless article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. However, Sokal was mocking the journal and its readers by publishing self-acknowledged gibberish. Taleb's mocking his biggest fans ('stupid', he calls them). Odds are, the journal editor won't find this very amusing.

Steven Pinker[edit]

For the past few years, Taleb has accused Steven Pinker of being blindly optimistic about the future. Steven Pinker largely ignored Taleb's baiting, only replying in depth to his allegations in a PDF published on his own website.[26] [27]

Some relevant fragments which precisely identify Taleb's pattern of distorsions and/or misunderstandings:

Taleb shows no signs of having read Better Angels with the slightest attention to its content. Instead he has merged it in his mind with claims by various fools and knaves whom he believes he has bettered in the past. The confusion begins with his remarkable claim that the thesis in Better Angels is “identical” to Ben Bernanke’s theory of a moderation in the stock market. Identical! This alone should warn readers that for all of Taleb’s prescience about the financial crisis, accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people’s ideas are not his strong suits.


Taleb’s article implies that Better Angels consists of 700 pages of fancy statistical extrapolations which lead to the conclusion that violent catastrophes have become impossible.

And:

The book’s structure was lost on Taleb, who blends the different chapters and then criticizes his own confusion. He claims that the book “conflates nonscalable Mediocristan (death from encounters with simple weapons) with scalable Extremistan (death from heavy shells and nuclear weapons),” that it uses “statistics of one to make inferences about the other,” that it “does not realize the core difference between scalable/nonscalable,” that it implies that a drop in crime has implications for “casualties from violent conflict,” that it “fails to deal with the notion of temporal homogeneity,” and that it “assumes that the statistics of the 14th century can apply to the 21st.” Every one of these attributions is wrong. The book spends many pages arguing the exact opposite.


Taleb’s other allegations of statistical malfeasance are also products of dyslexia. The book does not claim that the mean of the distribution of war deaths has changed; it explicitly notes that power-law distributions (such as those commonly fitted to war deaths) don’t have calculable means.

Here is a fragment from Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" that confirms what he said in the rebuttal. Pinker is actually a down to earth, rational person who does not make wild speculations:

The goal of this book is to explain the facts of the past and present, not to augur the hypotheticals of the future. Still, you might ask, isn't it the essence of science to make falsifiable predictions? Shouldn't any claim to understanding the past be evaluated by its ability to extrapolate into the future? Oh, all right. I predict that the chance that a major episode of violence will break out in the next decade--a conflict with 100,000 deaths in a year, or a million deaths overall--is 9.7 percent. How did I come up with that number? Well, it's small enough to capture the intuition "probably not," but not so small that if such an event did occur I would be shown to be flat-out wrong. My point, of course, is that the concept of scientific prediction is meaningless when it comes to a single event--in this case, the eruption of mass violence in the next decade. It would be another thing if we could watch many worlds unfold and tot up the number in which an event happened or did not, but this is the only world we've got. The truth is, I don't know what will happen across the entire world in the coming decades, and neither does anyone else.

Quixotic Finance[edit]

In December 2015, Pinker tweeted a link discussing Taleb many misinterpretations of "Better Angels". It was written in a fairly humorous tone. This prompted several interventions by Taleb and one by Sam Harris.[28][29]

Taleb main point was that Pinker is a "charlatan" because he tweeted a blog post instead of relying on "peer-review science" to address Taleb's views:

To summarize tweetstorm, @sapinker proves to be a CHARLATAN, having recourse to random blogger instead of peer-review science. Charlatan.
Nitwit, didn't you notice we WROTE an article and he is creating smoke about it?

What Taleb didn't seem to consider was that the tweeting of a blog post does not preclude a positive scientific appraisal of Pinker's ideas. Most likely, Pinker just doesn't consider Taleb's opinions worthy of anything more than, in Taleb's own words, the blog post of an "unskilled bank employee finance troll".

Religion[edit]

In 2009, Taleb appeared at "La Ciudad de las Ideas", in a debate that also featured Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, among others.[30] In the December 2015 Twitter controversy involving Taleb and Pinker, Sam Harris brought up some videos from the debate[31]:

Sam Harris: @sapinker Are you are man enough to witness his genius in full flower? (I doubt it.)[32]

The debate itself is worth watching, the full panel featuring Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett (new atheists) vs. Shmuley Boteach, Dinesh D'Souza, Nassim Taleb (theists), and Robert Wright (neutral). Excerpts of Taleb's interventions can be found on YouTube. [33][34][35]. There are other videos that help us understand his view of religion. [36][37].

His points boil down to this:

Religion isn't about belief, it's about decisions[edit]

In his view, religion is a repository of useful heuristics that help people in making good decisions in situations where there is incomplete information about the world (situations of opacity). He claims that religion does not itself generate these heuristics, just that the stories get built around the rituals and are thus a mnemonic device. Invoking the Lindy effect, he claims that since it's been around for a long time, it must be doing something right.

Is his view true? Even assuming the idea that religion served useful purposes, this does not automatically guide us in knowing what those are. But Taleb seems to think he knows, he even points out such cases whenever he can find them. He is an Orthodox Christian, and in Orthodoxy there is lots of fasting. When recent scientific developments came to show the advantages of "intermittent fasting", Taleb saw it as an example of "religion knew it all along". He never explains how one should draw these conclusions, but seems satisfied with automatically assuming that identifying the "hidden wisdom of religion" is never a result of coincidence and our own cognitive biases.

In his "Antifragile" book he confirms this stance, that religion is "not true" but it must be useful since it must have survived by giving societies an edge:

religious stories might have no value as narratives, but they may get you to do something convex and antifragile you otherwise would not do, like mitigate risks. English parents controlled children with the false narrative that if they didn't behave or eat their dinner, Boney (Napoleon Bonaparte) or some wild animal might come and take them away. Religions often use the equivalent method to help adults get out of trouble, or avoid debt. But intellectuals tend to believe their own b***t and take their ideas too literally, and that is vastly dangerous. Consider the role of heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations--what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology.

Is his view original? Taleb's trademark is that he makes the most banal ideas that other people have known about for ages seem like the best thing since sliced bread, original insights that nobody has thought about before.

Jerry Coyne, in his book "Faith versus Fact" makes it pretty clear that people have known about this insight for ages, when he discusses Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA concept:

Finally, Gould’s designation of religion as the preserve of morals, meaning, and purpose is both disingenuous and historically inaccurate. For one thing, it ignores a centuries-long debate about the source of ethical belief. Does religion directly create moral views, or does it only codify and reinforce morality that flows from secular springs?

Not only is Taleb's view not groundbreaking, it has been debated for centuries and it is known in New Atheist circles.

New Atheists misunderstand religion[edit]

Taleb claims New Atheists misunderstand religion by making it all about belief. He describes a hypothetical Dawkins or Pinker in a cinema, yelling "that's not real blood, it's tomato juice" (presumably looking like fools, and annoying everyone else who just "gets it").

In reality, several New Atheists have made points that contradict Taleb's accusation. Sam Harris is actively exploring the parts of Eastern thought that are compatible with and beneficial to secular people. Alain de Botton has written a book on the topic, "Religion for Atheists". Richard Dawkins has described himself as a "cultural Christian".[38] Jerry Coyne has explicitly stated that this idea has been under debate for centuries, so clearly it does show up on people's intellectual radar.

Is religion all about decisions and too little about belief? A huge chunk of the religious certainly don't seem to think so. There are secular Jews, but most religious people do not resemble secular Jews. If religion is supposed to be all about decisions and not about faith, who can guarantee that the faith part doesn't affect the result?

Even if Taleb's point was true, Taleb's own theories would mark religion as "fragile", since the faith part is the one that makes religion so controversial in the first part.

Science does not compete with religion[edit]

Since Taleb believes religion is not actually about belief, but about heuristics and decision-making, his stance is that science does not contradict religion. Anything religion says about specific claims in holy texts is superfluous, since all that doesn't matter anyway, what matters is how religion helps people in dealing with day to day life.

For example, Taleb says religion helps people accept that the world contains unknowns: people find it hard to say "I don't know", but easier to say "God knows".

Another example he gives is of situations where no choice is clearly better than another: an ancient Greek might go visit an oracle, and thus randomize the choice and save precious time and effort that might have been wasted by over-analyzing it.

One problem with Taleb's view is that those benefits themselves can be subject to scientific scrutiny. And science might confirm or disprove a specific benefit attributed to religion. Or science might come up with alternative heuristics -- this is, in fact, the whole point of Sam Harris' book on morality.

Another problem is that his general position is pretty much unfalsifiable, so it has to be accepted on a gut feeling that things just are that way. Some benefits of religion might be confirmed, others might be disproven, but the theory is compatible with all evidence.

The mind abhors a vacuum[edit]

Taleb believes that if religions go away, people will most likely replace them with other belief systems that are likely destructive since they did not pass the test of time. Here he brings up two examples:

The Soviet Union is, predictably, one of them. People abandoned religion, picked up a utopian ideology and ended up killing millions. Ironically, this example's conclusions are contradicted by one of Taleb's foremost concepts: fragility. Several authors have noted that communism did not come to power where Marx's theory predicted (in the industrialized West). It first came to power in the mostly-rural, Orthodox Christian East (Russia) and that is where it did most harm. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Orthodox Christian countries were the hardest to recover, while Catholic and Protestant ones made the transition without issues. If anything, this example shows the fragility of Taleb's own religion, rather than a danger in moving away from a religion.

The other example he gave was an explanation as to why traditionally-Catholic European countries are in debt: Catholicism used to have a "fatwa" against debt, so when Catholicism's influence fell in those countries, they were left without the tool to restrain them so they took on a lot of debt. The irony is that this example directly contradicts the stance he takes in The Black Swan, on data dredging and coming up with convenient explanations after the fact.

The pre-Enlightenment world was wiser[edit]

Taleb believes the pre-Enlightenment world was wiser, because it had the tools to deal with uncertainty, while the Enlightenment thinkers thought they could implement large scale, top-down social change on the basis of rationality.

His full argument is that traditional belief systems provided people the tools to deal with the non-linearities of the world (everything that can't be "rationally planned"), and that the "rationalistic" movement (New Atheism included) only brought forth a naive, unrealistic, and potentially destructive attitude about the world, enabling a large potential for harm, because people believe they understand and control more than they really can understand and control.

Neil deGrasse Tyson[edit]

In January 2016, Taleb started baiting Neil deGrasse Tyson into an exchange with him. He initiated the exchange by claiming Tyson is just an entertainer:

People who do science/technical work should talk about science, not entertainers like Neil deGrasse Tyson. Kapish

@GeorgeShiber @neiltyson

2:05 AM - 24 Jan 2016

To which, Tyson replied:

@nntaleb: Perhaps one day we will meet (over a glass of Lebanese wine?) and you can detail for me why I make you so grumpy. 3:21 AM - 24 Jan 2016

The cause of the feud seems to have been an article about "What science is and how and why it works" by Tyson.[39][40]

This isn't the first time Taleb had an exchange with Tyson. A reddit post from 2004 on /r/conspiracy gloats at how Nassim "probably one of the greatest thinkers of our time" Taleb, quote, "humiliates Tyson on GMOs". In case it wasn't clear the first time, the title of the self post is "Neil deGrasse Tyson got his ass kicked on GMOs by Nassim Taleb".

Medicine[edit]

Taleb's pet peeve is to point out perceived flaws in expert thinking by contrasting it with "superior" choices selected by trial-and-error by non-experts. Iatrogenics (harm resulting from medical care) is his main example.

In his "Antifragile" book he explicitly states that he is not a supporter of Alternative medicine and dislikes when he gets letters of support from people promoting it.

Iatrogenics[edit]

Taleb holds the opinion that the medical establishment is really uneducated when it comes to risk management, and that iatrogenics is a bigger problem than it is given credit for. In "Antifragile", he first starts with a historical event:

Thank you, modernity: it was "scientific progress," the birth of the clinic and its substitution for home remedies, that caused death rates to shoot up, mostly from what was then called "hospital fever"--Leibniz had called these hospitals seminaria mortis, seedbeds of death. The evidence of increase in death rates is about as strong as they come, since all the victims were now gathered in one place: people were dying in these institutions who would have survived outside them. The famously mistreated Austro-Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis had observed that more women died giving birth in hospitals than giving birth on the street. He called the establishment doctors a bunch of criminals--which they were: the doctors who kept killing patients could not accept his facts or act on them since he "had no theory" for his observations. Semmelweis entered a state of depression, helpless to stop what he saw as murders, disgusted at the attitude of the establishment. He ended up in an asylum, where he died, ironically, from the same hospital fever he had been warning against. Semmelweis's story is sad: a man who was punished, humiliated, and even killed for shouting the truth in order to save others. The worst punishment was his state of helplessness in the face of risks and unfairness. But the story is also a happy one--the truth came out eventually, and his mission ended up paying off, with some delay.

A more recent case seems more relevant:

Consider this need to "do something" through an illustrative example. In the 1930s, 389 children were presented to New York City doctors; 174 of them were recommended tonsillectomies. The remaining 215 children were again presented to doctors, and 99 were said to need the surgery. When the remaining 116 children were shown to yet a third set of doctors, 52 were recommended the surgery. Note that there is morbidity in 2 to 4 percent of the cases (today, not then, as the risks of surgery were very bad at the time) and that a death occurs in about every 15,000 such operations and you get an idea about the break-even point between medical gains and detriment. This story allows us to witness probabilistic homicide at work. Every child who undergoes an unnecessary operation has a shortening of her life expectancy. This example not only gives us an idea of harm done by those who intervene, but, worse, it illustrates the lack of awareness of the need to look for a break-even point between benefits and harm. Let us call this urge to help "naive interventionism."

Then goes on to state:

Medicine is comparatively the good news, perhaps the only good news, in the field of iatrogenics. We see the problem there because things are starting to be brought under control today; it is now just what we call the cost of doing business, although medical error still currently kills between three times (as accepted by doctors) and ten times as many people as car accidents in the United States. It is generally accepted that harm from doctors--not including risks from hospital germs--accounts for more deaths than any single cancer. The methodology used by the medical establishment for decision making is still innocent of proper risk-management principles, but medicine is getting better. We have to worry about the incitation to overtreatment on the part of pharmaceutical companies, lobbies, and special interest groups and the production of harm that is not immediately salient and not accounted for as an "error." Pharma plays the game of concealed and distributed iatrogenics, and it has been growing. It is easy to assess iatrogenics when the surgeon amputates the wrong leg or operates on the wrong kidney, or when the patient dies of a drug reaction. But when you medicate a child for an imagined or invented psychiatric disease, say, ADHD or depression, instead of letting him out of the cage, the long-term harm is largely unaccounted for. (...)


'If you want to accelerate someone's death, give him a personal doctor'. I don't mean provide him with a bad doctor: just pay for him to choose his own. Any doctor will do. This may be the only possible way to murder someone while staying squarely within the law. We can see from the tonsillectomy story that access to data increases intervention, causing us to behave like the neurotic fellow. Rory Sutherland signaled to me that someone with a personal doctor on staff should be particularly vulnerable to naive interventionism, hence iatrogenics; doctors need to justify their salaries and prove to themselves that they have a modicum of work ethic, something that "doing nothing" doesn't satisfy. Indeed, Michael Jackson's personal doctor has been sued for something equivalent to overintervention-to-stifle-antifragility (but it will take the law courts a while to become directly familiar with the concept). Did you ever wonder why heads of state and very rich people with access to all this medical care die just as easily as regular persons? Well, it looks like this is because of overmedication and excessive medical care.

He never goes into any details regarding those numbers. The expression used for hospital deaths is usually "preventable medical errors". Those statistics usually include cases where the victim could have been saved, which is a far cry from saying that hospitals massively kill perfectly healthy people (as cars do). The comparison is spurious at best.

Defense of homeopathy[edit]

In November 2015, Taleb defended homeopathy as harmless placebos that divert hypochondriacs from taking too many real pharmaceutical products, going as far as to say that superstitions "can be rational".

Cory Doctorow has criticized Taleb[41] for his attitude, correctly pointing out that Taleb ignores the great body of peer-reviewed, published evidence about the real harms of homeopathy, which fall into two categories: first, people with real medical problems (e.g. cancer) substitute placebos for effective therapies; second, people who take homeopathic remedies for difficult-to-diagnose or imaginary ailments waste public/insurance money (in healthcare systems that fund "Complimentary/Alternative Medicine") and are apt to overmedicate with both homeopathic and real medicines -- a 2015 paper[42] looked at 45,000 patients and determined that homeopathic treatments "led to more productivity loss, higher outpatient care costs and larger overall cost."

In response, Taleb replied in his usual way by calling Cory "very stupid" and "dishonest". [43]

Taleb's stance on homeopathy was also criticized by Emil Karlsson.[44]

Ethnic composition of Roman Britain[edit]

In 2017, he got in a bizarre fight with Mary Beard over how many "non-white" people lived in Roman Britain. Beard is an expert on Roman history. Taleb is not.[45]

Notable contributions[edit]

Nassim Taleb has taken part in promoting and raising awareness about several concepts pertaining to risk analysis and decision making.

The Black Swan[edit]

The Black Swan refers to the fact that we live in a universe that often acts chaotically and thus, we can never rule out the unpredictable effects of small events. It also emphasizes the fact that humans are prone to rationalizing explanations as to why something happened (hindsight bias, historicism, etc.) by focusing on narratives instead of accepting the role of uncertainty.

Taleb uses this concept not just to show how others mistakenly pretend to understand the reasons behind specific occurrences, but also to encourage people to take advantage of unforeseen beneficial events (which he calls "positive black swans"). According to Taleb, one should expose oneself to "positive black swan events" (for example, by attending an event where you could make new connections, as opposed to sitting at home, watching TV). Most entrepreneurship seems to rely on strategies aimed at maximizing the potential to encounter a "positive black swan".

It should be noted, however, that the financial crisis in 2006/7, the event that many readers associate with the message of the book, was not a black swan event. Banking crises have happened numerous times in the past, and the one in the 1970's was pretty much the exact same type of crisis as 2006. Many banks lent to people who would never be able to pay them back because the banks could sell the loan obligations to Someone Else (and thus be somewhere else if the shit hit the fan, which it did). The main difference being that without the Glass-Steagall Act, the Someone Else was allowed to change from "other, larger banks who might have some vague idea of what they were purchasing" to "hedge fund managers who didn't". Combined with a number of other issues, ranging from government turning a blind eye to rating agencies just not giving a damn. And besides, if this type of event had never happened before, we wouldn't have had the Glass-Steagall Act in the first place. So to claim that the crisis was "an unpredictable event that no one could have predicted beforehand" is a massive whitewashing of the utter incompetence involved in the whole thing.

Skin in the game[edit]

"Skin in the game" refers to the observation that people tend to make better decisions and to better evaluate risk when they have something at stake. Conversely, when they don't have much to lose (bank managers, politicians) they tend to gamble a lot and take high risks because they are doing it with other people's money (no skin in the game).

Antifragility[edit]

Taleb introduced the word "antifragile", which is also the title of one his books (a book he considers his magnum opus). The term "antifragile" describes systems which derive gains from situations where our intuition would expect them to break down. Some of the examples Taleb uses are:

  • Gains from uncertainty (evolution, market economies, etc.)
  • Gains from physical stressors (bodybuilding, intermittent fasting, etc.)

The usefulness of the concept is criticized by Eric Falkenstein[46]:

His latest book Antifragile is driven by his discovery that there is not an English word for the opposite of fragile, which he thinks could not be 'robust' (this neologism is one of the few new ideas presented in this book, not that I think we need more new Taleb ideas). Fragile things lose a lot of value when mishandled, 'anti-fragile' things increase a lot in value when mishandled. He thinks this is very profound and therefore needs a book. The problem is that mishandle implies an adverse effect by definition, which is why there isn't a word for something that goes up in value when you mishandle it.

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. http://web.archive.org/web/20150924032003/https:/twitter.com/nntaleb/status/646695656778821632
  2. https://www.facebook.com/nntaleb/posts/10153549438018375
  3. https://soundcloud.com/samharrisorg/ama2-01
  4. Nassim Taleb Imitates Kanye West
  5. http://quixoticfinance.com/empty-statistics/
  6. http://quixoticfinance.com/empty-statistics/
  7. http://imgur.com/a/4j6bS
  8. Genetically Modified Organisms Risk Global Ruin, Says Black Swan Author
  9. Taleb's "Villains of 2014" list
  10. https://twitter.com/kobby_ok/status/420388513990057984
  11. http://imgur.com/rELSNuY
  12. https://www.facebook.com/13012333374/photos/pb.13012333374.-2207520000.1439729784./10153241218838375/
  13. https://www.facebook.com/13012333374/photos/p.10153247394678375/10153247394678375/
  14. http://imgur.com/LuVlHcx
  15. https://www.facebook.com/13012333374/photos/a.10150109720973375.279515.13012333374/10153241218838375/?type=1&comment_id=10153244316368375&offset=0&total_comments=403&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D
  16. http://imgur.com/Pw2sUsM
  17. http://www.skepticalob.com/2015/05/the-anti-vax-enemies-list-and-the-importance-of-being-echoed.html
  18. https://twitter.com/nntaleb/status/631041944131665920
  19. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/50282823/trapped%20shills.pdf trapped shills.pdf
  20. https://twitter.com/nntaleb/status/420185289462538240
  21. https://twitter.com/nntaleb/status/629613688576679937
  22. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLpeTIgtiMA
  23. http://www.facebook.com/thefoodbabe/photos/1089566281078082/
  24. Review of Taleb's The Black Swan
  25. Taleb's Sokal Hoax
  26. Fooled by Belligerence: Comments on Nassim Taleb’s “The Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion”
  27. Nassim Taleb Meets His Match with Steven Pinker
  28. https://twitter.com/sapinker/status/682361866321002496
  29. http://quixoticfinance.com/empty-statistics/
  30. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dqp2alZGR4o
  31. https://twitter.com/samharrisorg/status/682402156134010880
  32. https://twitter.com/SamHarrisOrg/status/682402156134010880
  33. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H11t5zBd3fU
  34. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKDNeb81qME
  35. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAbSmTGJhEA
  36. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuJD5Zfqti8&list=PLYjfoiOPresBFRJiTSL7yuSmLlyAn6ds_
  37. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxJvgbkDhng
  38. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_politics/7136682.stm
  39. https://www.facebook.com/notes/neil-degrasse-tyson/what-science-is-and-how-and-why-it-works/10153892230401613
  40. http://ginosblog.com/serotonin/neil-degrasse-tysons-epic-reply-to-nicholas-talebs-condescending-tweet/
  41. http://boingboing.net/2015/11/20/nassim-taleb-defends-homeopath.html
  42. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0134657
  43. https://twitter.com/nntaleb/status/667730072825106432
  44. http://debunkingdenialism.com/2015/11/17/anti-gmo-statistician-nassim-n-taleb-now-defends-homeopathy/
  45. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/08/dna-romans/535701/
  46. Taleb Mishandles Fragility