Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Problem with Mr Taleb - Antifragile Review

In Antifragule, the economist, philosopher and options-trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb sets out to articulate the principles of "that which gains from disorder". Along the way he discusses a number of other topics, such as iatrogenics and the importance of acknowledging our inability to plan for black swans. There is a varying level of originality in the book's observations - the principle of planning while keeping unpredictability in mind is a fairly old one. In saying that, conceptualising unpredictability as an engine for growth may actually be a new idea.  Even the unoriginal points that Taleb expounds on, highlight ideas that don't received a lot of public attention so Taleb's mentioning of them is still quite welcomed.

The most contentious parts of Antifragile are found in the sections where Taleb argues that academic research comes after, not before, human progress has been made. The tinkerers shall inherit the earth, the nerds know nothing. New medicines are "discovered" by private firms far more often than in publically funded laboratories (p.231), and we should take note of the huge technological innovation that happens in the playground of Silicon Valley (p.42). The question as to whether private firms simply patent/develop more variations of already existent drugs, as opposed to discovering new ones, is left unexplored; as is the tech industry's infamous reliance on publically funded research programs to develop their gadgets. Outside of that, the brash and aggressive writing style, that Taleb is known for, is very prominent. Almost every negative review I have read of Taleb's work mentions his preening arrogance and even the positive reviews often concede this point. Initially, I wanted to conduct a review of Antifragile that didn't dissect his personality. Alas, I have found that to be a difficult task, if only because so much of Antifragile attempts to communicate Taleb's vision of himself.

There is a clear and carefully curated persona on display: Taleb is a cultured, wine drinking, straight talking, poetry loving, power lifter. He is a lone wolf - uninterested in your awards and approval. He tells it like it is. He is streetwise, well-read and cultured, but under no circumstances to be thought of as a nerd. Taleb is manly and brave. Taleb is a man of action, not like those other scholars with their spectacles and atrophied muscle. On its own, this kind of chest-thumping would be a mere annoyance, inconsequential to the quality of the scholar's work; unfortunately, it seems it has bled into the content of Taleb's writing, to the detriment of his argument's credibility.    

Consider Taleb's chapter on the ethics of risk taking. The ethics section of Antifragile lays out a maxim for moral behaviour that focuses on keeping the collateral of risks limited to those who volunteer their own skin. People who risk their own good for others, are heroes; those who risk their own good for their own gain, are passable humans and those who risk others for their own gain, are villains - according to Taleb. To elucidate on the consequences of this moral outlook, Taleb handily provides  us with a table (p.377) which places various professions - artist, writer, businessman, soldier - into one of three columns. The columns are "no skin in the game" (bad), "skin in the game" (neutral) and "skin in the game for others sake" (good). The table however, seems somewhat arbitrary. For example: journalists who analyse and predict events are in the bad column, activists are neutral and rebels and revolutionaries are good.

Why are journalists bad, but activists neutral when both seek to predict and comment on society? It is true that we rarely hold journalists accountable for their failed predictions, but we hold activists accountable even less. A journalist risks embarrassing themself on a public stage; conversely, most activists are voices in an otherwise anonymous crowd. The only real difference between the two is respectability, but that is a matter of scale and Taleb's claim is that there is something qualitatively different in the way they externalise risks. Furthermore why on earth would Taleb place revolutionaries automatically in the good column? Revolutionaries may believe that good things await everyone in the coming social order but the consequences of failed revolutions are well documented. We have every reason to think that the revolutionaries risk the wellbeing of everyone not just themselves - this is precisely the kind of behaviour that Taleb supposedly repudiates.

How then can we explain this bizarre ranking, inferred from the table, that revolutionaries are the most virtuous risk takers when compared to activists and, certainly, in comparison to journalists? The answer is by appealing to Taleb's persona. Once we understand that revolutionaries, activists and journalists are not being ranked in accordance with their management of risks but rather in relation to a warrior/scholar archetype that Taleb identifies with, then the ranking starts to make more sense. Journalists are effete, sheltered members of the establishment; activists are scrappy underdogs but revolutionaries, the most macho of the three, fight wars and topple governments - they are, in Taleb's eyes, the most worthy of respect.

The irony is that Taleb's approach to ethics is, on the whole, quite plausible. I may have my doubts about it, I am not certain that we can ever really take risks entirely on our own, but it is a valid approach to doing ethics in an uncertain world. This is exactly what I mean when I say that Antifragile is a solid work burdened with poor and distracting set-dressing. Antifragile provides plenty of novel angles to work from, but their value is obscured by its author's desperation to be thought of as a scholarly mafioso.

While Taleb is smart enough to know that he should only allude to the mafia-like qualities of his persona, Mafia bosses are referenced to as exemplars of his observations (p.43). And late in the book Taleb makes the more bizarre claim that mafia dons have a form of honour that escapes contemporary leaders (p.376), in so far as Mafia bosses are the most likely to be whacked- or so goes Taleb's account of organised crime. Naturally this is nonsense. Even a casual reader can tell you that frequently the first to die in any given drug-war are the low-level dealers, and that criminal conspiracies are usually orchestrated to leave the higher-ups untouchable, if it all goes wrong. The crime-barons sit safe in their mansions reaping the dividends of their empire, while the youngsters, eager to prove themselves, are left with the dirty, dangerous and incriminating footwork on which the empire is built. The reality is the opposite of what Taleb thinks it to be, but the grim glamour of the macho mafia-don archetype sells it to Taleb and glosses over the lack of veracity.

Taleb, towards the end of the book, also advises readers to think for themselves and savages those who use the opinion of others to gather knowledge about the world (p.419-20), not long after defending tradition (p.257) and advising the reader to prioritise useful heuristics over abstract truth seeking. This is also ignoring that conformity itself is a heuristic. The behaviours and thoughts of others are an excellent resource for selecting a strategy in times of uncertainty. The gazelle that stops to ask "Why am I running just because everyone else is running?" is destined to become lion chow. Taleb thinks of himself as a street-wise "doer" concerned with what works over what is true, but also wants to be the principled, sceptical upstart - not realising that often these two ways of seeing the world come into conflict and that he needs to be much more flexible if he wants to mesh the two ways of thinking.

Most of these problems are just a result of Taleb's romanticised aesthetic crashing against the more reasoned parts of the book: blips of momentary incongruence generated by Taleb's posing as a refined, street-smart, independent scholar. When you step back from these blemishes you find that they are mostly negligible. Antifragile is still an interesting book and well worth reading. What is infuriating however, and what I have been trying to get across here, is that while Taleb may have convinced himself that his opponents are just stooges for the academic orthodox, it may be that the biggest thing standing in the way of Antifragile's credibility, is Mr Taleb himself.    

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