Taking Care with Taleb

Skimming my blog dashboard I find I have several, a handful, of draft pieces with reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and things he’s published or linked to, that I’ve not quite had the courage to post yet.

Like many, I find his argumentation style is so ruthless, he suffers no fools gladly, that even short supportive responses on twitter get the full application of vitriol – even blockage – if there is even the slightest hint of “not getting it”. With a lot of (other) people I might just pigeon-hole them down the wrong end of the autism disorder spectrum, or consider them plain arrogant and unhelpful. In Taleb’s case, it’s kinda the point.

His target is the overly simplistic, underinformed use of logic, scientific and/or statistical.

It’s ironic that right now I’m also in dialogue with Lee Beaumont on lessons in argumentation leading to better knowledge and its wiser application. The emphasis is very much on insight-seeking respectful dialogue (eg following Rappaport’s rule) whilst at the same time having access to the widest possible toolsets of logic and rhetoric from winning binary arguments and destroying fallacies to collaborative and creative synthesis of new knowledge. I suspect we and Taleb might not get off first base, or maybe we not even survive the experience.

Anyway the points is, however prickly Taleb’s style, he is onto something important about the limits to knowledge – even with the best information available some things remain essentially unpredictable or objectively unknowable in any practical sense. That much was the lesson of his Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. I hadn’t really joined-up the dots until I was reminded of his standing-up to challenge the naive scientific certainties of The Four Horseman of New Atheism (2009, and here 2012 in The New Statesman). And of course he is more generally supportive of promoting the value of philosophy to science as it bumps up against it’s unknown and unknowable edges.

My homework has some catching-up to do. Black Swan I only know by second hand references, so I now have a copy winging its way to me. Today however I received my copy of his 2012 Antifragile and just debating whether to plunge-in or wait and read him in the order published.

Antifragile goes beyond pointing out the chaotic unpredictability that undermines naive scientific rationale, to the constructive benefit of not just being resilient to the random, but being able to positively exploit it through evolution. I’m hooked; when I did my master’s thesis over 25 years ago, I quoted Malcom McLaren’s adage:

“Thriving on chaos”

Antifragile has some impressive hype in its cover blurbs too:

Changed my view of how the world works.
[Daniel Kahneman, no less] and

The most prophetic voice of all …
… a genuinely significant philosopher.

The hottest thinker in the world.
[Sunday Times]

Some exciting – and I guess challenging – reading ahead.


[Post Note: Lee, mentioned above, has in fact already read and reviewed Antifragile, and interestingly his (negative) comments focus almost entirely on style, and the combative (boxing-match analogy) style of the set-piece god-wars debate above. The ironies pile up.]

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