Update on Taleb’s The Black Swan

I’m less impressed 100 pages into this book than I was 20 pages into it. Like another self-made rich man, Stephen Wolfram, Taleb is widely-read and supremely self-confident. He also is unfair to the academic profession he criticizes and apparently, due to the success of his Fooled by Randomness book, he has convinced his publisher not to really edit his latest book.
Examples of unpleasantness in the book:

  1. Historians are accused of presenting history from the perspective of their writing present, not from the perspective of the time studied, in which developments now seen as inevitable were unforeseen. Not true of all history books, even by the dim light of my limited reading in history. Historians are very interested in seeing things from the perspective of the past; “the past is another country, they do things differently there” and so on. Witness the excitement that Victor Klemperer’s diary publication in two volumes generated a few years ago (Klemperer lived through the rise of the Nazis, and documented the hard-to-believe hardening of the rules against Jewish citizens in a then democratic state). It’s not like historians rallied to repress this diary so as to keep blinding themselves to how things looked then. Also, relatedly, Taleb seems to not have encountered the term “Whig history”, even after searching hard, as he claims, for a historian’s term for history written wearing the blinkers of the present. (See this for Whig history, or look it up in Wikipedia, which led me to the link.)
  2. Decision theorists are not operating blissfully unaware of large surprises and the truly uncertain. Even econometricians know the dangers of extrapolating from past observations; witness their talk of “structural breaks”. Taleb’s monumental chip on his shoulder has tilted him by its weight too much, so his impression of the literature is too biased. I would guess that’s why he did not publish this book with an academic press (he would probably reply I’m just one of the self-blinded academics who are very full of themselves and feeling a bit defensive about his book, which he evidently is very proud of having written).
  3. While on the importance of guarding against big surprises that can’t be forecast from knowledge of the past, what is there to be done? So far I haven’t seen in The Black Swan an answer, but I’ve seen promises that his answer comes later in the book, so I’ll read some more of it.
  4. It’s fun to read deprecatory remarks on self-important CEOs and professors. Fun, that is, until Taleb begins to sound just as full of himself and dismissive of all others. According to him, if you are a professor, you have forever blinded yourself; perhaps he allows exceptions, but it’s not very clear that he does. It makes me wonder what exactly happened to him when he was a student at Wharton. I’ve certainly witnessed self-important professors, willfully blinding themselves to reality, but I’ve also witnessed open-minded ones.
  5. Back to the self-made aspect of Taleb and Wolfram. Taleb made good money in Wall Street. Wolfram made good money by designing and selling the software application Mathematica. Taleb’s money-making achievements can’t be openly checked, as his trading methods are his and not open to public inspection. Mathematica cannot be openly checked, as the source code is not made available, in true proprietary-software fashion. At least with Mathematica scientists can check the results of using the software and conclude that it is high-quality software. By his own admission in The Black Swan, Taleb could simply have made his money by being lucky, without having any skill whatsoever. But even assuming that both Taleb and Wolfram are extremely bright geniuses, we can see what happened to Wolfram’s book A New Kind of Science, which is a doorstop useful for even the heaviest door. In this book, apparently (I’ve read reviews but not the book itself), Wolfram suggests that the entire universe is a massively complicated set of algorithms, but the algorithms themselves can be simple but leading to complicated behavior. Wolfram self-published the book. Scientists gave it a serious reading, given how good the software he made is, but were not impressed enough by his arguments to change the way they do things. I know, maybe he’s a seer and will be vindicated in a hundred years. But then maybe not. My feeling is that both Taleb and Wolfram are very, very good in one thing each (stock-market trading, mathematical software) but that doesn’t imply they are head and shoulders better than the entire academic profession in the fields that interest them.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep reading The Black Swan. Otherwise, those blinders will chafe my nape. Maybe they’ll lighten up after finishing the book, or maybe I’ll remove them and see properly for the first time. But then, maybe not. Lots of people can claim they’ve walked out from Plato’s cave and seen a completely different reality. Making such a claim believable is really hard, and so far Taleb has been failing, in my reading.

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One thought on “Update on Taleb’s The Black Swan”

  1. As someone who has read both The Black Swan and A New Kind of Science, I’m happy that you mention Wolfram and Taleb in the same breath, albeit for not my favorite reason. Their works (and perhaps attitudes towards society) have a lot in common; fractals and cellular automata are closely related and can be quite similarly applied to all kinds of naturally occurring phenomena.
    I will not claim that their fierce criticism of various people and institutions, or over-confidence and perhaps even entitlement has never irked me, but I tend to see this as evidence of passion and commitment to their subject matter (I found a similar writing style in Jeff Hawkins’ “On Intelligence”). Seeing the world as clearly as they must while others don’t is bound to be a source of extreme frustration, perhaps causing an aggressive way of trying to make their point. I encourage any reader of either book to be open minded enough to look beyond the personality of the writer or any small mistakes they have made, and try to take these works for what they are: guides to show you that conventional wisdom may not be wisdom at all.

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