Antifragility and black swans have become synonymous with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but the ideas go well beyond his exposition of them. But, Taleb’s pompous internet persona and confrontational writing style are off putting. That’s why I separate the philosophy of antifragility from the persona of Taleb.
April 2020 Update
Taleb was right on about COVID-19. I've updated this article to include these examples. Here's Taleb talking about the risk of a pandemic in 2015.
The substance of Taleb’s ideas
Taleb claims to intentionally write in meandering prose so that it’s impossible to summarize him. Nonesense. His main ideas run something like this:
- We like to think of the world in simple and predictable models. While this works much of the time, there are rare and seemingly unexpected fat tail events, known as black swans.
- Because our standard models don’t take black swans into account, hidden risk looms behind seemingly safe and predictable events.
- Rather than maximizing gains during non-black-swan times, survival depends on the ability to weather black swans. Think of an asset portfolio that holds value during a recession, instead of an index fund that becomes worthless during a recession.
- The most important ethical principle is skin in the game, not separating risk from reward. Taxpayers bore the entire risk of banking in 2008, while only bankers reaped the profits.
- Antifragility, the ability to become stronger in the midst of chaos and unpredictability, is even better than resiliency during a black swan event.
- The Lindy effect informs what’s antifragile: the world is inherently conservative, things that have survived thousands of years are more likely to be antifragile than something new.
There’s nothing particularly controversial in the above points, which are laid out in the Black Swan and Antifragile.
These points run against the eternal growth at all costs ethos and pits Taleb against his fist wave of opponents. Take index fund investing. In normal times they provide a steady drip of returns from the stock market, but this is incredibly risky to use as a retirement plan. Had you retired in early 2007 to live off of index funds, you’d be broke. This is Taleb’s point. We need systems that are designed to survive rather than maximize gains before collapsing.
Taleb takes the logic of antifragility beyond financial markets. Any institution that’s “too big to fail” creates risk and transfer it to society, because we know it will eventually fail on a long enough timeline. He also applies this to health: foods that have been eaten for thousands of years are better for us than official dietary recommendations. When you see people struggling with obesity and type II diabetes while dutifully eating what mainstream medicine tells them to, Taleb has a point.
Completely rethinking risk
The conventional approach to risk is to look at the odds something will (or won’t) happen. This is meshed together with so called “evidence based” thinking that requires incontrovertible proof in order to act.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Taleb was calling for a worldwide quarantine. Many experts were still dithering, claiming human-to-human transmission hadn’t been proven. Other experts were saying this was no more than a flu. Taleb’s point wasn’t that he knew the extent of COVID-19 (he didn’t): instead, given the potential downside of millions of deaths it was riskier to do nothing.
As the pandemic went on, experts scoffed at masks. There’s no proof that they protect the wearer. Taleb’s risk model looks at it from the opposite angle: wearing a mask has no downside, but carries the very real potential to slow down transmissions. Thus there’s no reason to not wear masks.
GMOs work from the opposite perspective. The upsides are non-existent. The potential downsides are catastrophic. Regardless of whether GMOs are “proven safe”, the risk to reward ratio is too asymmetrical to justify.
It’s not about being right on each issue, and you will be wrong on individual issues taking this approach. Antifragility is about only embracing things without asymmetrical risk (minimal upsides with rare yet massive downsides).
Taleb the persona
Had Taleb stuck to this general thesis, hashed it out with more examples and practical advice, I don’t think he’d be particularly controversial. But that’s not Taleb. He’s a social media bully.
Anyone he disagrees with is immediately branded an intellectual yet idiot. It’s not that world isn’t filled with IYIs. It is. Nonetheless, describing every single person who disagrees with you as an idiot doesn’t build constructive dialogue.
Taleb doesn’t need dialogue or debate, since he’s never wrong in his own mind. Even when he’s obviously incorrect, he simply clamps down and screams about his opponents on Twitter. This is unfortunate. I’d love to see robust discussions and refinements of his ideas, the sort of respectful debates that are common on the so-called intellectual dark web.
Deeper scrutiny of Taleb’s examples
The closer you start to scrutinize Taleb’s concrete positions, the more some of his pet theories start to fall apart.
One of Taleb’s key ideas is fuck you money. In theory, someone would have enough money to buy intellectual independence. He transfers this idea to a political doctrine that a business mogul makes an excellent ruler, since they have so much money as to no longer be interested in personal gain.
It’s a lovely theory. Actual examples of this are few and far between. Instead, history is rife with examples of oligarchs turning to politics to serve their business interests. Even today, I don’t see Bill Gates working against the patent trolling that made him a billionaire or Warren Buffet campaigning against anti-competitive moats. Billionaires might try to salvage their legacies, or in some cases do truly meaningful philanthropy, but they aren’t going to dismantle the system that gave them their fortune.
Much ink is devoted to attacking Saudi Arabia. It’s a fragile monarchy supported by oil that wages war and spreads its toxic ideology. No argument from me. My issue is that this is equally true of Russia, yet Taleb has nothing but fawning praise for Putin’s Russia.
Taleb claims to love localism and weak federal states. This is precisely what the EU is. A weak unifying structure that has made sub-national localism possible.
There are dozens of examples of these sorts of double standards and outright flaws. That doesn’t invalidate the concept of antifragility, but it does mean it’s worth taking Taleb himself with a grain of salt.
The non-Talebian antifragility reading list
The Black Swan and Antifragile are fine reads if you’re willing to sift through the them in order to get at the good parts. But there are other works that are far more engaging and to the point.
Messy by Tim Harford explores how well-intended schemes backfire because they don’t take real-world complexity into account. Perfectly organized plans usually yield unpredictable second-order consequences.
Not buying into the hype over technology is one of my favorite things about Taleb. Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil is an approachable rebuff of techno-utopianism.
While both books are flawed in their own ways, The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond and Sapiens by Yuval Harari provide insight into pre-modern humanity. It’s not as peachy as the paleo crows would have us think, but there’s a lot that we can learn.
Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes outlines most of the health claims Taleb talks about and is a great read. For an even shorter introduction to antifragility and health, check out Scott Carney’s TEDx talk. His book What Doesn’t Kill Us is worth the read if you are interested in cold exposure.
Taleb is big on the classical philosophers. Massimo Pigliucci has a great blog and some of the best introductions to stoicism for modern readers. William Irvine is another academic that brings stoicism to life. Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne is second to none.
That’s just a start. While Taleb may be the face of antifragility, he’s far from the only voice in the movement.