Posted: Sun, January 13, 2013 | By: Gennady Stolyarov II
Never before have I set out to read a book with such high expectations, only to encounter such severe disappointment. As an admirer of Nassim Taleb’s earlier books, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, I expected to find insight and wisdom along similar lines in Antifragile. While Taleb’s latest book does contain some valid observations and a few intriguing general strategies for living, the overwhelming thrust of the book is one of bitter distaste for modernity (and, to a significant extent, technological progress), as well as an abundance of insults for anyone who would disagree with not just with Taleb’s ideas, but with his personal esthetic preferences. While sensible in the realms of finance and (mostly) economics, Taleb’s prescriptions in other fields venture outside of his realms of mastery and, if embraced, would result in a relapse of the barbarisms of premodernity. Perhaps as the outcome of his own phenomenal success, Taleb has become set in his ways and has transitioned from offering some controversial, revolutionary, and genuinely insightful ideas to constructing a static, intolerant, totalistic worldview that rejects deviations in any field of life – and the persons who so deviate.
I am saddened to write this, but I am convinced that Nassim Taleb would find me to be personally repulsive. Not only am I a technology-embracing transhumanist ( a “neomaniac” per Taleb’s vocabulary), and a person who embraces the “nerdification” of society – but I am also an explicit representative and promoter of the legacies of the 18th-century Enlightenment – and a proud suit-and-tie wearer besides. Taleb seethes with contempt for the very trappings of modernity – even for modern formal wear – and repeatedly asserts that nothing valuable can be gleaned from those who wear neckties. As in many other areas, his conclusion-jumping pronouncements exclude the possibility of the world not fitting into his invented categories (with their associated normative spin). On the necktie question, he seems to rule out the very existence of persons like me, who wear neckties not out of any compulsion (my office dress code does not require them), but rather as an esthetic statement arising from sheer personal choice – including, not infrequently, on weekends.
After reading Antifragile, and finding so much of the content in need of a thorough refutation, I have vacillated between writing a book review and a more comprehensive treatise. A short review, I realized, would not do this book justice – but I also did not wish to run the risk of writing a refutation as long as the book itself. The result is this – one of my longest book reviews to date, but written as concisely as the subject matter allows. Here, I seek to comment on many of Taleb’s areas of focus in Antifragile, highlighting both the book’s strengths and its egregious errors.
Antifragile was one of the very few books I ever pre-ordered, as Taleb, until about a month ago, held a place among my most admired contemporary thinkers – along with such luminaries as Steven Pinker, Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, Max More, and Ron Paul. Taleb’s writings on the fragility of the contemporary financial system were simply brilliant and highlighted the systemic weaknesses of a “house of cards” built upon highly sophisticated but over-optimized models that relied on the unrealistic stability of the status quo and the absence of extremely disruptive “black swan” events. I expected that Antifragile would discuss ways to survive and prosper in a black-swan-dominated world – a question that has been at the forefront of my mind since at least 2006, when I personally observed some “six-sigma” events on the stock market and – after reducing my losses to manageable levels – have refused to participate in that particular economy-wide casino since. While Antifragile does provide skeletal discussions of some valuable approaches (such as the “barbell” strategy, on which I will comment more below), the majority of the book’s focus is negative: a harsh criticism of the institutions, ideas, and people whom Taleb considers insufficiently antifragile or “fragilizing”. One of Taleb’s favorite terms throughout the book is “fragilista” – used to describe financial modelers, politicians, and intellectuals of a rationalist frame of mind. The term – aside from creating vague and completely irrelevant associations with left-wing Nicaraguan terrorists – also poisons the metaphorical well with regard to the people and approaches criticized by Taleb.
More generally, the book is pervaded by an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism, mocking those who use structured, explicit knowledge to interpret the world. This is rather odd, because Taleb himself is clearly an intellectual and a “nerd” of the sort he derides; his philosophical and historical allusions – and his expertise in mathematical finance (despite his criticisms thereof) – give away that fact. Fat Tony of Brooklyn, Taleb’s fictional representative of the non-intellectual person who relies on “empirical” heuristics and is able to become rich by occasionally betting against “suckers,” would not have kept the company of people like Taleb. No matter how much rhetorical contempt Taleb shows for those who engage in abstract reasoning, he cannot escape being one of them – and no amount of insults directed at his own kind will get him an iota of respect from those whose character traits he glorifies.
An antifragile system or entity, per Taleb’s definition, is one that benefits from volatility instead of succumbing to it. Beyond mere robustness, which withstands volatility intact, antifragility is the derivation of advantage from volatility. The concept itself is an intriguing one, but Taleb makes a crucial error in assuming that most antifragility is normatively preferable. He does make an exception for “antifragility at others’ expense” – but only in a limited context. For instance, he is outraged at career intellectuals who do not have “skin in the game” and do not suffer for making wrong predictions or recommendations (more on this later) – but he explicitly praises the antifragility of biological evolution, a process that has resulted in the brutal deaths of most organisms and the extinction of about 99.9% of all species in history. Even within his premise that modernity contains “fragilizing” elements, Taleb presupposes that fragility is necessarily undesirable. Yet a beautiful vase is fragile – as is, for that matter, an individual organism. Fragility is no justification for dismissing or opposing an area of existence that has other intrinsic merits. Perhaps the proper response to certain kinds of fragility is extra care in the preservation of the fragile – as shown, for example, in the raising of children and small animals.
When Taleb argues that post-Enlightenment civilization is fragile, he may be partly right – at least in the sense that such civilization requires the steady, conscious application of human intellect to maintain. Every generation must master the scientific, technological, and ethical accomplishments of the generations before it and amplify these accomplishments; this is the essence of progress. This mastery of civilization entails precisely the “nerdification” (i.e., sophisticated, refined, self-aware intellectualism) that Taleb scorns in favor of “empirical” heuristics that may have arisen out of premodern superstition in as great (or greater) a proportion as out of practical wisdom passed down throughout the ages. Steven Pinker, whose magnum opus The Better Angels of Our Nature I would glowingly recommend (and whose work Taleb has unfairly maligned, though Pinker’s response to Taleb is worth reading), illustrates convincingly that not only peacefulness but virtually every other characteristic of civilized human beings has improved dramatically over the past several centuries – and most remarkably over the past several decades. Nothing suggests that this improvement is an inexorable law of history, however; it is possible for anti-civilizing influences to take hold and for humanity to degenerate into the barbarism that characterized much of its past. In that sense, civilization may be considered fragile – but so eminently worth preserving and expanding, for it makes possible the good life for good individuals.
Unfortunately, Taleb has included himself among the influences that would undo many of the essential gains that humanity has achieved since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Taleb repeatedly references the “wisdom of the ancients” (the stoic Seneca is his favorite) and conflates the “natural” (a term from which he excludes human design and technology) with the desirable. Taleb praises the heuristics he sees in traditional religious systems (e.g., elaborate Greek Orthodox fasting rituals) while completely overlooking the massive horrors many traditional (i.e., premodern) religious systems perpetrated when persecuting dissenters, inspiring bloody wars of conquest, and establishing totalitarian regimes when combined with secular authority. The Enlightenment brought about a conscious questioning of religious (and all authority-based) traditions and commandments and resulted in the adoption of rigorous scientific inquiry in the pursuit of discovery and innovation. Taleb is wary of modern medicine because of possible “iatrogenic” effects (where the treatment itself causes most of the harm), and he even questions the genuineness and desirability of massive rises in life expectancy during the 20th and early 21st centuries. While there is some merit to balancing the anticipated benefits and possible side effects of medical treatments – and while Taleb may be right that certain fields may take treatment too far, especially as regards overprescription of psychotropic drugs to children – Taleb’s discussion of “iatrogenics” is mostly anecdotal and reliant on studies from much earlier periods in medicine (e.g., the death of George Washington in 1799 and a study on children in 1930). The virtual eradication of smallpox, polio, tuberculosis, cholera, and the bubonic plague from the Western world by scientific medicine are utterly ignored by Taleb – as are the substantial declines in cancer death rates over the past 50 years, and the accomplishments of the Green Agricultural Revolution in averting the starvation of billions, which would have occurred if only “natural” agricultural techniques (i.e., techniques employed before some arbitrary historical cutoff date) had been utilized.
There may be some merit to Taleb’s advice of avoiding medical treatment for minor conditions (where the iatrogenic effects of treatment allegedly predominate) and letting the body heal itself, while being willing to undertake radical treatments for extreme, life-threatening conditions. However, context in medical care matters too greatly to make sweeping generalizations. A fairly small skin lesion, which does not interfere with day-to-day functioning, may, after all, be the beginning of a deadly cancer, for which no self-healing mechanism exists. In medicine especially, the “empirical” heuristics championed by Taleb must give way to careful and systematic scientific study. After all, most premodern cultures relied on “traditional” heuristics for millennia, with disastrous results; such reliance can be called folk medicine. One only needs to consider the “traditional” Eastern “remedies” based on the superstition that one will become like the creature one eats – or “traditional” Western Medieval bleeding and surgical practices – to realize how much progress modern scientific medicine has actually made.
While a reader of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan might have inferred libertarian and individualist tendencies in Taleb’s writing, Antifragile, unfortunately, sets the record straight: Taleb opposes “too much” individual flourishing and freedom. He reserves his bitterest venom for transhumanism, which is the logical outcome of a libertarian society in which technological progress is given free rein. Taleb’s reverence for “nature” and “the ancients” trumps his skepticism of centralized regimentation – as his ideas on life extension and freedom of speech illustrate. He writes, “I felt some deep disgust – as would any ancient – at the efforts of ‘singularity’ thinkers (such as Ray Kurzweil) who believe in humans’ potential to live forever. Note that if I had to find the anti-me, the person with diametrically opposite ideas and lifestyle on the planet, it would be that Ray Kurzweil fellow. It is not just neomania. While I propose removing offensive elements from people’s diets (and lives), he works by adding, popping close to two hundred pills daily. Beyond that, these attempts at immortality leave me with deep moral revulsion.” Taleb says little of substance to support this “deep moral revulsion” – beyond repeating the same tired, hackneyed old arguments about “making room for others” by dying – as if the life of the individual had no inherent value and could be justifiably expended for an alleged greater good. Taleb does not address Kurzweil’s arguments about the exponential progress of computing and other technologies, and the logical extrapolation of such progress within the coming decades. In short, he says nothing about why he would consider Kurzweil to be mistaken, or what about Kurzweil’s lifestyle and ambitions he considers destructive. Taleb’s rudely expressed opposition to transhumanism seems to be primarily driven by emotional revulsion or, to be more charitable, a conflict of values. Additionally, Taleb does not seem to understand the movement that he criticizes. He assumes that extended longevity would be accompanied by extended frailty and senescence, whereas true radical life extension would only be possible if biological youth could be prolonged through periodic rejuvenation of the organism. Moreover, Taleb is, at heart, a collectivist who embraces the sacrifice of the individual to the tribe. He writes, “I am not here to live forever, as a sick animal. Recall that the antifragility of a system comes from the mortality of its components – and I am part of that larger population called humans. I am here to die a heroic death for the sake of the collective, to produce offspring (and prepare them for life and provide for them), or eventually, books – my information, that is, my genes, the antifragile in me, should be the ones seeking immortality, not me.”
The biggest disappointment I experienced when reading Antifragile was the realization I came to upon reading the above-quoted passage. This book was never about helping make the individual antifragile. The preservation of a human being in a volatile and uncertain world – and the attempt to equip a human being to flourish in the face of such volatility and uncertainty – were never Taleb’s key aims. Taleb’s views on antifragility are, indeed, not particularly helpful to me in my goal to discover strategies that would preserve, fortify, and enrich the individual in an often hostile, and, in many ways, fundamentally unpredictable world which lacks any manner of built-in justice outside of what humans, through their ingenuity and will, can implement. Taleb would have both of us (and everyone else) be sacrificed for the sake of an unspecified “collective” – as if some abstraction, be it “nature”, evolution, or “the whole”, has value in and of itself, apart from its constituent individuals. Yet it is precisely this sort of collectivism that enables inhuman atrocities, from mass executions of “the other” to suicide bombings for a “greater cause”. Taleb does not intend to advocate armed violence, but his rhetoric on heroism, “dying heroically”, and self-sacrifice eerily resembles the pronouncements of many a totalitarian regime, inquisitorial sect, or band of nationalistic or religious terrorists. The good life – the comfortable life of peace, productive work, and self-fulfillment – does not seem to be his objective.
In several sections devoted to having “doxastic commitment” or “soul in the game”, Taleb glorifies the idea of leaving no way out in the event of one’s failure – forgetting that much true learning is iterative and often occurs through a trial-and-error process. If one is not allowed to recover from failure and change one’s approach (without crippling personal cost), then this learning will be preempted, and the individual will be destroyed instead. Taleb glorifies, for instance, the poet Almutanabbi, who died senselessly in the attempt to realize the ideals about which he wrote. But it is far more impressive to live in furtherance of one’s ideals than to die for them – particularly since living requires one to reevaluate one’s views in light of emerging evidence and continual reflection.
Taleb is no more a friend of individual liberty than of technological progress. As a consequence of his view that intellectuals should have “skin in the game”, he insists that they should personally suffer the adverse consequences of their recommendations. Indeed, he would implement his scheme of penalties to the detriment of legal protections for freedom of speech. While criticizing the financial rating agencies’ misclassification of toxic assets as “AAA” securities, he remarks that “they benefit from the protection of free speech – the ‘First Amendment’ so ingrained in American habits. My humble proposal: one should say whatever he wants, but one’s portfolio needs to line up with it.” Elsewhere, Taleb proposes that individuals be held legally liable for the damage that their predictions and recommendations result in if followed by others. He ignores that not all individuals have the assets to even invest in a portfolio. Are the poor and middle class to be deprived of the ability to express their opinions or speculate about the economic future (even if such speculation is without much basis), simply because they do not have much “skin” to put into the “game”? Furthermore, establishing any legal liability for expression of opinion would have a chilling effect on legitimate and valuable ideas – since the very threat or prospect of a lawsuit may serve as a deterrent to publishing or even verbal expression in front of someone who disagrees. For someone so insistent on individual moral responsibility, Taleb ignores the responsibility of the recipient of ideas to actively judge and interpret them. Just as there exist sleazy marketers, so there exist peddlers of philosophical falsehoods, and sometimes those falsehoods result in personal gains for their advocates. Yet the responsibility of the sensible, rational individual is to filter out truth from falsehood using his own mind. No prohibition, no regime of penalties, no prior restraint can protect people from themselves. Such restrictions can only prevent people from cultivating the habits of autonomous thought which are the surest safeguards against charlatans and demagogues of every stripe. Taleb is too concerned about punishing the false prophets, and insufficiently concerned about elevating the general level of reasoning and discourse by means of positive persuasion, dissemination of true information, and technological innovation that alters people’s incentives and the balance of power.
Taleb even departs from the libertarian advocacy of free trade and (genuine) globalization. While he acknowledges the theoretical validity of some specialization and the law of comparative advantage, he sees the global division of labor as vulnerable to volatility in the system. He argues that a change in conditions in one part of the world now has a far greater ability to adversely impact all other parts of the world – because the division of labor is so finely tuned. This is a fair argument for redundancy in economic systems – e.g., having “backup” institutions which could supply a good or service if the original supplier is unavailable due to an unexpected disruption. However, Taleb errs when assuming that businesses pursuing their rational self-interests under a truly free arrangement of global commerce would not already attempt to implement such redundancies. Supply-chain risk, for instance, is commonly discussed by representatives of multinational businesses and their insurers, who have a stake in preventing supply disruptions. Overreliance on any one economic partnership may indeed be imprudent – but does Taleb believe that businessmen with true “skin in the game” – billions of their own dollars – would be oblivious to the need for redundancy? Taleb makes no case for why free trade – in essence, the voluntary exchange of goods and services among individuals without regard for national origins or boundaries – would create a systemic lack of redundancy. A stronger argument could be made for how the current politicized environment of trade – a mixture of freedom and elaborate controls achieved by means of treaties and retaliatory protectionism – would produce insufficient redundancy and overdependence on those precious channels of international trade that remain permitted. But the solution to this problem would be more options – more channels for foreign trade – not fewer. Autarky certainly will not do, as it brings about its own massive vulnerabilities. One only need consider the consequences of a famine in a region which is not allowed to import food from abroad. Trade creates redundancy by allowing access to goods and services from all over the world, instead of just one minor segment thereof.
The nonlinear responses to volatility described in Antifragile are valid in principle. A system responds in a concave fashion if the harm to the system from a change in conditions is more than linear relative to that change (i.e., an accelerating harm). A system responds in a convex fashion if it is able to reap benefits from volatility in a more-than-linear accumulation. Taleb proposes that it is possible for certain systems to be concave or convex in both directions – being harmed by or benefiting from a shift in conditions either way. It is also possible for systems to be convex over some regions of inputs, and concave over others – e.g., a human immune system or a body engaging in exercise. Taleb does not, however, provide many tools to actually determine the inflection points within any particular system. Although he praises “empirical” heuristics for doing so – especially heuristics passed down through the ages – he provides absolutely no support to conclude that those heuristics do not overshoot the desirable levels of any given characteristics. To use the example he provides of religious fasting customs, even if one can be generous and suppose some benefit to the fasting (of which I am not altogether convinced), what evidence is there that the specific schedule and duration of fasts is optimal? Could not scientific investigation uncover a better way, and explain its workings in a rational, evidence-based manner, without recourse to superstition or ancestral hand-waving? Furthermore, Taleb does not consider that the “wisdom of the ancients” may not have developed through the careful evolutionary process he describes – but rather comes to us as a warped reflection of some very recent generation’s interpretation of ancient practices – which themselves were altered by numerous political authorities, ideological movements, and idiosyncratic historical events in order to fulfill some very context-specific (and not necessarily virtuous or life-affirming) aim. To get a sense of how this has happened to distort prevailing conceptions of the past, one needs only to consider the early history of Christianity – where doctrine was often promoted or suppressed based on the temporal interest of Roman and Byzantine emperors and their officials – or the extensive revisionism performed by the 19th-century Romantics with regard to the Middle Ages. Taleb himself romanticizes antiquity (including the ancient Middle East), overlooking the incessant wars, disease, filth, vulgarity, persecution, and ideological totalism that characterized many pre-Enlightenment societies (e.g., the totalitarianism of Ancient Sparta or Calvin’s Geneva – which made even the USSR seem like a paragon of liberty and progress by comparison).
Taleb’s contempt for wealth, and praise for attitudes that part with wealth lightly, betray the fact that he has never been in danger of losing his material comfort. Growing up in a prosperous , respected, and intellectual Lebanese family, Taleb moved to the United States and made a fortune as a trader, which he later magnified by selling his books. If he expresses contempt for the material well-being he sees around him, and a nostalgic longing for an idealized past, it is because he cannot truly envision what premodernity was actually like. Perhaps, because he greatly underrates the transformative effects of technological progress, Taleb’s image of premodernity is of a slightly rustic incarnation of our present world – except one in which people mostly avoid doctors and editors, walk on rocky landscapes in foot-shaped shoes, eat “paleo” diets, quote from Seneca’s dialogues, and occasionally engage in bloody contests over fine points of poetry, philosophy, and theology – just to show how much “skin in the game” they have with regard to their beliefs. Taleb neglects the possibility that only recently has life become remotely comfortable and quasi-meritocratic, while premodernity was a mostly uninterrupted stretch of miseries, cruelties, superstitions, prejudicial hatreds, and filth (punctuated by a few refined characters like Aristotle – whom Taleb maligns – and Seneca – people who were remarkable for their time and are remembered precisely because they stood out so far above their contemporaries). A small elite has always been super-wealthy (by the standards of their time) in every era and in every society, but it is an all-too-common mistake to imagine oneself in the position of a historical member of the elite (e.g., someone who would have read Seneca, or Seneca himself) rather than a common peasant or slave – which is the far more probable fate for a randomly chosen premodern person. The casual dismissal of wealth as not particularly important would not have been articulated by people toiling from sunrise to sunset in order to grow crops for their feudal overlords and be given a small fraction of the resulting harvest in order not to starve. Nor is this attitude particularly helpful to people who might have been interested in cultivating personal antifragility so as to prevent themselves from becoming poor.
The most useful personal advice in Antifragile concerns the so-called “barbell strategy” for minimizing the downside of volatility while benefiting from the upside. The strategy involves putting most of one’s resources into an ultra-safe, ultra-conservative course of action, while devoting the rest to a diversified speculation, but in such a manner that the entire speculative amount can be lost without significant harm. An example of this approach would be keeping 90% of one’s money as cash or gold, and investing the remaining 10% into five different startup companies; each startup firm could fail – and many do – but it is also possible for a startup company to succeed tremendously and bring orders of magnitude of profit. If all the startup firms fail, then one has had a 10% loss – but this does not have to be ruinous if one is not hyper-leveraged. Taleb is also correct about the highly fragilizing effects of debt and recommends avoidance of indebtedness where possible. This is sound advice, greatly needed in a country where everything from everyday consumption to the purchase of big-ticket items to intangible “investments” such as formal education is often purchased on credit. Debt introduces fragility by amplifying the financial pain of volatility. A marginal drop in income could be endured by a debt-free person with savings, but would result in a leveraged person losing everything. Taleb’s advice here may not always be perfectly realizable – as not every person can afford to invest any percentage of his assets with the ability to continue living well if those assets were lost. Furthermore, mortgage debt is extremely difficult to avoid for a person without sizable initial wealth; other debt, however, is generally avoidable.
While Antifragile has some virtues, Taleb should not have dismissed or derided his editors. If carefully confined to the realms of finance and economics, Antifragile might have been an illuminating and positive book on net. As matters stand, however, Taleb has managed to gratuitously insult practically everybody who might have been sympathetic to his previously articulated views – including the libertarians, transhumanists, and rationalist natural-law thinkers who would have found much to agree with in Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. Taleb even classifies Friedrich Hayek among the rationalists whom he dismisses: “We may be drawn to think that Friedrich Hayek would be in that antifragile, antirationalist category. […] But Hayek missed the notion of optionality as a substitute for the social planner. In a way, he believed in intelligence, but as a distributed or collective intelligence – not in optionality as a replacement for intelligence. […] Finally, John Gray, the contemporary political philosopher and essayist who stands against human hubris and has been fighting the prevailing ideas that the Enlightenment is a panacea – treating a certain category of thinkers as Enlightenment fundamentalists. […] Gray worked in an office next to Hayek and told me that Hayek was quite a dull fellow, lacking playfulness – hence optionality.” And there was the gratuitous insult again. Very well. We Enlightenment rationalists and technoprogressives will be happy to accept Hayek as one of us – along with Socrates, Aristotle, and Ayn Rand (for whose fan Taleb should not be mistaken, as he tells us in a footnote). Taleb can have Seneca, Almutanabbi, John Gray, and Fat Tony. We remain in good company without them.