Nassim Taleb, the Angry Version of Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve now read most of Taleb’s new book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.  Not sure why I read Taleb.  I’m ashamed to admit it.

His stuff is certainly entertaining. Really entertaining.  But it’s just narcissistic drivel (I mean, the heights of arrogance in this book are something else, somebody should put together a web compilation of the best Taleb drivel) — basically advice on how to be more like Taleb.  But, more importantly, it’s hard to really evaluate everything that he covers.

The Antifragile book is about everything – thoughts on diet and exercise (go paleo), ideas on personal interactions (don’t go to lame parties with boring people), and of course lots of genius advice on the economy.  Everything is not-so-neatly packaged into his (anti-)fragile scheme/a.

The formula of his book seems simple enough: invent a name/concept (antifragile), package everything under that scheme, include lots of swearwords and epithets directed at “the other” (e.g., fragilista), sprinkle in some citations to science, mix in some chicken soup stories (you know, about the time when you stormed out of the conference because everyone was being so unreasonable) – and voila, you’ve got your book.

It’s sort of a twist on the Malcolm Gladwell genre.  Though, Taleb is perhaps an angry version of Gladwell.

I think there might be some interesting points in the book, perhaps, but I’ll try to post about those later.   Mostly I see lots and lots of re-packaging and popularizing (moral hazard, the principal-agent problem, learning from failure, self-organization and information aggregation, competition, unintended consequences, etc, etc).  Popularizing things of course has it’s place too.

Meanwhile, strategy scholars were also amongst the heap of academics ridiculed in the book.  Here’s Taleb on his MBA experience:

When I was in business school I rarely attended lectures in something called strategic planning, a required course, and when I showed my face in class, I did not listen for a nanosecond to what was said there; did not even buy the books.  There is something about the common sense of student culture; we knew that it was all babble.  I passed the required classes in management by confusing the professors, playing with complicated logic…

He does thankfully recognize that strategy scholars themselves have noted the planning problem in existing work (e.g., he cites Bill Starbuck’s work – but that argument goes back to Alchian, 1950 etc).

Taleb then goes on to say:

Almost everything theoretical in management, from Taylorism to all productivity stories, upon empirical testing, has been exposed as pseudoscience.

Cute.  I love any argument that in wholesale fashion dismisses a field like that.  Is there pseudoscience in management?  No question.  There is in any field.  And the field of management might even have a disproportionate share of pseudoscience in it.  But the whole book is characterized by those types of glib dismissals (very few are spared), which then makes it hard to evaluate anything novel that Taleb himself might have to say.

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11 Comments on “Nassim Taleb, the Angry Version of Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. henri says:

    Gladwell never tries to pass himself off as a philosopher or a thinker. He is rather honest about his role as popular science writer / synthesizer. N.T. thinks he is the second coming of Plato. So there is a huge difference.

  2. teppo says:

    Henri: good point. “Second coming of Plato” – I like that.

  3. Ivan Z. says:

    Taleb is taking an active approach towards his critics (see his twitter account or FB page). So you might hear back from him about this. ;)

  4. teppo says:

    I don’t expect to. Though, all the polemics and outrageous stomping around of course is part of the schtick —- an effort to get attention, sell books, etc. So I am just advancing his cause.

  5. stevepostrel says:

    The late Per Bak wrote a “theory of everything” book called How Nature Works, which was all about self-organized criticality. It discussed some social-science topics and was full of classic physicist arrogance. The tonal difference was that Bak came off as a naive and innocent sojourner spreading enlightenment and perplexed by others’ errors. (His anecdote about accidentally ticking off Stephen Jay Gould is funny.) The substantive difference was that self-organized criticality is a fairly specific theory framework rather than an endlessly stretchable bag into which anything can be fit. My review (along with Krugman’s geography book) is here:

    http://reason.com/archives/1997/05/01/of-sand-and-cities

  6. teppo says:

    Sure enough, there’s a blog keeping track of Taleb (more of an aggregator) – http://www.blackswanreport.com/blog/

    Here’s a Scientific American review of the Antifragile book, including documentation of cutesy Taleb antics – http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2012/12/05/nassim-taleb-is-annoying-but-antifragile-is-still-worth-reading/

    What is needed is a proper account showing, page by page if needed, that little of what Taleb says is new (even though he seems to be claiming all kinds of mega-insights), but squarely being looked at by scientists in many discipline. He is a popularizer, fine, but seems to be claiming for more insights for himself.

    OK, I’m done now.

  7. I do not believe Taleb is in it for attention for its own sake…rather, he is legitimately on fire about modern “experts” and technology. Writing books and making appearances – lucrative, yes – are simply his way of letting all of this spill out of his mind. Entropy.

    I view him in a similar light as previous critics of technology like Neil Postman or Lewis Mumford. (“Technics” in Mumford’s lingo)

  8. [...] Nassim Taleb, the Angry Version of Malcolm Gladwell [...]

  9. haig says:

    I can see why you’re personally incensed by the book, he does glibly dismiss fields and experts wholesale, including your own, and I can agree that he is too harsh in his approach. I can also agree with the point you made about many of his ideas not being new, but that is actually his point, his main thesis is based on scholarship of the past, not coming up with new theories. If anything, what is new is his mathematical formalizations of risk and strategy (found in his technical addendums) that try to make rigorous those old ideas so that they can hold their own against the modern mathematical theories he holds in contempt.

    I would like to hear less of why you think Taleb is arrogant or unoriginal and more of why you think his ideas are wrong or not useful.

    By the way, he does not say ‘go paleo’, if you read the book more carefully you’d know he is not paleo himself, but takes some things from the paleo diet he thinks are worthwhile that actually have helped improve his health in practice while ignoring the overly general theories that try to explain why paleo is optimal.

  10. Phillip F. Crenshaw says:

    Professor Felin perhaps you can offer us a factual rebuttal and demonstrate where Professor Taleb has gone wrong? This would be much better than your “drivel”.

  11. Chris says:

    Sounds like Taleb hurt your feelings, which prevented you from writing anything rational or useful. Funny you should mention “glib”, your review is a good example of it! :)

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