Nassim Taleb, the Angry Version of Malcolm GladwellPosted: December 5, 2012
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.