Saturday, September 7, 2013

Picking a fight (sort of) with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Fun note: Slow Saturday night; kids in bed; wife reading; classes ready; not in the mood for serious writing. I decide to waste some time on Twitter. Here's what happened:

(1) Famous essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb criticizes Richard Dawkins (rightly) for a sloppy tweet, but he does it —wrongly, in my opinion, as he misses Dawkins' point— appealing to statistics:
(2) He accuses Dawkins of not being scientifically rigorous. He wasn't indeed, but hey, we're talking about 140-character Twitter, right?
(3) Even knowing that I should keep my mouth shut and my fingers away from the keyboard (I was reprimanded by Ian Bogost for not doing so,) I dare to mention that a similar argument —the presence of Twitter-like casual, outlandish, unfair, bereft of nuance, or exaggerated remarks— could be made about Taleb's own books, quickly adding that this fact doesn't undermine their core messages:

(4) He then calls me a "bullshitter" and challenges me to "show a single comment in my books not backed up by logic, math, or probability."

(5) I respect Taleb as an intelligent empiricist, polemicist, writer, and thinker, but I loathe bad manners, particularly in the context of a discussion. I also hate bullies; I do hate them deeply, fiercely. And, according to some, he has acted like one more than once. So I got my copy of Antifragile, opened it up, browsed some pages for a couple of minutes, and chose this quote —it's on page 130, in case you want to check if I'm citing out of context:

"Medical error still currently kills between three times (as accepted by doctors) and ten times as many people as car accidents in the United States. It is generally accepted that harm from doctors —not including risks from hospital germs accounts for more deaths than any single cancer."

Dubious comparisons anyone? You don't need to have gone through Statistics 101 —or engage in a high-brow discussion about nonlinearities— to perceive that those flimsy lines could have used some fact-checking or, at least, a bit of extra thinking. Do they invalidate Taleb's books? Not at all. They are worth reading, and I've recommended them to many friends, particularly Fooled by Randomness. This post in Scientific American matches my thoughts about him quite well, in case you're interested.

The lines above are just an example of occasional and harmless sloppy reasoning. Just like Dawkins' tweet was. No one, not even a genius, is free of that. So let me be presumptuous and suggest two things: First, Taleb loves to boast that he avoids copy editors. He shouldn't. Second: He could read his own writings and learn some intellectual humility. Being someone who writes so much about the impossibility of overcoming deep uncertainty when pursuing knowledge, he sounds damn too certain and self-righteous to me sometimes.

NOTE: Taleb has been more seriously criticized for his verbiage, his dietary recommendations, and his opinions about modern medicine, among other things (see 12, 3, for instance.)