The Book of the Week is “Antifragile, Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2012. In this repetitive ebook, Taleb reiterates a few of the concepts from his earlier book “The Black Swan” and again appears to derive pleasure from pointing out human fallibility. He writes that “Uncertainty, incomplete understanding, disorder, and volatility are members of the same close family.” He shows how people generate inaccurate predictions and draw the wrong conclusions through spurious causality, or “epiphenomena.”
Taleb discusses a state of being he calls “antifragility” (or more often, a lack thereof) in the realms of politics, economics, science, academia and medicine, taking swipes at all of them as he goes along. He gives tips on how systems and individuals can make themselves more antifragile (the opposite of fragile), a good thing. The author also provides real-life and theoretical scenarios that perpetuate fragility. Humans appear not to be learning from past scenarios, as they continue to make the same mistakes over and over. One example of a real-life scenario includes the economic bailout of certain big companies, by the United States government (and by extension, American taxpayers) in 2008.
Fragility is vulnerability to negative occurrences. Antifragility is the ability to withstand negative occurrences due to various measures taken to reduce risks; this state of being actually benefits from volatility and randomness.
Humans tend to overestimate their ability to predict shocks and rare events (like revolutions, crises or budget deficits), and when the worst happens, it is worse than the previous occasion. Taleb writes that after havoc strikes, blame incorrectly gets assigned to one factor of the big picture. “The focus is wrong even if the logic is comforting.” People need to study the system and its fragility, not events.
One general example Taleb provides of spurious causality includes the questionable, widely-held assumption that academic research is the generator of wealth because so much research comes out of countries that are wealthy. Taleb thinks it is actually the other way around. “We have no evidence that academia helps science and technology, which in turn help practice.” One narrow instance of this was the building of the atomic bomb, in which there was directed research. But in that, there was selection bias and confirmation bias.
Another example that Taleb provides– a theoretical one– is when an Ivy League university scientist lectures a bird on how to fly. The bird takes flight. The scientist hastily writes books, articles and reports stating that the bird listened to him. The university is now an authority on aerial transportation by the avian species. It will implement further studies with funding by the government. Unfortunately, birds do not write books and papers, so we cannot get their side of the story.
The author advocates interventionism in particular areas and not others. He thinks the government should impose restrictions on the size, concentration and speed of entities including itself (obviously idealistic of him) because bigness increases fragility and the probability of disasters. He thinks less is more (do nothing or implement minimal intervention unless a medical condition is life-threatening) when it comes to medicine.
Taleb says education is useful in that it helps a family retain wealth insofar as its descendants use their educations to enter professions that were more lucrative than those of their ancestors. Almost all projects take longer and cost more when an element of uncertainty is added. “We have never had more data than we have now, yet have less predictability than ever.”
Read the book to learn more about: a) errors in human reasoning that aggravate adverse situations; b) why fragility is increased with fiscal deficits and awarding of prizes in the fields of literature, finance, and economics; c) which actions are helpful in promoting antifragility and d) an inopportune event caused by Taleb’s own fallibility and his reasoning in dealing with it.
In sum, “The problem with people who do not incur harm [suffer no punishment for their influential opinion-making that causes economic collapse or a war] is that they can cherry-pick from statements they’ve made in the past, many of them contradictory, and end up convincing themselves of their intellectual lucidity on the way to the World Economic Forum at Davos.”