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Reflections: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

3 July 2017

Author and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb worked as a financial trader and risk analyst before becoming a full-time essayist and scholar, focusing on practical and philosophical problems pertaining to randomness, uncertainty and probability.

The Lebanese-American scholar has been a professor at several universities, and has served as Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering since 2008. He has been co-editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Risk and Decision Analysis, since 2014.

He is the author of several books including Incerto, Antifragile, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, and Fooled by Randomness. His books have been translated into 35 languages. Taleb has been acclaimed as “the hottest thinker in the world” and “the most prophetic voice of all” by various media.

Taleb considers himself less a businessman and more an “epistemologist of randomness”, claiming that he used financial trading to attain independence and freedom from authority. In late 2015, he co-founded the Real World Risk Institute, designed to “build the principles and methodology for what we call real-world rigor in decision-making.”

He is renowned for his virulent criticism of risk management methods used by the finance industry and advocates what he calls a “black swan robust” society, meaning a society that can withstand events that are difficult to predict. He proposes “antifragility” in systems — that is, an ability to benefit and grow from a certain class of random events, errors and volatility. He is also an advocate of “convex tinkering” as a method of scientific discovery, by which he means that decentralized experimentation outperforms directed research.

His provocative views include calling for the cancellation of the Nobel Prize in Economics, claiming that the damage from economic theories can be devastating. Taleb opposes top-down knowledge as an academic illusion and believes that prizes, honorary degrees, awards and ceremonialism debase knowledge by turning it into a spectator sport.

His writings discuss the error of comparing real-world randomness with the “structured randomness” in quantum physics, where probabilities are computable and games of chance are like casinos, where probabilities are artificially built. Taleb calls this the “Ludic fallacy”, with his argument centering on the idea that predictive models are based on Plato’s Theory of Forms, gravitating towards mathematical purity and the impossibility of possessing all relevant information.

Today, Taleb says he spends most of his time in the intense seclusion of his study or as a flâneur meditating in cafes.

“For the robust, an error is information; for the fragile, an error is an error”