Sunday, February 22, 2009

The end of The Black Swan experiment


So I am continuing reading Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan, even after some really bad experiences with the book. My emotional and intellectual reaction after a few egregious pieces of writing on Taleb's part and horrible editing on the part of people at Random House is something like walking carefully through a minefield while having an existential crisis. As I am reading, even more slowly than usual, I am going through several thought processes.

1. How could this be written better?
2. I try to be amusing when I write. Am I as dreary as Taleb, who isn't even close to half as funny as he thinks he is?
3. Could any editor have fixed this guy's prose or made him give up some of his poorly thought out major concepts, most especially the narrative fallacy?
4. Have I read other books in the past, better books that made some of Taleb's points, most especially about skepticism and unpredictable events?

I am unable to answer the first three questions to my own satisfaction, but somewhere around page 150, I realize that I have read a better book, which I will reveal after explaining my serious problems with Taleb's bad ideas.

In question #3 above, I say that the narrative fallacy is one of Taleb's worst major concepts, and if there was an honest writer named Nassim Nicholas Taleb (and we have no confirming evidence that there is), he would agree with me that the idea is half baked at best.

He says he rejects the idea of cause and effect, that too many people want to explain what they have seen in the past and this blinds them to the future. He does not reject it at all. He comes up with narratives all the time in the book. For example, Taleb correctly states that Henri Poincaré came up with "Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared" before Albert Einstein did, (and so did others, by the way), and comes up with his narrative as to why Einstein is remembered widely and Poincaré is not by the general, non-French speaking public. I had heard about Poincaré beating Einstein to the punch before, and have heard more convincing narratives as to why one is world famous and the other, not so much. This is just one of dozens of examples of Taleb narrating in his book. Heck, he even invents fictional characters and postulates their success and failure in the world, largely based on how much they agree with the concepts of Nassim Nicholas Taleb! There's a really creepy Ayn Rand vibe that permeates the book, though I will stipulate that he is a more entertaining writer than Rand. The average writer of stereo installation manuals is a more entertaining writer than Ayn Rand, so this does not put Taleb in exactly lofty company.

Here's how I feel about Taleb's so-called narrative fallacy. He is right that we naturally try to explain what we see. He is right that we sometimes get it wrong, and from those wrong conclusions make bad decisions, and sometimes get so attached to a bad narrative that we cling to it even when the evidence that it stinks is manifest.

Here's my conclusion to these philosophic points of Taleb. Do a better job narrating, do not reject the act of narrating itself. Don't get married to your own ideas, or at least be willing to consider a trial separation from those ideas when the relationship goes sour. All our ideas have to be tested in the crucible of reality.

Instead of giving my conclusion some new cute jargon name, another bad habit of Taleb's, I will call it the name I learned in school. It's the scientific method.


As I wrote earlier, I did remember a better book that makes Taleb's points about uncertainty, big events having major consequences and people being married to narratives even when the narrative proves false. In 1983, William Goldman, successful novelist and screenwriter, wrote a memoir entitled Adventures in the Screen Trade. He writes about Hollywood with love and respect and the carefulness of someone who still wants to get hired, but he also writes stories about people, many of them with names attached, that illustrate the book's unifying theme "Nobody knows anything." No one knows what movies will be hits or flops, no one knows who will be a bankable movie star and how long that lovely relationship with a fickle public will last, and a somewhat more modern problem, no one knows if a successful movie will create a successful franchise of movies.

On page 206, Taleb mentions Goldman's name and writes the magic words "Nobody knows anything." Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Odin, thank you, Krishna! Now we will get someplace.

No we won't. Damn you, Satan, damn you, Loki, damn you, Shiva! Later on page 206 and continuing on page 207, Taleb finally puts the last brick in the edifice of the "Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a massive pinhead" theory.

He writes that the movie business is a positive-Black Swan business, while the book industry is a negative-Black Swan business. After all, if you pay $10 million for a book that isn't a bestseller, that's a negative Black Swan.

These are the last sentences I will type about Nassim Nicholas Taleb for now. Should Jesus, Odin and Krishna grant it, they will also be the last sentences I write about him in my lifetime. The rest of this week will be posts about a much better writer who produced a much better book, and I will explore William Goldman's theme, written a quarter century ago and still true today, that in the movie business, "Nobody knows anything." Even the Wednesday math post will be about the movies, where we show there might be some negative Black Swans in the movie business, so stay tuned.

Popcorn is optional.

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