Saturday, February 21, 2009

Taking a break from reading The Black Swan

Nicholas Nassim Taleb works in the financial industry as a quantitative analyst, a job position known as a "quant". He holds views that are contrary to those held by a majority of his peers, but he has a financial strategy that did very well both in the brief and abrupt crash of 1987 and in the longer and more severe downturns of both 2007 and 2008. He published The Black Swan in 2007 and I read it in 2009, so if he ever got around to specific financial advice in the book, I missed it, not because I wasn't reading carefully, but because I got to page 210 of his 300 page book, put the book down and vowed not to turn one more page.

No one should be forced to read this book for free, and if someone is willing to pay you to read it, drive a hard bargain.

I have read many books by authors whose views are not mainstream. For example, I very much enjoy the work of Jane Jacobs, whose views on city planning and economics go against the conventional wisdom in those fields. Reading iconoclasts takes patience, because some of them are bitter about being outsiders. Sadly, this is true of Taleb. On page 90, he writes this lovely sentence.

It is my great hope someday to see science and decision makers rediscover what the ancients have always known, namely that our highest currency is respect.

It is astonishing to think that the person who penned this noble hope for the future wrote the rest of The Black Swan, because the book is one long sneer. Everyone is to be mocked, scientists and decision makers most of all. They are foolish, they dress badly, they have middle brow tastes, they are not as well read as Taleb. I am no stranger to plowing through badly written books trying to get to the good ideas contained in those pages, if any. After all, I did get through On War by Clausewitz a couple years back.

Clausewitz and Taleb are very different kinds of bad writers. Clausewitz is a 19th Century scholar, which often meant he just couldn't shut up. No point could be made quickly, since he had to tell you every last thing he knew on any subject before he got to the next subject. Taleb's style is much more breezy and conversational, as befits a person trying to sell a book to 21st Century readers, but he wastes a reader's time in more modern ways.

Taleb lies to us and makes ridiculous and patently false statements, then moves forward and expects us to follow his arguments, as though there is no price to pay with the reader for lying or looking like an idiot.

First, the lies. Taleb ends Chapter 1 by telling us that when he finds someone dull and does not want to talk to them, he tells them he is a limousine driver. These dull people in Taleb's circle are often very status conscious, so this little lie does the trick, and he is not lying to the reader, but to some third person we are expected to dislike as much as Taleb did.

Chapter 2 is very short, but it is an illustrative example of a Black Swan, an unexpected event in the publishing industry that was a runaway success. Taleb tells the tale of Yevgenia Nikolayevna Krasnova, a previously unpublished novelist and philosopher, who self published a book entitled The Story of Recursion online, which was picked up by a daring publisher and became a gigantic hit, achieving big sales and proving a major trend in scholarship. I am not as well read as Taleb, but I was very confused that I would never have heard anything about Krasnova's success in any of the news sources I read.

Taleb starts the third chapter by telling us Krasnova is fictional. First, he lies to strangers, then he lies to the readers for three pages in Chapter 2, and then lets us know that we cannot take what he says at face value. I plowed ahead anyway, reading more carefully, but less trustingly.

I had problems with his style and some of his opinions, political and otherwise, but then I came to page 112, and a two paragraph subchapter of Chapter 8 under the heading of "Doctors". Here is the kernel of what Taleb wrote.

Assume that a drug saves many people from a potentially dangerous ailment, but runs the risk of killing a few, with a net benefit to society. Would a doctor prescribe it? He has no incentive to do so.

I stopped. I read it again. I put the book down, took off my reading glasses and stared out the window of the BART train.

How could someone be so well read and so profoundly ignorant? Has he never watched a TV show sponsored by a drug company? We've all heard the side effects listed, what is known in the ad biz as fair balance. Forget dangerous ailments. There are drugs that promise better looking skin that run the risk of killing you, and doctors are still prescribing them.

I thought a little bit more. Taleb had sneered at reading the newspaper as a way to keep informed, and said that he had stopped doing it some time in the past. Maybe he read only important books and had no time for modern media, including the radio, TV and magazines. Still, an educated person should know something about how vaccines work, since Jenner's work with the cowpox and smallpox comes from the late 18th Century. Vaccines expose patients to a low and hopefully inert dose of a disease to immunize them from it, but some people inoculated will get a non-inert dose or will be particularly sensitive to the introduction, catch the bad disease and die. Doctors have happily made this trade-off for more than 200 years now.

And then another thought entered my mind. I opened the book to the back and read the acknowledgements. How could a professional editor not know these things? How could that person, given the professional task of having Taleb's back, leave him hanging so horribly, looking like a complete idiot? Will Murphy is the person at Random House who is guilty of the professional dereliction of duty, but Taleb lists dozens of people who read his book and reviewed it, and he says he paid attention to these people.

Clearly, a lot of people don't read any more, even the ones who are supposed to do it for a living. These people skim and think they are reading. I'm a blogger, so I don't have an editor, but I do have readers, and there are many who have stopped by to correct factual flubs I have made. Among these free lance fact checkers are sfmike, Ken Rose and Alan Ponder, and I thanked each of them for their corrections at the time and I am happy to thank them again here.

I've taken a serious disliking to Taleb after spending a few hundred pages with him, but in some ways I pity him. He either doesn't have friends as smart and generous as the friends I have, or he has chosen to ignore them for reasons beyond comprehension.

Next: Taleb goes down swinging on an easy pitch.


silkop said...

Thanks for these posts. They will definitely save me time, as they confirm my suspicion that Mr. Taleb is in fact an not-so-well-educated, self-absorbed, best-selling loudmouth. (I've just watched an interview with him, read some of his web page and quips before arriving at this conclusion.)

Have you read "Probability Theory - The Logic of Science" by E. T. Jaynes? If not, give it a try for an example of an author who could also be classified as "a grumpy outsider", but who really knew his stuff and also paid great care to avoid mistakes. He also knows everything there's to know about the utility of normal distribution, much unlike Mr. T.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks for the recommendation, silkop. I'll check the library over the break.

loafingcactus said...

Love this review! Black Swan drove me batty, and I too would like to know where the fact checker was taking his nap.

Don Sharpe said...

This book was recommended to me, and I couldn't figure out what I didn't like about it. After 4 chapters I looked up your review and now I'm going give it back to it's owner.
Thanks, you saved me a whole lotta time.