Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Confession of a Dumb Bird-Watcher

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets.  New York: Random House, 2004.  ISBN 0812975219.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  New York: Random House, 2007.  ISBN 1400063515.

This essay takes me a little distance down memory lane, since I encountered Nassim Taleb before my crisis of faith had become truly critical.  Still not really concerned by the cognitive dissonance that would eventually become unbearable, I was happily engaged in my graduate school work, taking classes and preparing for examinations.  As an outlet for stress, I maintained an active lifestyle and sought the best information I could find on human health and performance.  I had knocked around enough to know that the people from whom I had the most to learn were older athletes who maintained high activity levels: they had something I wanted.  So I found myself visiting the web site of Clarence Bass, who introduced me (figuratively speaking) to economist Arthur De Vany and his brain-child "Evolutionary Fitness".  De Vany's ideas about complex systems (of which the human body provides one instance) are very interesting and changed my thinking in many ways (before his blog became available by subscription only; as a poor student, I have little cash to spare).  It was on De Vany's blog that I first learned of Taleb, whom (as I recall) De Vany approved as presenting a useful model for understanding how the real world works.  I was intrigued enough that I tracked down some cheap copies of Taleb's books and began reading.

In both of his books, Taleb outlines a world very different from the over-determined one in which I grew up.  Who can say when my dalliance with determinism began?  I remember my mother putting me to bed one night, back when I was about four years old.  I looked up at her and asked, with real emotion, "Mama, why does everybody do what they do?"  Maybe that was the beginning.  In any case, I spent the next several years learning from a deterministic point of view.  When I studied palaeontology as a nine-year-old, I tended to assume that dinosaurs (and other extinct life-forms) evolved a certain way out of necessity, adapting in some definite way to meet a definite need.  When I read the Book of Mormon as an eleven-year-old and experienced a very powerful emotional conversion, dinosaurs and evolution receded into the background (for several years I rejected evolution entirely!), but deterministic thinking remained: God had a plan which he played out in human life; free will in this plan existed from our point of view (since we were not coerced into making decisions), but not really from his (since he knew in advance what decisions we would make).  So life was controlled by prophecies.  There was the uncomfortable fact that many of these prophecies seemed to come "true" in so many different times, and in so many different ways.  Could God really have deliberately intended so much?  Taleb makes it really hard to think he did, particularly if you think of God as a glorified man, which as a good Mormon (and Christian, though some will doubtless protest) I once did.

Instead of writing about "the great chain of being" in some form, with all life ultimately determined by some Aristotelian unmoved mover (whether God or "nature" or anything else you please), Taleb writes about man, i.e. homo sapiens, though when you are knee-deep in Taleb's work he looks a lot more like homo stultus.  For Taleb's man is not the pinnacle of evolutionary history or the capstone of God's creation.  He is a garrulous fool with a penchant for telling stories to explain why things happen.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, Taleb's man does not reason our way out step by logical step: like any good cowboy, he takes a gut check and gets the hell out of Dodge!  Then, seated at a cozy table with friends, he tells the story of his escape as though he had calculated every step precisely, as though his salvation were determined by consummate skill (or calculated divine intervention) instead of dumb luck.  The rational element is here completely subservient to the emotional, which provides the real, unexamined, unexplained source for human action.  I was fascinated by this (for me) new vision of humanity, to the point that I decided to follow a hint from Taleb and take a special examination in ancient astrology, comparing it to modern economics as practiced by the big-shots that have been going broke recently (and using the government's muscle to take food from my children's mouths to get back on their feet). It is uncanny to me how similar ancient astrologers (still extant in old manuscripts that few people read) are to modern economists: both use the language of science (geometry, mathematics) to speak a kind of hyper-articulate gibberish that always makes perfect sense of the (determined) past but cannot say anything really telling about the (undetermined) future. The bogus nature of their predictions is revealed when something really unexpected happens (the unfolding economic crisis, for example): Taleb refers to these unlooked-for events as "black swans", drawing on the old European notion that all swans are white, a notion which persisted until the late 17th century, when black swans were discovered in western Australia. 

Someone has come up with a nice parable that illustrates what reading Taleb did for me.  Imagine the human mind as a house full of windows to the outside.  As long as you are in the house, your understanding of the outside is dependent on your access to the windows.  Assuming the outside is important to you, would you not want access to as many windows as possible, preferably clean ones?  Reading Taleb showed me (1) that there were many windows in my house, not just the one or two I had been using, and (2) that all of them were very dirty, such that it was better to talk about the potential rather than the actual when speaking of things outside.  Essentially, reading Taleb turned me into an epistemological agnostic: I became more aware of the powers and limitations of my mind, and consequently less certain of everything; some things dropped off my radar almost entirely.  Why talk seriously about saving the universe or some eternal essence of me long-term when I do not even know how to save the bacon here and now?  I began to shut up and listen even more than I used to; other points of view became valuable when they disagreed rationally with an emotional judgment of mine, and useless when they made emotional appeals against my rational judgment.  Returning to the parable of the house helps make sense of what was going on.  Before I knew about the multitude of windows, I had only one or two (that were really dirty, remember), so when someone said, "Look, there's a little pink unicorn in the garden!" I would peer through the glass, get a glimpse of something and think to myself, "Yeah, that could be a unicorn, and it does look rather pink."  After Taleb took me on the grand tour of the house, the process of verification became more complicated.  I had to visit all the windows before making a pronouncement.  Comparing one view with another, I would say something like this: "Yeah, the smudge on this window creates a blotch that makes whatever-it-is look horned, and the tinge of the dirt makes it seem pink, but that other window upstairs has a different pattern of smudges in different colors, and everyone up there is convinced we have a brown rabbit in the garden, rather than a pink unicorn.  Seen from the west wing it looks more like a blue panda."  A quicker way to convey this shift in perspective is to emend the famous quote from Descartes, who should have said cogito, ergo idiota sum ("I think, therefore I am an idiot").  Thinking no longer confirms what I already know (in my gut); instead, it provides evidence that I don't really know anything (because gut-sense is really nonsense; unfortunately, it is also the inalienable factor in most human decisions).

So, there you have it.  Before reading Taleb, I was living out my life as just another philosophical footnote to Plato, chasing a vision of "absolute truth" whose reality I was prepared to rationalize any way I could.  After reading Taleb, "absolute truth" disappeared as a meaningful variable on my epistemological map of the world. Though I still went through perfunctory motions of "believing" in it, I ceased using it as a heuristic in dealing with new data input: it became the relic of an irrecoverable past.  Little by little, I shed the persona of the know-it-all expert, crafted in the image of God with clear insight into eternal reality, and recognized that I was just a dumb bird-watcher with a knack for leaping to unjustified (and unjustifiable) conclusions.  Like many prognosticators before, I looked around and saw omens: eagles, meteors, planetary conjunctions, stock quotes, sacred books, a burning in the bosom, etc.  Sometimes I read the omens "correctly" (meaning I got the outcomes I wanted after seeing the holy birds and making the proper sacrifices), and sometimes I did not.  Then one day I saw a black swan.  I have never really looked at the world the same way since.


  1. Idunno, Wordsmith: on the one hand, you still strike me as being rather fanatical in a number of your day-to-day conclusions; on the other, you have nevertheless, as long as I have known you, been somewhat willing to adapt your own opinions when reasonably approached by others. In short, you rather ironically seem to be attributing both pre-existing and later-developed attributes to the single event of having read Taleb. (How very deterministic of you, Cowboy!)

    I'm just sayin'.

    But, that having been said, I am probably unique in having seen how broadly you applied Taleb's ideas at least conversationally. In doing so, you must have gained access to at least a few more windows in that house of yours.

    Maybe I'll respond again later; for now, I seem to be getting too carried away by metaphors to think straight.

  2. Just to clarify: I do not mean to saddle Taleb with all the "credit" (if you want to call it that) for my conversion to agnosticism. I just want to acknowledge that of all the thinkers I have encountered to date, he did the most to completely re-orient my perception of human "expertise." He did this by taking traits and ideas which I already possessed to some degree and then drawing them out to logical conclusions that I was able to follow.

  3. Sadly, I have to agree with you, Kirsti, regarding my fanaticism. But at least now I am aware that I am sick, instead of rejoicing in my illness and trying to infect as many others as possible. Maybe one day I will succeed in controlling my toxic influence.