Monday, 22 July 2013

Taleb, And Other Overrated 'Intellectuals'


Contrary to (often) popular opinion, I think most of our so-called 'world's great intellectuals' - Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Laurence Krauss, Steven Pinker, Paul Krugman, Steven Weinberg, AC Grayling (to name but a few) - are overrated. I don't find it all that surprising - humans tend to over-estimate the quality of public intellectuals, which then brings about further over-inflation from the many others that jump on the bandwagon of intellectual subservience.

But aren't they top contributors in their fields?

Yes, and their contributions - Richard Dawkins (biology), Stephen Hawking (physics), and so on - are immense.  But I didn't say they aren't proficient in their fields of expertise (though often I wish they would stay in their fields of expertise) - I said I think they are overrated, by which I mean I think there is an over-inflation of their general abilities, which isn't the same thing as saying they are not edifying in their specialised field. If you won £1 million but overestimated your windfall to the value of £10 million, you'd get a big shock when you went to pay for the £4 million house and £1 million car you'd set your heart on purchasing.  Those that do understand Richard Dawkins know they have a million pounds worth of biology; those who vastly overrate him believe they have ten million pounds of biology, religion, philosophy, cosmology, ontology, psychology and socio-political commentary.  That’s the principal difference.

Perhaps the most overrated of all, though, is Nassim Nicholas Taleb - author of the 2007 best-seller The Black Swan, in which he spends far too many pages talking about how improbable events are unpredictable due to being rare and seeped in unknown factors.  Not only is The Black Swan (to me) obvious and unoriginal, it stretches out about one chapter's worth of substantial material into a whole book, making the latter two-thirds seem (again, to me) execrably dull and repetitive. 

But perhaps the most noteworthy thing is that on several occasions I have seen Taleb referred to as ‘The greatest thinker of our time’ - which, unfortunately, judging by some of his television appearances, seems to be hype by which Taleb has also been swayed. Now here's the big irony; the kind of reasoning that is employed when conferring the adulation of ‘The greatest thinker of our time’ onto Taleb is the same kind of erroneous reasoning Taleb's book The Black Swan is set up to undermine.  In the first place, the popularity of the book occurred largely because of the financial crisis (with one caveat – see below) and the self-congratulatory claim by Taleb that he had predicted this 'black swan' event.  Ironically his bigger critics claimed that he couldn't really have predicted the financial crisis because 'black 'swans' are supposed to be high impact, low probability events that foil our expectations. 

Both Taleb and his fiercest critics have got their reasoning wrong here. The critics are wrong in denying that the financial crisis was predicable, but Taleb and his proponents are wrong in calling the financial crisis a 'black swan' event.  If the financial crisis really were a black swan event then Taleb is hoisted by his own petard because the black swan events in the book that earned him the title ‘The greatest thinker of our time’ are those events of which we do not know the probability. 

In the second place, the further irony is that it is actually the fortuitousness of the book's impact that is the black swan event, not any propitious timing or expertly executed foresight. Consider that Taleb's 2001 book Fooled by Randomness contained more or less the same underlying arguments as The Black Swan but made hardly any impact at all at the time of its release.

If we want to be super-critical towards his most fervent admirers (the ones that ascribed the success of his book to the occurrence of the financial crisis) – the book makes repeated allusions to the butterfly effect, which is the biggest indicator that one cannot necessarily make such simple causal ascriptions.  The whole wisdom of the butterfly effect is that a butterfly flapping its wings in India can start a causal chain that eventuates in a hurricane in the USA a few years later.  But to realise this one has to realise that from the standpoint of the hurricane observer the causal chain is prohibitively untraceable, with so many other causal factors remaining beyond the sphere of human observation.  Therefore, ascribing the success of The Black Swan to the financial crisis means necessarily selecting out one palpable link on the causal chain and disregarding the other links - which is the very thing being counselled against.  

The flip side to there being lots of overrated public intellectuals whose fame is as much about for fortuitous and serendipitous events as it is intellectual proficiency is that there are going to be lots of underrated, largely undiscovered talents awaiting the break that will give their abilities the recognition they deserve.  Maybe some of you are cases in point - in which case, go make yourself known - the world might be awaiting the discovery of whatever talent you have to offer. 

* Picture courtesy of cityofsound.com

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