I’m going through my pile of finished books to review those worth recommending. Both of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” and “Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets” are highly recommended.
Nassim Nicodemus Taleb is a man “in whom is no guile”. I’m accustomed to reading books by wise people and picking out the errors in their thinking (since nobody is perfect). For example, my copy of “Knowledge and the Wealth Of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery” is filled with “WTF?” highlighter marks despite being an OK book. But these two books are overflowing with honest, direct, and well-communicated insights. The one-line summary, which many people fail to get, is “Fear of black swans is the beginning of wisdom”.
Taleb is a disciple of Mandelbrot and Popper, two thinkers I’ve quoted here over the past 7 years. In fact, I think that people should read Mandelbrot and Popper before reading Taleb. Taleb adds tremendous value by expositing their philosophies and promoting tons of clever ways of communicating the ideas in anecdote and phrase: examples include “survivorship bias”, “narrative fallacy”, and “black swan”. Taleb should be required reading if only to enrich our vocabulary with convenient Platonizations.
You should start with “Fooled by Randomness”, and read “The Black Swan” next. If you give yourself a couple of months between volumes, you will have time to develop some of your own insights as to where the first volume was weak — if you’re anything like me, you’ll be delighted to see that Taleb is actually improving and maturing his philosophy, and correcting assumptions. In fact, despite the minor flaws, the first book might be the best. It is concise, direct, and entertaining. In the second volume, Taleb adds a bunch of new insights and Platonizations, but it’s also more biographical, and he seems to go to extra lengths to explain things that may have confused slow-thinkers reading his first volume. I think he was misguided to try to make it more accessible to people (“pearls before swine” is an analogy he gets wrong in his second volume, incidentally), and it results in a more tedious book, but both books are essential.
In fact, a curious thing has happened in the past 2 years since Taleb began to be famous. I increasingly hear people reference his platonizations while betraying that they don’t actually understand what he wrote. These are super-intelligent people who are good at using appeals to authority to bolster rhetorical arguments, and well-meaning people who simply want to know what the “system” of making wise choices is. This was an obvious danger, since Taleb is writing about truths that most people don’t really want to know. They want to think they know, and they want to act like they know, but deep down they don’t want to think all the way through to the logical conclusion. That’s why mainstream economists have tended to ignore Mandelbrot, and no amount of erudite exposition on the part of Taleb can combat human nature.
This is why I recommend reading Mandelbrot and Popper first. If you understand the implications of what they are saying, and really truly want more, you’ll find more of it in Taleb. To my friends at Department of Defense who were lapping up Mandelbrot in 1992, Taleb is like a drink of fresh water. But if you don’t come to Taleb thirsty, you’ll at best walk away with an arsenal of “clever turns of phrase” that you can use to “dazzle and awe”, all the while lacking deep understanding.
Taleb acknowledges his debts to other thinkers perhaps better than anyone, and you could read him just for the overview of epistemology. And while I think Cicero was far stupider than Taleb gives credit, I agreed with almost all of his assessments of past thinkers. The only minor nit I have is that he leaves out some of the thinkers who I feel are inextricably intertwined with these issues.
Although Mandelbrot exploded the “empirical” establishment, Goethe deserves credit for resisting clearly and first. Goethe not only pointed out the dangers of blind-faith empiricism, he was the first to codify the self-similar quality of nature which became Mandelbrot’s “fractals”. And the writer who previously attacked blind-faith empiricism and Platonization with the greatest erudition was none other than Owen Barfield. While reading Taleb, I couldn’t help but feel that many of the insights and arguments were ripped straight out of Barfield (This isn’t evidence of plagiarism, rather lack of citations is a good indicator that Taleb never read Barfield, since he would have remembered someone with a mind so alike to his own). Many of Barfield’s influential essays were written when Mandelbrot was a young man, so it’s hard to imagine Mandelbrot not having been influenced by Barfield. “Saving the Appearances“, and “Where is Fancy Bred” are two interesting examples — though the entire book “The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays” is recommended for insights of the Taleb-type.
This oversight can be forgiven, and Taleb claims to care primarily about “uncertainty”. But the problems of platonization, narrative fallacy, and cognitive biases are tightly related to the philosophy of poetry.