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January 9, 2013

Our Next lecture at Caltech PATRICK McCRAY January 20th

Dr. W. Patrick McCray (photo by Brian W. Robb)
The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 at 2 pm
Baxter Hall

In 1969, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill began looking outward to space colonies as the new frontier for humanity’s expansion. A decade later, Eric Drexler, an MIT-trained engineer, turned his attention to the molecular world as the place where society’s future needs could be met using self-replicating nanoscale machines. These modern utopians predicted that their technologies could transform society as humans mastered the ability to create new worlds, undertook atomic-scale engineering, and, if truly successful, overcame their own biological limits. In this lecture, based on the book by the same name, Patrick McCray traces how these visioneers blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future…

Order the book from Amazon


New Admission Policy and Prices

Please note there are important policy and pricing changes for this season of lectures at Caltech. Please review these changes now.

Sharon Hill

2012—Another Doubtful Year

We all survived one more end of the world scare! Now that we are still here, Derek decided to sit down with Doubtful News Editor Sharon Hill to review some of the big skeptical news stories of 2012 and get her thoughts on what might be looming over the horizon for 2013.


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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer reviews Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012, U.S. edition published by Random House, subtitled “Things That Gain from Disorder”). Order the hardcover book or the Kindle Edition. This review was originally published in Nature, Nov. 21, 2012.

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Not Fooled by Randomness

book review by Michael Shermer

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has built his career and reputation around understanding random, rare, and high-impact “Black Swan” effects that he defined, described, and fleshed out theoretically in his first two books, Fooled by Randomness (2001) and The Black Swan (2007). Taleb’s new book, Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand, is the third in what might be considered his trilogy, although he says “Antifragile would be the main volume” (p. 13) with the others as backdrop.

Whatever the relationship of the three volumes, if you like Taleb’s free-flowing stream-of-consciousness style writing, Antifragile offers over 500 pages of it, most of which derives from his personal experiences that he often highlights with snarky asides and personal digs, for example, “practitioners are too busy practitioning so they don’t usually write books, articles, papers, speeches, equations, theories and get honored by Highly Constipated and Honorable Members of Academies” and “We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D. (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power.” Of his methodology, Taleb explains, “I feel corrupt and unethical if I have to look up a subject in a library as part of the writing itself. If the subject is not interesting enough for me to look it up independently, for my own curiosity or purposes, and have not done so before, then I should not be writing about it at all, period.” (p. 14).

Forewarned is forearmed. This is not a history of the science of randomness and responses to it. It is what Nassim Taleb—no more and no less—thinks on the subject. This approach has it’s pluses and minuses.

In Antifragile, Taleb offers suggestions (commandments, really, that companies pay him a lot for but you can get for the price of a book) on how to live in a world that is unpredictable and chaotic, and how to thrive during moments of disaster. The opposite of “fragile” is not “robust,” Taleb opines, since robustness only strengthens the resolve of an individual or organization to resist change. Antifragile means prospering from randomness, uncertainty, opacity, adventure and disorder, and benefitting from a variety of shocks. Taleb applies the concept in many areas: evolution, politics, business innovation, scientific discovery, medicine, economics, ethics, and epistemology. (Taleb’s nimble mind wanders freely across the knowledge spectrum.) The failure to respond appropriately to randomness and chance shock events has meant the downfall of civilizations, economies, markets, and corporations. Thus, Antifragile also offers solutions on how to avoid the pitfalls of Black Swan events, prosper from uncertainty, and build antifragility into your life (or company or economy or society—this is a big picture book).

Take size, for example. You might think that being big (as in a big nation or big corporation) would build in a buffer to Black Swan events (“there’s a lot of ruin in a nation” Adam Smith famously observed). Business schools teach the virtues of “economies of scale,” but Taleb writes that “size hurts you at times of stress; it is not a good idea to be large during difficult times.” In support, he notes that “some economists have been wondering why mergers of corporations do not appear to play out” in terms of efficiency, and that “the numbers show, at best, no gain from such increase in size” and that studies over the past quarter century confirm “There appears to be something about size that is harmful to corporations.” (pp. 302–303). Think AOL-Time Warner. Or, Taleb conjectures, think of how “large animals, such as elephants, boa constrictors, mammoths, and other animals of size tend to become rapidly extinct.” (p. 303).

Herein lies two caveats I would offer to this style of analysis: the hindsight bias and the confirmation bias. It is easy to look back and pluck out examples from the historical record of animals and corporations that failed to respond in an antifragile way to Black Swan events (dinosaurs and mammoths, Blockbuster and Borders). But, in fact, boa constrictors and other large mammals are flourishing, as are the Brobdingnagian Apple and Google, who seem to be thriving as they gobble up competitors and prey. Taleb knows all about these cognitive biases and rails against them himself, but none of us are above bias and as I read Antifragile I found myself thinking more of the exceptions than the rule.

I have long admired and appreciated Taleb’s insistence that we recognize the power of chance and randomness to rule our lives, because by another quirk of our cognition that I call patternicity we tend to find patterns in random noise and concoct probable causal narratives to connect the dots where no connections actually exist. For that alone Taleb deserves our respect, and his work commands our attention. But much of life is not ruled by randomness and Black Swan events. The 2008 economic collapse, for example, may seem to be quintessentially Black Swanish, but the recovery since has been driven by predictable economic forces implemented judiciously by the Fed. And I’m not even sure the collapse of the housing and banking industries that triggered it was quite so random and unpredictable. Indeed, Taleb himself predicted it, as did others, based on the long, slow bubble build up as a result of easy credit, government policy, Wall Street avarice, and other unsurprising forces.

Or take another long-term trend—the decline of violence—thoroughly documented by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. This trend has been so slow and steady across so many domains (wars, revolutions, homicide, rape, crime, child abuse, spanking, animal cruelty, racism, lynchings, bigotry, homophobia, and the like) that it took Pinker over 800 pages to document it all, and throughout I cannot think of a single random, Black Swan-like event that triggered anything but a minor wrinkle in the centuries-long trend. Most of the time in most areas of life the laws of nature and society grind glacially along, oblivious to the occasional burp that, in the short run may look devastating, but in the long run gets absorbed in the trend-line. Even an apparently obvious exception, such as the Second World War, was not a random Black Swan event, but was instead the product of at least half a century’s worth of political, economic, and social forces that led from the unification of Germany in 1871 through the First World War and the Great Depression. Placed on a graph, such events appear random and Black Swanish, but when examined more closely they turn out to be the result of known forces that may have seemed unpredictable at the time, but in hindsight can be of great value to us in understanding cause-and-effect relationships in complex systems.

Perhaps this is Taleb’s point in Antifragile. His heavy emphasis on randomness occasionally obfuscates the power of the predictable, and the emphasis on the former over the latter in a narrative of this sweep may distract from this larger point. In any case, there is much to learn from a mind this facile, so don’t take my word for it—read the book yourself. If nothing else it makes you see the world in a new light and that is, quite possibly, the best way to be antifragile. END



  1. Cormac says:

    I agree that Anti-Fragile doesn’t seem to be the best of Taleb’s work to date. (I’m about 80 pages in.

    But to say that the “recovery” from the “recent” crisis has been achieved by predictable economic forces is a bit premature, and, to my mind incorrect.

    Economists push two ideologies, mainly – the Keynesian approach or that generally encapsulated by the Austrian School. The former is a variant on the Martingale gambling “strategy”, and the latter suffers from the Gamblers Fallacy.

    As the recent crisis is still in full swing, it is premature to say it is over.

    Given that the Basel III regulations remain based on exactly the same fundamental errors that Taleb railed about in his first two books, we will remain exposed to Black Swan events arising out of the Financial Markets over the coming 12 years.

  2. Cormac says:

    And one point that you seem to have missed that Taleb makes quite strongly about Black Swan events is that in hindsight it is very easy to construct a history that suggests that the event itself was eminently predictable.

    He argues very clearly that you can’t use past events to predict the future. There are too many variables.

    If World War II was eminently predictable, how was World War I spoken of as the War to End All Wars?

    Kind regards,


  3. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    I mostly agree with Cormac.

    Although I usually value Dr Mike’s comments, there are a number of statements which sound like he missed Taleb’s point. As Cormac points out, one characteristic of Taleb’s Black Swan Events is that can explain it retrospectively. Looking back people say “It should have been anticipated.” The fact that Dr Mike can do this with his examples only strengthen’s the argument that they are Black Swan Events.
    Connected with this point is that something that is a Black Swan Event for me may not be one for you (IIRC: Taleb uses the example of a Turkey and a Butcher – only one of them is surprised). Or more related to us – the (/11 attack was definitely predictable months in advance … for Al Qeada. They spent months planning it so they had a pretty good idea that it was a possibility. But it was effectively unpredictable (random?) to hose of us who had no access to Al Qeada’s secrets.
    [Another fun example of this is computer ‘random’ number generators … if you have information of the state of the generator the numbers are completely predictable to you]
    Another point that made me scratch my head was Dr Mike’s comment about him not being able to identify any Black Swan events which have lead to the centuries long downward trend in violence. Isn’t this the same argument Behe used against the evolution of the flagella? No cogito ergo no est.

    But all of this is truly missing the point. This is more of advice for a practical approach to planning for things: know that you cannot anticipate everything so try to plan to be ‘robust’ against the unforeseen. And don’t beat yourself up over not seeing something coming afterward – no one is perfect.

  4. Friend or Foe? says:

    This discussion makes some strong points that unfortunately Shermer has not actually quite grasped Taleb’s notion of a Black Swan:

  5. Fouad Khan says:

    “cause and effect relationships” in complex systems? that belies a fundamental understanding of complex systems… which, by very definition, defy causal and predictive modeling. That’s Taleb’s message and you obviously are not qualified to comment on it.

  6. Linda W says:

    The organics movement does make claims that are non scientific. However it is an important movement that helps combat huge farms which are a source of food insecurity throughout the world. Small farms are vital to the economic health of third world countries. Your skeptic does not mention the many pesticides that have been found to contaminate water, soil and air and have consequently been removed from use by the scientific community. This was a shortsighted talk unworthy of scientists. And Monsanto GMO’s are killing small farmers as they do not have the money to buy their seeds.
    I also love food and appreciate living in a country that has many more varieties of fruits and vegetables than the US has with its mono growth agriculture.
    In this third world country there are less homeless and more food for all than in the US. Every year there are fewer poor, not more as in the US. They are dedicated to protecting small farmers and the food does not travel thousands of miles to get to market which is part of the US unsustainable model that creates too many carbons. Something to think about. Skepticism is great but other factors have to be considered.

    • Mad Farmer says:

      Interesting how your reply goes without a response. You’re right on the money. That skeptics are NOT more skeptical about massive corporate control of land, seed and food is odd. Frankly, you’d think we’d all be more skeptical about the another BIG technological solution to our food production. The organics movement ALSO makes claims that are based on good science; and corporate and university funded science ALSO screws things up from time to time, and more often than we’d like to admit, mind you.

  7. Nicholas Winterson says:

    Google is around for now. The Boa is around for now. That’s all we can say as of the moment. Someone at Google who believes it will last forever could be a ‘Turkey’ at any time.
    I agree with what Cormac says but a lot of the debate around Taleb is too driven by the need to be RIGHT. Surely the ability to be flexible and comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know’ is partly what his work is about ?

    A lot of people get caught up in defining a ‘Black Swan’ but as Mr Taleb himself would say the attack on the twin towers was a Black Swan if you were in them but NOT if you flew the plane.

    These ideas need to be looked at and discussed. Evolution wouldn’t allow the very quick migration in hours of the distance of a coninent. A person would take a long time and the journey would change their life experience. It would also limit the numbers making the journey. Does that reflect on racism and immigration policy ?

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