The Decline and Fall of Nassim Taleb
Early in the pandemic—February and March 2020—I scoured the web for Nassim Taleb’s wisdom.
Taleb is an expert on risk and probabilistic reasoning. He coined the phrase “black swan” to describe tail risk events that are impossible to predict simply because the category is unknown to those assessing risk. Published in 2007, Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable seemed to predict the financial collapse of 2008.
It’s safe to say Taleb’s fame is inexorably linked to black swans. You can’t blame me for turning to the master of highly improbable events when Coronavirus (as we called it in 2020) captured the world’s attention.
At the time, Taleb’s analysis was predictable and close to mine. It went something like this: when facing a high degree of uncertainty, proceed with extreme caution. On March 19, 2020, I concluded Spanish Flu vs. Coronavirus with this:
Finally, I’m not scared or panicked about coronavirus. At all. I am concerned about the economy. I worry that some people will overreact in a bad way. But I’m no more concerned about catching this disease than I am about catching the flu or a bad cold. I don’t like to be sick. My support for aggressive prevention stems from the fact that this is a new disease. Everyone on earth is susceptible, and if everyone on earth catches the disease, millions will die from it, even if the mortality rate is only 0.5 percent.
Just 14 days later, though, I grew concerned at how gleefully my fellow Americans had ceded all control over their lives to the state and, worse, to the medical-industrial complex. On April 2, 2020, I published Survivors Will Envy the Dead:
People have gleefully surrendered amazing new powers to governments. We have erected barriers between ourselves and all other humans on the planet. We have surrendered all of our rights, including the First Amendment. We have abandoned religion. The Catholic Church has ordered its priests to disobey Christ’s Great Commission by prohibiting baptisms. We have shut down every business that isn’t part of a global enterprise. Small oil companies that were the engine of low energy prices are going under and will likely not come back. A Christian in pre-Constantine Rome had more freedom.
Two and a half years later, Taleb remains the poster child for lockdowns, masks, obsessive hand washing, and, most of all, daily mRNA vaccines. He believes every utterance from the CDC, accepting that a gunshot victim whose autopsy revealed the presence of Coronavirus should be counted as a Covid death. Taleb applies his mathematical genius to false numbers to “prove” his “run-for-your-lives” advice in 1Q20 is just as applicable today.
Perhaps Taleb feels a need to continue defending a paper he published in January of 2020 that predicted Coronavirus could wipe out all of humanity.
As covered in The New Yorker (emphasis added):
“These are ruin problems,” the paper states, exposure to which “leads to a certain eventual extinction.” The authors call for “drastically pruning contact networks,” and other measures that we now associate with sheltering in place and social distancing. “Decision-makers must act swiftly,” the authors conclude, “and avoid the fallacy that to have an appropriate respect for uncertainty in the face of possible irreversible catastrophe amounts to ‘paranoia.’ ” (“Had we used masks then”—in late January—“we could have saved ourselves the stimulus,” Taleb told me.)
All wrong as proven by the intervening science which Taleb now refuses to even evaluate. He dismisses any science that challenges his initial reaction to the outbreak—a reaction formed with almost zero knowledge of the virus’s mortality rate. Masks didn’t work. Distancing didn’t work. Lockdowns didn’t work. And human extinction is more likely to result from the clot-shot than from the virus itself.
In other words, Nassim Taleb has become the “intellectual yet idiot” his books warned us about. Taleb has become an “interventionista” and has turned a blind eye to the medical industry’s leading product, iatrogenic medicine—disease caused by doctors.
In Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Taleb wrote (bold added):
Recall that the interventionista focuses on positive action—doing. Just like positive definitions, we saw that acts of commission are respected and glorified by our primitive minds and lead to, say, naive government interventions that end in disaster, followed by generalized complaints about naive government interventions, as these, it is now accepted, end in disaster, followed by more naive government interventions. Acts of omission, not doing something, are not considered acts and do not appear to be part of one’s mission.1
The only things that gained from disorder caused by panic by men like Taleb were authoritarianism, interventionism, and pharma executive compensation.
In the same book, Taleb expresses his robust cynicism with medicine in general:
If you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor. I don’t mean provide him with a bad doctor: just pay for him to choose his own. Any doctor will do.2
What happened to that healthy, intellectual cynicism? Why is Taleb now the cheerleader of constant medical intervention? Does the mRNA technology not introduce at least as much uncertainty into the matrix as Coronavirus did? Or has Taleb received a fat check from Pfizer? Is it so hard for Taleb to admit his paper was wrong? Or that events and statistics proved that his worse fears were wrong?
Again, I agreed with Taleb in February and March of 2020. Caution in the face of uncertainty (when we knew next to nothing about Coronavirus) was wise.
While I miss the old, cynical Taleb, I still treasure the lessons he taught me even if he has forgotten them. Lessons like:
Harvard professors who author papers on how birds fly believe birds can fly because a Harvard professor says they can.
Experts are dangerous.
You can learn a practice only from a practitioner.
Subtraction is greater than addition.
When facing a problem, remove the bad before adding the good. (Remove yourself from a burning building before adding water.)
So much wisdom. So much clear thinking. Yet, somehow, now part of the problem I described at the of that April 2020 post:
We don’t know how this moment in history will play out. And, before we get too carried away, remember that in 1918 Americans had it far worse. Woodrow Wilson banned newspapers from printing stories about the Spanish Flu, which is why it was called the Forgotten Epidemic for decades. At the same time, cities imposed shutdowns and curfews similar to those we see today. And America emerged from that epidemic into the Roaring Twenties under silent Cal Coolidge, one of the best presidents in history.
When this is all over, America could emerge into a golden age of liberty and prosperity like no one’s ever seen before.
Or, we could emerge into a cold dictatorship of experts where human bonding is banned.
Either way, we will be left our ultimate freedom: the freedom to to become slaves to Christ.
So, I think Nassim Taleb for imparted wisdom, and I highly recommend his books, especially Antifragile and Skin in the Game. But I take his future recommendations with large grain of salt because Taleb’s post-Covid ramblings promote that dictatorship of experts.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile (Incerto) (pp. 395-396). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Ibid. (pp. 172-173).