Tuesday, March 10, 2020

#2318: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, professor at several universities, statistician, and risk analyst, whose (serious) work has primarily focused on problems of randomness, probability, and uncertainty, some of which was described in his bestselling book The Black Swan. It is fascinating to observe how it is possible to be all these while also being a deranged conspiracy theorist exhibiting all the critical thinking skills of a commenter on an InfoWars article. Part of the explanation is of course that although Taleb is smart, he is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is – indeed, it would be impossible for anyone to be as smart as Taleb thinks he is – and his natural reaction to disagreement is to think that those who disagree with him are either vastly inferior in intelligence to himself or (and) paid shills. (Most of the people he disagrees with are apparently also “prostitute[s]”.) On the other hand, Taleb seems to have acquired something of a cult following of people who treat him as a guru. Jon Vos has an excellent summary of how Taleb’s social media activity and the guru dynamics work here. Taleb’s most characteristic social media behavior, by the way, is to block experts who object to his nonsense, delete their comment, and then misrepresent what they said.

It is worth pointing out that even when it comes to the respectable parts of Taleb’s work, questions might be raised about how much can really be counted as his own, original contributions – this exchange is illuminating in so many ways.

Taleb on GMO
Taleb's contributions to debates
over GMOs have become a meme,
which does reflect how these
debates usually go. Hat-tip: ?
Taleb is in particular notable for his anti-GMO conspiracy theories. Taleb knows very little about genetics or genetic modification, but seems utterly incapable of entertaining the thought that there might be things about genetics and genetic modification that he doesn’t know, and has accordingly great confidence in his own idiotic convictions. Indeed, he seems to be under the delusion that he is somehow doing science when voicing his confusions. As such, however, he also quickly ends up thinking that those who disagree with him are doing so for ulterior motives, and Taleb has claimed that paid shills have been invading his Facebook page as part of a concerted effort to intimidate GMO skeptics with scripted arguments invented by Monsanto. He has accordingly dismissed Kevin Folta, who is in fact a genuine expert on these issues and accordingly disagrees with Taleb’s embarrassing rantings, as a “lowly individual” and a “disgusting fellow” (that exchange is pretty telling). To quote Taleb himself on his critics: “A part man-part animal is vastly more horrifying than a full wild animal. Extremely eerie are monsters who look like humans with small differences. The uncanny resides in the resemblance, not the difference. So I finally figured out why I am gripped with so much revulsion at BS vendors dressed in the garb of high priest of scientists, intellectuals, or logicians, (say Pinker or Shermer or Harris or some scientist under Monsanto’s control), to the point of total maddening anger, and why I do not experience any disgust when I see a fortune teller, a market commentator, or some new age meditation guru such as Deepak Chopra.” When you notice that those who actually know anything about an issue disagree with you on that issue, this is not a reasonable response.

Indeed, Taleb has even published a guide on how to engage with those who disagree with him on GMO-related issues (good discussion of the guide here): “The error is to try to win a public argument against a propagandist. GMO shills will come up with canned responses largely provided by Monsanto, to drown the debate. Just expose shills, do not engage them. You will never convince a propagandist with a financial interest. Remember nobody won the war against the mafia by ‘convincing’ them that what they did was against moralityTypical arguments and programmed scripted responses: ‘we do science’, ‘we have evidence’, ‘you do not have evidence’, ‘naturalistic fallacy’, ‘you take risks to cross the street’, ‘a tomato is the same’, ‘we have been doing so since agriculture’, ‘you are against progress’, ‘we save lives with golden rice or silver apples’, ‘genetic fallacy’, ‘shill gambit’, ‘Monsanto funds did not influence my research’, etc. Do not, I say, do not engage them. We have debunked these arguments as fallacies and catalogued them in our PP paper. - Check the history of how tobacco companies spread disinformation. And note that people who take bribes have historically spun the same stories that ‘there is no connection’. Remember that the GMO shills are going against centuries of the refinement of rules identifying and governing conflicts of interest.” Or, as one commenter put it: “So, essentially the strategy is to rely on name-calling and avoid giving evidence for your argument at all costs. Just ‘expose’ people as ‘shills,’ but ‘do not engage.’ Because if you do, the ‘shills’ will defeat you with some kind of underhanded, dishonest trick such as pointing out that ‘you have no evidence.’ If your argument can be defeated by pointing out that you refuse to substantiate it as evidence, you’re simply wrong, and no amount of ad hominem will make up the difference.” A comment to which Taleb responded “Exactly. The method is to treat people like you as if they were nonthinking animals. What can you do about it?” Then he promoted a screenshot of the exchange with the comment: “Example of how to respond to a GMO Shill trying to harass you: Play with him. Make him feel deeply, insulted. Get him angry. Have fun.” 

Taleb himself has coauthored a paper on the precautionary principle and its supposed lethal application to genetically modified foods, in which the authors made several errors. including misunderstanding basic biology, and asserted for instance, without evidence, that genetically modified crops are more dangerous than conventional crops, and failed to consider the benefits of GM crops in preventing vitamin A deficiency, blindness and death – rather, they falsely compared GMOs to letting poor people play Russian roulette to get out of poverty. Despite detailed refutations by critics (a short one outlining some basic errors here) Taleb continued to assert that no “intelligent comment” had been made on the paper (remember that disagreeing with Taleb makes you automatically stupid), saying for instance of the refutation just linked to that it was “not very intelligent”, “full of flaws” and “even downright stupid”. He did not respond to any of the criticisms or point out any of the alleged flaws, of course.

Taleb has a general knack for cherrypicking and selectively use anecdotes to make sweeping and unsupported claims, and has made a number of false and misleading claims about medicine: “If you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor. […] This may be the only possible way to murder someone while staying squarely within the law,” claims Taleb, on his way to trying to argue the medical establishment is really uneducated when it comes to risk management, based on selective use of evidence and strawmanning. He relies for instance on the familiar but thoroughly misleading claim that “medical error still currently kills between three times (as accepted by doctors) and ten times as many people as car accidents in the United States” (failing for instance to note that the statistics primarily include cases where a severely sick or injured patient could have been saved (often: for a little bit longer), which is very different from hospitals, as opposed to cars, massively killing perfectly healthy people). Taleb, however, concludes “Did you ever wonder why heads of state and very rich people with access to all this medical care die just as easily as regular persons? Well, it looks like this is because of overmedication and excessive medical care.” It’s almost as if he didn’t understand how evidence and statistics work.

In 2015, Taleb defended homeopathy as harmless placebos that could be useful in diverting hypochondriacs from taking too many real pharmaceutical products – using homeopathy “can be rational”, said Taleb. Cory Doctorow criticized the (very silly) claim, pointing out that Taleb simply ignores the impressive amount of peer-reviewed, published evidence about the real harms of homeopathy – both people with real medical problems who substitute placebos for effective therapies, and those who waste their own or public money on inefficacious remedies for difficult-to-diagnose or imaginary ailments (and often still also overmedicate with real medicines) – such as a 2015 paper that showed that homeopathic treatments “led to more productivity loss, higher outpatient care costs and larger overall cost.” Taleb responded by calling Doctorow “very stupid” and “dishonest”.

Diagnosis: You sometimes suspect, rather strongly, that he’s mostly just thriving on the buzz and enjoying being “edgy” and deliberately juvenile. But his GMO nonsense is pure denialist conspiracy theory, and even selecting the juvenile strategy in this area strongly suggests that he doesn’t really understand how critical thinking works (though I suppose we need to keep the possibility open that he is motivated just by gleeful intellectual destructiveness, like Steve Fuller). But no matter how you interpret him, he’s made sure that – despite the Black Swan book – his contribution to civilization will be a negative one. 

Hat-tip: Rationalwiki


  1. It was not much of a surprise to me to discover that Taleb is a Trump supporter. So much of their debate style is identical.

  2. Having spent the last 12 years of my worklife as a caregiver to adults with intellectual disabilities, I find it highly offensive when someone uses "retard" as an insult. This Taleb guy needs to grow the fuck up.