Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable [2007]

      Although this was a New York Times bestseller, our group didn’t much care for this book and gave it a group average of only 3.1 on a scale of 0 to 10.

      The central idea in the book is that there are from time to time major unexpected developments in every sphere of modern society, which though “explained afterwards” were really unpredictable. Taleb says that the ever-growing complexity of modern society is making these events all the more common and often all the more disastrous when they occur. These are the events he calls “Black Swans”.

      Kevin commented that the central idea in the book is an interesting one, but that Taleb was unable to get the point across in a good way. He also thought that Taleb took too many cheap shots at those he disagrees with (which is most everyone!) Kevin said that “after a while I didn’t like reading it anymore.” But he added that it is important to recognize that there are random events you can’t predict.

      Rosie said she hated this book, and gave it a flat-out zero rating. She hated the writing, and thought for example that the sentences were often too long. She compared Taleb’s book quite unfavorably to a book by Freeman Dyson on more or less the same theme which was much better done.

      Kirby said that the idea behind the book should be rated as a 10 (on our scale), but he only rated the book as it actually was written as a 4. He remarked that it could have benefited from a good editor. Kirby said Taleb was quite full of himself, and he wondered what Taleb has against the French in particular! Kirby said the book did have some good things in it such as the advice to live your life flexibly. He thought the investement advice was also pretty good: put 85% of your savings into very conservative, safe investments and then put the remaining 15% into the long shots you happen to believe in. But overall Kirby thought that Taleb was one of those guys who had only one big idea; for him everything is like a nail and he has only the one tool in his toolbox, a hammer.

      Scott recognizes that there are some correct views in the book, but regards many of the central themes as grossly exaggerated and/or quite erroneous. Scott took some philosophy of science courses nearly half a century ago which explored many of the issues connected with induction and the problems that often arise out of unduly generalizing from a string of similar situations (“there’s a white swan, there’s another, all the swans I’ve ever seen are white, therefore all swans must be white...”). So many of the themes of Taleb’s book seemed old, and dull, and even old fashioned topics which have pretty much been discussed to death. Since Taleb went on and on about a number of these issues it really seemed to Scott that he was mostly beating a few long dead horses. There really is very little that is fresh and new in Taleb’s book.

      But Scott says that the worst things in the Black Swan are not the tedious explorations of old ideas, but rather the absurd tendency to turn these limited insights into absolutes. A major theme of Taleb’s, for example, is that “We just can’t predict”. (This is the title of Part II of the book.) The truth is that many things can be and have been predicted. Taleb says that the computer was not predicted. Actually Charles Babbage not only predicted it, but almost succeeded in creating a mechanical one long before the days of electronic circuits. On page 138 Taleb actually says that there has been a failure to forecast “all important historical events”! Does he really mean to push things to such a ridiculous extreme? Apparently so! While so far as I know no one predicted World War I, the eventual coming of World War II was a near universal opinion of Marxist-Leninists in the period after the first World War. Way back around 1920 Lenin himself specifically predicted a major war between the U.S. and Japan was coming! What about the current major financial/economic crisis? Isn’t that a major historical event? That too was predicted by a number of Marxists, including Scott, even if few if any bourgeois economists saw it coming.

      In order to make predictions you need to have a scientific theory governing the phenomena at issue. Those who are ignorant of, or reject, the relevant theories will of course be unable to either make those predictions or even accept the validity of the predictions of others who do understand and make use of those theories. It is certainly true that humanity does not have scientific theories to cover all phenomena, and even most of the many scientific theories we do have only have restricted spheres of applicability. Thus it is in fact true that there are often unexpected developments in both the natural world and in human society. But this is hardly a newly discovered fact about the world! And the generalization of this obvious fact into an absolute principle that claims that nothing important can be predicted is totally absurd.

      Scott views Taleb’s stance as being typical of bourgeois thinkers and their tendency toward philosophical agnosticism (“nothing can be known for sure”, and “nothing can be predicted”), especially when it comes to economics and other facets of human society. Taleb and his book are profoundly anti-theoretic. Oddly enough, Taleb laments the common failure to engage in abstract thinking. But scientific theories which govern various sorts of social and natural phenomena are the very best examples of such abstract thinking, and by denying that such theories are possible (at least in the social world) Taleb is himself rejecting abstraction in its most profound form.

      Since Scott writes up these notes he always gets the biggest say about things! (Other book club members are always invited to submit expanded versions of their views, however.) But we’ll cut Scott off here, and turn to the rest of the group. Ron felt that Taleb didn’t make his points in an intelligible way. And on some things he was just plain wrong. For example it was not really a matter of luck that Sony Betamax lost out to the inferior VHS videotape format; apparently the freedom to adopt the VHS format by the pornography industry was a key factor! Ron also thought that Taleb was unreasonably critical of the great mathematician Gauss and the utility of the bell curve in many areas.

      John said that “this book basically sucked!” and added that it seemed to be a book by just a successful day-trader (of stocks) who had too much time on his hands. “I really didn’t like (the book) at all!” John did agree with a few of Taleb’s views, such as that “Bankers are idiots!” But he thought Taleb was arrogant, and that “the book really didn’t make it”. John concluded by saying that he “certainly wouldn’t recommend that anybody read it.”

      Rich had the most positive view toward the book by anyone in our group, though he also agreed with a lot of the criticisms of it. He said “It was a hard book to read, but for me it was worth it; it included some good things.”

      Barbara described the book as a work of philosophy, and not science. She viewed it as “sort of twisted” with “lots of opinions”. She thought it was an easy book to read, but also recognized that she had not been able to understand it all.

      Well there you have it folks! There are no doubt many other books out there which you will be better off spending time with!

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