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anti-platonism

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (born 1960) (نسيم نيقولا نجيب طالب) (alternative spellings of first name: Nessim or Nissim) is a literary essayist, epistemologist, scholar of randomness and knowledge, researcher, and former practitioner of mathematical finance. As a pioneer of complex financial derivatives, he had as a "day job" a lengthy senior trading and financial mathematics career in New York City's Wall Street firms, before he started a second career as a scholar in the epistemology of chance events to focus on his project of mapping how to live and act in a world we do not understand, and how to come to grips with randomness and the unknown —which includes his black swan theory of unexpected rare events.

Taleb's extremely idiosyncratic literary approach consists in providing a modern-day brand of philosophical tale by mixing narrative fiction, often semi-autobiographical, with erudition and scientific commentary.

Biography

Taleb originates from Amioun, Lebanon. His political Greek Orthodox Levantine family saw its prominence and wealth reduced by the Lebanese Civil War which began in 1975. He is the son of Dr. Najib Taleb, an oncologist and researcher in anthropology, and Minerva Ghosn. Both sides of his family were politically prominent in the Lebanese Greek Orthodox community: on his mother's side, his grandfather and his great-grandfather were both deputy prime ministers of Lebanon; on his father's side, his grandfather was a supreme court judge and, in 1861, his great-great-great-great grandfather was a governor of the Ottoman semi-autonomous province of Mount Lebanon.

Taleb holds an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. in management science from the University of Paris (Dauphine).

He is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University's Polytechnic Institute and Visiting Professor of Marketing (Cognitive Science) at London Business School. He was the Dean’s Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at the Courant Institute of New York University, and affiliated faculty member at the Wharton Business School Financial Institutions Center.

Empirica LLC, the firm formerly owned by Taleb, owns interests in hedge funds and operates a research laboratory, but the bulk of the business consists in providing portfolio protection strategies for hedge funds.Taleb is an advisor of Universa Investments, an investment firm specializing in asymmetric payouts, power-law distributions, and behavioral biases.

As a trader, Taleb has said he took a skeptical and anti-mathematical approach to risk and uncertainty and had a severe distrust of models and statisticians and a contempt for finance academics especially economists. He has held the positions of:

Taleb considers himself far less a businessman than an epistemologist of randomness who used trading to attain his independence and freedom from authority, as he writes in his book, Fooled by Randomness, which became a cult book on Wall Street after it was first published in 2001. It was translated into 23 languages.

Taleb, a polyglot, has a literary fluency in English, French, and classical Arabic, a conversational fluency in Italian and Spanish, and reads classical texts in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and ancient Hebrew, as well as the Canaanite script.

Research and theories of randomness

Taleb calls himself a "skeptical empiricist", and believes that scientists, economists, historians, policymakers, businessmen, and financiers are victims of an illusion of pattern; they overestimate the value of rational explanations of past data, and underestimate the prevalence of unexplainable randomness in that data. He follows a long lineage of skeptical philosophers, including Socrates, Sextus Empiricus, Al-Ghazali, Pierre Bayle, Montaigne, David Hume and Karl Popper in believing that we know much less than we think we do, and that the past should not be used naively to predict the future.

Taleb now focuses on being a researcher in the philosophy of randomness and the role of uncertainty in science and society , with particular emphasis on the philosophy of history and the role of fortunate or unfortunate high-impact random events, which he calls "black swans", in determining the course of history.

Taleb believes that most people ignore "black swans" because we are more comfortable seeing the world as something structured, ordinary, and comprehensible. Taleb calls this blindness the Platonic fallacy, and argues that it leads to three distortions:

  1. Narrative fallacy: creating a story post-hoc so that an event will seem to have an identifiable cause.
  2. Ludic fallacy: believing that the structured randomness found in games resembles the unstructured randomness found in life. Taleb faults random walk models and other inspirations of modern probability theory for this inadequacy.
  3. Statistical regress fallacy: believing that the probability of future events is predictable by examining occurrences of past events.

He also believes that people are subject to the triplet of opacity, through which history is distilled even as current events are incomprehensible. The triplet of opacity consists of

  1. an illusion of understanding of current events
  2. a retrospective distortion of historical events
  3. an overestimation of factual information, combined with an overvalue of the intellectual elite

Taleb, an anti-Platonist, believes that universities are better at public relations and claiming credit than generating knowledge. Knowledge and technology are generated by what he calls "stochastic tinkering", rarely by top-down directed research. paragraphs 32 & 33 & 54

Taleb stands against grand theories in social science. He supports experiments and fact collecting, but opposes the idea of directing our thinking into general Platonic theories that are not supported by hard data.

Consistent with his anti-Platonism, Taleb doesn't like to see his ideas called "theories". As he stands against general theories and top-down concepts, he never mentions theory in conjunction with the Black Swan. The phrase "Black Swan theory" is, to him, a contradiction in terms, and he urges his readers not to "Platonify" the Black Swan. Rather, Taleb would call his Black-Swan idea an "anti-theory" or the "Black Swan conjecture".

He opposes the academic aura around economic theories, which in his view suffer acutely from the problem of Platonicity. In an article titled "The pseudo-science hurting markets", Taleb called for the cancellation of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, saying that the damage from economic theories can be devastating.

Ludic fallacy

Taleb's exposition of the Ludic fallacy:
We love the tangible, the confirmation, the palpable, the real, the visible, the concrete, the known, the seen, the vivid, the visual, the social, the embedded, the emotional laden, the salient, the stereotypical, the moving, the theatrical, the romanced, the cosmetic, the official, the scholarly-sounding verbiage (b******t), the pompous Gaussian economist, the mathematicized crap, the pomp, the Academie Francaise, Harvard Business School, the Nobel Prize, dark business suits with white shirts and Ferragamo ties, the moving discourse, and the lurid. Most of all we favor the narrated.
Alas, we are not manufactured, in our current edition of the human race, to understand abstract matters — we need context. Randomness and uncertainty are abstractions. We respect what has happened, ignoring what could have happened. In other words, we are naturally shallow and superficial — and we do not know it. This is not a psychological problem; it comes from the main property of information. The dark side of the moon is harder to see; beaming light on it costs energy. In the same way, beaming light on the unseen is costly in both computational and mental effort.

Warning of the Global Banking Crisis

in 2006, in The Black Swan

Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crisis less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.

The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deem these events "unlikely".

Bibliography

Major literary writings

Representative scientific publications

Honors

In an article in The Times, Bryan Appleyard described Taleb as "now the hottest thinker in the world".

The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman proposed the inclusion of Taleb's name among the world top intellectuals, citing "Taleb has changed the way many people think about uncertainty, particularly in the financial markets. His book, The Black Swan , is an original and audacious analysis of the ways in which humans try to make sense of unexpected events."

Collaborations

  • Taleb is collaborating with Benoit Mandelbrot on a general theory of risk management.
  • Taleb also works with Daniel Goldstein on a project to test empirically people's intuitions about ecological and high impact uncertainty.

Quotations

  • "My major hobby is teasing people who take themselves and the quality of their knowledge too seriously and those who don’t have the guts to sometimes say: 'I don’t know...."

References

See also

External links

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