How we face randomness and make matters worse

Author says some situations do better without intervention

New York TimesDecember 29, 2012 

  • Nonfiction Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder Nassim Nicholas Taleb Random House, 519 pages.

A reader could easily run out of adjectives to describe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.” The first ones that come to mind are: maddening, bold, repetitious, judgmental, intemperate, erudite, reductive, shrewd, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, provocative, pompous, penetrating, perspicacious and pretentious.

“Antifragile” is a follow to Taleb’s 2007 best-seller “The Black Swan” and his earlier “Fooled by Randomness.” He has argued that “Black Swans” – improbable and highly consequential events like World War I or the rise of the Internet – are not predictable. “Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization and the beastly thing called ‘efficiency’ that makes people now sail too close to the wind,” he writes. So how to deal with the dangers posed by this proliferation of uncertainty and volatility?

Taleb contends that we must learn how to make our public and private lives (our political systems, social policies, finances, etc.) “antifragile” – poised to benefit or take advantage of stress, errors and change, the way, say, the mythological Hydra generated two new heads each time one was cut off.

In Taleb’s view, “We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything” by “suppressing randomness and volatility,” much the way that “systematically preventing forest fires from taking place ‘to be safe’ makes the big one much worse.” He says top-down efforts to eliminate volatility (whether in the form of “neurotically overprotective parents” or former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s trying to smooth out economic fluctuations by injecting cheap money into the system) end up making things more fragile, not less. Overtreatment of illness or physical problems, he suggests, can lead to medical error, much the way that U.S. support of dictatorial regimes “for the sake of stability” abroad can lead to “chaos after a revolution.”

“Antifragile” is wildly ambitious and multidisciplinary, addressing issues in politics, economics, social policy, philosophy and medicine, but it also jumps from subject to subject, while continually looping back on itself. The book could have benefited enormously from some judicious editing.

At his best, Taleb serves up provocative theories that encourage us to look at the world anew. But his bullying grandiosity and self-dramatizing asides are off-putting. Taleb undermines his more persuasive ideas by scattering them about in a book that is also filled with gross generalizations and rash assertions, all indiscriminately lobbed at the reader.

From time to time there are some fairly specific illustrations of antifragile strategies: for instance, employing what he calls the barbell technique to make investments by putting, say, 90 percent of one’s funds “in boring cash,” and 10 percent “in very risky, maximally risky, securities.” This avoidance of the middle ground would avoid the “risk of total ruin” in putting 100 percent in “the so-called ‘medium’ risk securities.”

For the most part, however, the author is way better at identifying examples of fragility than he is at laying out specific strategies to become more antifragile.

Taleb seems to revel in being contentious and controversial, perhaps betting that such notoriety will win him and his book some added buzz.

“Antifragile” is also riddled with contradictions. Taleb offers predictions though he keeps talking about the unreliability of predictions. He repeatedly attacks theorists and academics as the sorts of people who would presume to “lecture birds on how to fly.” And yet he’s an academic himself (whose main subject matter, his book jacket tells us, is “decision-making under opacity”), and the book he’s written is nothing if not one big, hyperextended, overarching theory about how to live in a random and uncertain world.

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