Gendou's Reviews > The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

did not like it
bookshelves: humor, fiction

This book profoundly nasty and intellectually demented. Taleb a classic science denier; oscillating between anti-science and pseudo-intellectual arguments. When some scientist says something he likes, he misrepresents it to fit his narrative. When the scientific consensus is against him, he cries grand conspiracy theory or slanders the methods of science. His argumentation in this book is like a case study in logical fallacies and crank red flags.

Special pleading.

Ignoring disconfirming evidence like the exceptions to the professed rule.

* "Certain professionals ... don't know more about their subject matter than the general population." Except when they do.
* "Our minds do not seem made to think and introspect." Except when they do.
* "Few reward acts of prevention." Except when they do.
* "No technologies of note came from design and planning." Except when they do.
* "The bell curve ignores large deviations, it cannot handle them." Except when used in statistics.
* "Stories are far more potent than ideas." Except when they're not.
* "Our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable." Except when it's not.
* "Reality is not Mediocristan [Gaussian]." Except when it is.
* "We tend to forget what we know." Except when we don't.
* "There is no such animal as corroborative evidence." Except that there is.

Straw man.

To see this logical fallacy in action, simply reply "Speak for yourself, asshole!" to each.

* "Platonicity is what makes us think we understand more than we actually do."
* "People in the classroom ... don't realize what's important, and what's not."
* "Academics in abstract disciplines depend on one another's opinion without external checks."
* "We lack imagination and repress it in others."
* "We spend out time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known and the repeated."
* "We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property, to be protected and defended."
* "People talk about correlation as if it were something real."
* "Scientists may be in the business of laughing at their predecessors."
* "My readers and I are laughing at the present state of social knowledge."
* "Hume ... puts to shame almost all current thinkers, and certainly the entire German graduate curriculum."
* "Statisticians, it has been shown, tend to leave their brains in the classroom and engage in the most trivial inferential errors once they are let out on the streets."

Grand conspiracy theory.

* "Scholars are judged mostly on how many times their work is referenced in other people's work... it's an I quote you, you quote me type of business." The first claim is only partially true. The reputation of an author is judged by their published work, but the products of science are ideas. These ideas are, in the scientific literature, judged primarily by their content. In science, a humble patent clerk can become the biggest name in theoretical physics by having the right idea. The accusation of tit-for-tat citation is ludicrous. Speak for yourself, Taleb!

* "Chapter 15: The Bell Curve, That Great Intellectual Fraud." He rails against misuse of the bell curve by those "who wear dark suits" without ever giving a single god damn specific example. He accuses whole fields of study, like economics, of being rife with mathematical theatrics. If that's true I'd love to read about it. But he offers no evidence for this, and is more guilty of this particular offense than any person I know.

* "In my mind mathematicians, trained for certainties, had no business dealing in randomness." By which he means non-Gaussian statistics. Which is an area of mathematics. Very much the mathematician's business!

Bullshit jargon

* "Twin tail" = bell curve.
* "Headwind" = uncertainty of outliers in a power law.
* "Scalables" AKA "Mandelbrotian" = scale free models.
* "Mediocristan" vs. "Extremistan" = Gaussian vs. power laws.
* "Silent evidence" = publication bias, etc.
* "Nerd knowledge" = things Taleb disagrees with.
* "Confirmation problem" = problem of induction.
25 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Black Swan.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

January 25, 2016 – Started Reading
January 25, 2016 – Shelved
February 9, 2016 – Finished Reading
March 6, 2016 – Shelved as: humor
March 6, 2016 – Shelved as: fiction

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Blair (new)

Blair I have not read the book, but I think your review is harsher than it should be. Some of what you quote sounds like nonsense, but there are some worthwhile ideas that you seem to dismiss. For example:

"Few reward acts of prevention."
"Stories are far more potent than ideas."
"We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property, to be protected and defended."

These things are more true than we may want to think. The purpose of scientific method is to overcome these cognitive biases. It seems to work in the long run, but in the short run scientists often behave irrationally to some extent.

"Statisticians, it has been shown, tend to leave their brains in the classroom and engage in the most trivial inferential errors once they are let out on the streets."

Unfortunately this ability to divide our lives into compartments seems to be common. It applies to all parts of science. I have known computer programmers who can't think very logically outside of work.

None of this is a valid reason to dismiss science, if that is what Taleb is doing. But we need to remember that scientific thinking is not natural, and we often regress.

message 2: by Aaron (new)

Aaron Spot on. Taleb is a kook. Have you seen his speeches at the City of Ideas conference on Youtube? Sam Harris and Chris Hitchens are sitting there smirking at his idiocy. Among his deepities: "Rationality has no rational definition." or "Complexity is vastly complicated." Such profound thinking!

Gendou Blair, my review is about a hundred times more generous than the book deserves. There is no way for me to overstate the wrongheadedness of this book. I haven't dismissed these meaningful arguments based on certain quotations. My point is, in this book you haven't read that I have read, Taleb utterly fails to make any such meaningful arguments. Instead he insults his peers and vomits forth sophisticated-sounding nonsense. He rivals Chopra as a generator of pseudo-profound bullshit.

message 4: by Blair (new)

Blair Your are probably right about Taleb. I am suggesting that your review made him look better than he is by selectively quoting him when he does say something somewhat reasonable. Maybe in context what he is saying is rubbish, but that was not evident from what you quoted.

message 5: by Blair (new)

Blair I just had a thought: Taleb is the Donald Trump of science. Motivated by his own ego, he makes war on everyone else, damaging the entire enterprise. Does he have nice hair?

Gendou Yes! Donald Trump of science! That's a great description of his behavior.

message 7: by Max (new) - rated it 3 stars

Max Bodewes You seem to have interpreted this books in a hugely wrong way, it's obviously written for application on financial/trading/economic themes.

Taleb is an options trader, not a scientist, and he's making very good points in this book although slightly less so than in Fooled By Randomness.

When he talks about ''certain'' professionals, he means financial/economic ones, not all professionals. And he's spot on here because there are hundred of (well-paid) stock market gurus with no predictive ability. You seem to approach this book from a purely mathematical/logical perspective but that is wrong. It should be approached from an economic/psychological/historical/philosophical perspective.

With people who wear dark suits, he means bankers (obviously). Just look at LTCM and lots of other hedge-funds that relied on oh-so smart mathematicians/economists and blew up all of a sudden.

Furthermore, it's an established fact among traders that, partly because of the black-scholes model, you are able to shave off risk premia from options because of implied volatility being higher than realized volatility. Stock indexes do not follow the lognormal distribution assumption of Black-Scholes. For example U.S. equities measured by the Russell 3000 or S&P 500 have a negative skew and excess kurtosis (above a normal or log-normal distribution). The empirical distribution of stock return has larger losses than a normal or log-normal model using ex-post mean and standard deviation would predict. In other words, the realized volatility understates the risk or potential for loss.

This is just an example of something Taleb is talking about in his book which you seem to have completely missed or have not managed to interpreted because you:

- Don't work in the financial sector
- Have never traded options yourself
- Have never researched market psychology
- Have not read the countless accounts of blown-up hedge funds/ib
- Have never delved deeper into the neurological make up of people and how it affects their trading/investment decisions

With people dealing in randomness he means people in the financial sector! He means mathematicians using the certainty based models on random (uncertain) markets. Your point here about ''Grand conspiracy theory'' is just a representation of your lack of interpretative ability.

This book is written for people dealing with financial markets, so if you don't know them/work with them then don't read this book and post bad reviews about it because you will not be able to understand it.

Gendou You accuse me of lacking domain knowledge needed to understand this book. Not only does that happen to be false, but it's a fallacious criticism of my reviews. You're the one who lacks domain knowledge. This is a pop science book. That's how it's marketed and for the most part it's pay people who are reading it.

They need to hear my review so they don't fall victim to Taleb's horrendous thinking. The man is deranged. Have you read his anti-GMO tirades?

message 9: by Max (last edited Sep 11, 2017 04:20PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Max Bodewes The guy became a bit of an idiot true, I throw up every time I look at his Twitter feed. His books though, are quite good if you ask me.

They made me put the world in a totally different perspective and I thank them for that.

Regarding the lack of domain knowledge, all you seem to have read is books about physics, science (fiction), philosophy and cosmology.

I'm sure you're a very smart guy and probably smarter than me but it don't see any books about trading in your library. This book is written for people that are working as a trader/banker/quant, and if you don't know about the craft this book will probably only piss you off.

message 10: by Gendou (last edited Sep 13, 2017 08:27AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Gendou How did you conclude this book is written for people that are working as a trader/banker/quant? This seems to be our major point of disagreement. Also, how can it be true that his books are "quite good" but that they "will probably only piss you off" if you don't know about the inner workings of finance? This sounds contradictory to me.

I notice also that you rejected but failed to specifically address any of my "grand conspiracy theory" criticisms.

1. The accusation of tit-for-tat citation is ludicrous. Even in the field of economics.
2. Dismissing all mathematicians as incapable is ludicrous. Even in the field of economics.
3. It may be true that economics is rife with misuse of the bell curve. But he offers no evidence for this. Without citing specific examples, he's only showing his own prejudice. That prejudice may be earned, but isn't helping the reader.

message 11: by Susan (new) - added it

Susan Hmm, after reading all these comments I think I'll just mark this one did-not-finish & move on. I started it a few months ago and found it didn't hold my interest and moved on to other books, thinking that someday I'd get back to it. Sounds like it's not worth my time.

Keith Swenson Hilarious review. In many ways I agree with you. He really is the Donald Trump of Quants. (I would not credit him with being a scientist.) HOWEVER, the core theme of the book is undeniable, and I have yet to find another author who predates him that highlights the same problem: we deny randomness and try to explain it away using simplistic, reductionist models. Every day the news reports the Dow Jones went up/done by XXX because of YYY when in reality there no proof that YYY actually had any causal relationship to XXX. You have to admit he is calling the newspaper bluff on that point. You seem to have read a lot more than I. Tell me: where else can we find someone who is talking about the dangers of thinking that everything is explained by simple relationships from other causes-- when in fact it is simply randomness?

message 13: by Gendou (last edited Apr 13, 2018 05:38PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Gendou I think what you're looking for, Keith, are books grounded in high quality critical thinking and scientific skepticism. Here is a short list of books that I think would constitute a good start:

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan
Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer
The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe by Steven Novella (pre-order it!)
Intuition Pumps by Daniel Dennett

Also check out the Skeptic's Guide podcast.

I agree that the wold badly lacks critical thinking and skepticism e.g. the hasty and overconfident attribution of causes when the Dow Jones fluctuates. Taleb isn't the first person to point this out. These philosophical arguments go back to antiquity. David Hume comes to mind.

I don't agree that the core theme of this book is that we "deny randomness". The core theme of the book (according to Wikipedia, the dust jacket, and the book's subtitle) is how we react to outliers. Taleb lacks the necessary critical thinking tools to describe which cognitive biases are in play and what we can do to avoid them. So instead he spits impotent vitriol on every page. This Trumpesque pseudo-skepticism is the book's core philosophical message and is of undeniably poor quality.

back to top