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5 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

Why author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the ideal public thinker for the age of Trump

The idea of Skin in the Game is straightforward. People who make decisions ought to be exposed to the consequences if they are wrong.

By Steven Poole

Twice in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book, he refers to Hillary Clinton as “Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison”, which doesn’t quite have the punch of “Crooked Hillary” but equals it in contempt. (Monsanto refers to Clinton’s agribusiness ties; the Château de Malmaison was the final residence of Napoléon’s first wife, the Empress Joséphine.) Like Trump, the author of The Black Swan and Antifragile is an ageing machismo obsessive who sees his critics exclusively as phoneys spouting fake news, and considers his own experience in business to outweigh the theories of “intellectuals”. It’s a word he likes to put in scare quotes, when he is not using the initialism IYI (“Intellectual Yet Idiot”). Yet it’s not clear that he can really avoid being evaluated, beyond all the self-admiring bluster, as an intellectual himself.

True, Taleb makes this as difficult as possible, by writing aggressively disorganised texts in which major concepts are explained several chapters after they are first used, and in which subsections of blogpost length hop narrative-scramblingly from one subject to another. This results in a certain repetitiousness, though it does mean that, from one page to the next, each of his volumes is never boring. Topics covered in the present enjoyable compendium, for instance, include ethics, finance, medieval monks, restaurants, the physical appearance of surgeons, ancient codes of law and ethics, gambling, and swearing on Twitter. 

The idea of Skin in the Game is straightforward. People who make decisions ought to be exposed to the consequences if they are wrong. “If you inflict risk on others,” Taleb writes, “and they are harmed, you need to pay some price for it.” If this is not the case, then bad things happen. This is true of bankers before the financial crisis, and of civilian leaders who start wars in which they have no prospect of being killed. On this latter subject Taleb fondly recalls Roman emperors who fought at the heads of their armies, and concludes: “Some think that freeing ourselves from having warriors at the top means civilisation and progress. It does not.” He leaves the provocation hanging without saying whether he actually thinks we should all be ruled by military juntas.

It follows that people who have no “skin in the game” should be ignored. And in Taleb’s world, there are plenty of worthless folk: academics, state department officials, psychologists, economists, liberal interventionists, “verbalistic people”, and so on. His snark is often amusingly gratuitous: “Consider that an evil person, say an economics professor, decides to poison the collective by putting some product into soda cans.” Or, on the Intellectual Yet Idiot: “The modern IYI has attended more than one Ted talk in person or watched more than two Ted talks on YouTube.”

The book’s best sections are about risk, which is Taleb’s central subject and area of expertise. Take the fact nut-free foods are now common, even though only a small part of the population is allergic to nuts: this is because the allergic simply won’t eat nuts, while the rest of us don’t much care one way or the other. Similarly, Taleb argues, an intransigent minority can end up dictating the moral direction of a whole society. This is an excellent example of how Taleb’s approach can lead to a counterintuitive but satisfying explanation of some real-world puzzle.

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Late in the book, meanwhile, there is a brilliant discussion of why confusing “ensemble probability” (risk spread out over a population) with “time probability” (risk for one individual over time) causes problems. If there is a small percentage risk to a group, then we assume each member partakes of the same small risk. But if an individual takes a small risk again and again, it will eventually blow up in his face. We’re not very good at understanding what statistics really mean, as exemplified by Taleb’s favourite saying: “Never cross a river if it is on average only four feet deep.”

Alongside such genuinely penetrating discussions, however, are many interludes in which Taleb comes over, simply, as a bit of a crank. He continues to rehash old fights here, including that against the psychologist Steven Pinker, whom he abuses liberally. (They clashed over the interpretation of statistics in Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.) Like Michael Gove, Taleb has had enough of experts, trotting out the tired canard that the reversal of dietary advice on fat just shows that scientists never know what they are talking about.

He admires “ordinary” people such as taxi drivers and plumbers, but despises employees (anyone with a permanent job is “an obedient, housebroken dog”). The highest mark of manly authenticity is whether someone, as Taleb does, lifts weights. “I have yet to see a bien pensant Cambridge don hanging out with Pakistani cab drivers or lifting weights with cockney speakers,” he writes. Lifting weights with cockney speakers! As glamorously real as that pastime no doubt is, it doesn’t seem to afford Taleb spiritual equanimity: he is still complaining here about a review of his previous book, written over five years ago by David Runciman.

Taleb’s own intellectual heroes are the ancient Sceptics, Karl Popper, and Nietzsche – the last being perhaps the genius who has inspired the greatest quantity of bad books that attempt to imitate his style. Taleb affects to despise mere book-learning: “The knowledge we get by tinkering, via trial and error, experience, and the workings of time, in other words, contact with the earth, is vastly superior to that obtained through reasoning.” But of course Nietzsche was a fantastically well-read reasoning machine, and more book-learning might have helped Taleb realise that many of his maverick notions are well-known old ideas. He suggests, for example, that we consider religious beliefs in terms of “what purpose they serve” rather than whether they are true, which is just what William James argued in the 19th century. Whole chapters of the book are effortful ways to sell proverbial wisdom as novel. “Beware the slightly erudite who thinks he is an erudite,” Taleb warns. Indeed.

One is forced to conclude, by the end of this book, that Taleb really is an intellectual – in the sense of a true expert in one narrow field who thinks his views on absolutely everything are interesting. Both his authentically insightful ideas and his reactionary squibs are glued together by an entertaining style, a libertarian contempt for political elites, and a general anti-intellectual sprezzatura, garnering him a wide following of acolytes who treat his books as the key to all mythologies. In that sense he is rather like a more numerate Jordan Peterson. He wouldn’t like anyone saying so, but then as a wealthy former trader with what he happily describes as “fuck-you money”, he doesn’t really have any skin in the game of book-writing, beyond the self-image he is so desperate to burnish. 

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink” (Random House)

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Allen Lane, 304pp, £20

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left