Taleb on Taleb and Caplan on education

Here is the tweet thread.  Self-recommending.


So in Taleb's dichotomy, is economics more like plumbing or poetry?

There are economists who work for companies. Likely they are micro economists who have knowledge of specific markets and help develop strategies, come up with predictions, etc. The BC Credit Union used to have an interesting quarterly newsletter written by their chief economist who went through what the economy in the province did in the last quarter.

In that instance, more like plumbing. We never hear from them unless we pay them or are part of an organization that pays them.

Though focussed mainly on the U.S., and broadly on housing, http://www.calculatedriskblog.com is a fantastic example of how good a (retired) economist can be when it comes to having a clear view of what is happening in an economy, with a strong reliance on data.

Of course, he has nothing to do with academia, and is retired - 'A full time blogger, Mr. McBride retired as a senior executive from a small public company in the '90s. Mr. McBride holds an MBA from the University of California, Irvine, and has a background in management, finance and economics.'

And here is a review, so to speak - '“If you only follow one economics blog, it has to be Calculated Risk, run by Bill McBride. The site provides concise and very accessible summaries of all the key economic data and developments. One of the reasons McBride is able to do this so well is that he has an almost uncanny knack of recognizing which facts really matter. He began the blog in 2005 because he saw a disaster brewing in the form of the housing bubble, and tried his best to warn the rest of us of what was coming. I've followed him closely ever since, and I don't know if he's ever been wrong. My advice is, if you've come up with a different conclusion from McBride on how economic developments are going to unfold, you'd be wise to think it over again!”
Professor James Hamilton, Economics, University of California, San Diego' http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/p/about-calculated-risk.html

Admittedly, he lacks the entertainment factor that is so abundantly available here.

Yes. As an executive of a company whose survival depends on your ability, Taleb would say that he had skin in the game. And likely able to discern where he would have no ability to predict and act accordingly.

He started his blog a decade after retiring. He truly has no skin in the game, either as someone working for a company, or someone with an ideology to support.

He just enjoys doing what he does, beholden to nothing but accuracy, it seems.

Talk about outrageous status signalling in action.

I'm aware; my comment was slightly tongue in cheek. Nonetheless, economics as a discipline is not entirely free of poets, from what I can tell.

Wasn't it Keynes who said that he hoped that economists would eventually become rather like dentists? Galbraith compared them to astrologers, not entirely favourably.

As far as I know, Taleb is not a student, nor parent, nor employer. No skin in the game. By his own rules, he is being a blow-hard by commenting on this subject at all.

But think of the status signalling involved.

Yeah, OK, that sound hilarious when written down. And yet, that is the only game that matters in the end, right?

Taleb has kids

Any references for that claim?

He has a wife and two children and homes in NY and Lebanon.


Taleb is inventing the wheel again.

Since he's a visionary, I'm afraid he's not familiar with centuries old institutions such as: CalTech, Georgia Tech, Colorado School of Mines. On the other side of the Atlantic: Mines ParisTech, ETHZ, KIT.

KIT is not centuries old, and has yet to celebrate 10 years of existence .

Well, OK, actually it is almost 2 centuries old. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karlsruhe_Institute_of_Technology

But the fusion with the Forschungszentrum is not that old, and it only became a true university in 1967.

Besides, as we all know, education is a waste of time and all about signalling anyways, so KIT is just wasting time and resources when educating people in the areas like mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, architecture, civil engineering, geology, ecological sciences, mechanical engineering, chemical and process engineering, electrical engineering and information technology, and computer science.

If my fridge is full of food is because modern fertilizers were developed by Karlsruhe professors and assistants.

But, show also some love to the top 1 mining school in the world ;)

Well, I just received the latest LooKIT a couple of days ago.

And KIT actually tends to emphasize its connection to that Carl Benz guy more that other Carl or Fritz. (Though Carl Benz became a bit more Germanic in his spelling, much like the city he came from, originally spelled as Carlsruhe - French style spelling falling out of favor as the Reich consolidated its possessions after the Franco-Prussian War).

The convention, dull though it be, is to use "centuries old" of institutions that were founded more than two centuries ago. Even 201 years would qualify. Whereas:

Yes this thesis is not at all new - C P Snow raised this issue back in 1959. Doesn't mean that Taleb isn't correct though.


Mines ParisTech is indeed almost 250 year old, but not under this ugly modern name. Its real name is "École des mines de Paris".

There are many old and relatively prestigious old "grandes écoles" which are completely oriented toward "the doing" and offer not a glimpse of liberal education: "École des ponts et chaussés" ("school of bridges and pavements(?)"), "École centrale" (whose most famous alumnus is Gustave Eiffel), the more recent "École des télécommunications", and not to forget the most famous, the "École Polytechnique" (certainly technology-oriented but with a few "liberal-arts" style courses offered, for prestige).
They are completely separated from the university system (and considered much better). So you are right, Taleb is reinventing the wheel.

Speaking of ugly-named French universities, I can never get past "Sciences Po".

If that's how the French normally shorten the phrase "political science" (just as Americans call it "poli sci") then it's partly excusable.

But if they invented the phrase just to use as a nickname for the university, then fie on them.

Here is the answer to your query: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sciences_Po

As a Frenchie, i can indeed confirm that if you want to study physics and engineering, "grandes ecoles" are the prestigious and recommended path to follow.
From my personal and obviously biased experienced ( i followed the classic classe preparatoires https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classe_pr%C3%A9paratoire_aux_grandes_%C3%A9coles then Grande Ecole (not one of the prestigious ones quoted above though), i can confirm that among my peers, unless you wanted become a doctor, getting in an Engineering Grande Ecole was the most competitive and prestigious path.
That path to the Engineering degree is also often free, for the best schools, but the competition is high.

I understand how parts of math fit well into the mostly useless category, but a lot of startups today are built on math: Good luck with machine learning without at least a lot of linear algebra and statistics.

But today Taleb is a poet anyway, as his output is self aggrandizing, repetitive writing.

I have a good friend who is a physicist who taught meteorology for many years. All the complex mathematics he taught and used was for the purpose of trying to figure out what the weather will be in a few days. Lots of interesting developments in flow dynamics and chaos theory helped to develop predictive systems that are profoundly useful.

One example he describes is that firefighters were from time to time caught in a very dangerous situation where the wind would change to a downflow, blowing the flames down the mountainside. Someone came up with a model that predicted the conditions where that would happen, and it is in the fire fighter meteorologist toolbox helping keep people alive.

The hard realities of measurement has kept this field of science and inquiry honest.

How much of academia faces the same hard feedback mechanisms? There are substantial parts which don't, but they hold sway in policy implementation.

Yes - only where you have a subject where claims can be checked against reality do you avoid the rhetoric problem. Otherwise the leading experts are highly likely to be the most competent advocates rather than the deepest thinkers.

Yes. These fields make it easy; the measurements and feedback are quick. There are fields where it isn't so clear cut.

It is inexcusable that there is a replication crisis in medicine, and some fields can be written off as useless blather almost completely due to lack of due diligence. I understand that this stuff can be very hard and very subtle sometimes, but the researchers know that better than I do, and the so called reviewers do as well.

And public policy is made based on this garbage.

Compare that to what I have been dealing with this week. There was a multiple fatality incident in an ammonia plant nearby last year. The local WCB is going through the province talking to everyone who deals with this stuff. I do some work on it, mostly because I'm local. Essentially I have to come up with valid procedures for every imaginable scenario, and if there is a problem that arises, I could be criminally liable for the results.

Serious stuff, with serious consequences. This is my world. I have my own skin in the game.

Then I read about the unreviewed and un replicated nonsense that is pushed into public policy, advocated by ridiculous human specimens. I find Taleb's language and disdain fully justified.

Well, the fact that these institutions exist doesn't mean they are not caught in the problem he is describing. I remember that I created quite a ruckus at Virginia Tech when I mentioned to a professor that I was there to qualify for a better job...

he idea that liberal education makes free thinkers is about the greatest myth: empirically, liberal education creates the exact opposite of "thinkers" and "free": indoctrinated and slaves.

OK OK Taleb, we get that you are not a Straussian.

Taleb's smear of educators wasn't necessary but his point about the benefits of a dual education system is well-taken. I've made the same point (not recently) in my way: Goodbye, Columbus! I might point out that some colleges and universities have attempted to broaden their curriculum by adding technical training (while calling it STEM). Chicago has a long history of excellence in STEM as well as "philosophy". Unfortunately, many of those in "philosophy" (which includes economics) have shifted their emphasis from philosophy to STEM, presumably for reasons of insecurity (STEM seems so much more precise). Ironically, the very best work of the "economists" favored by Cowen is "philosophy". My advice: leave STEM to the trades and philosophy to the philosophers. Otherwise, the day may come when there are no philosophers.

You're wrong about UChicago. There are no business majors, and they just added their first engineering major (molecular engineering). Every undergraduate gets a liberal arts education, with a healthy dose of the Common Core.

I ended up in a technical field which has almost nothing to do with my undergraduate education. I could have gone to Illinois for free and majored in my chosen field. Most people in my profession followed such a route.

There is something about my liberal arts education that gives me an edge over my more purely technical colleagues, thought it's hard to put my finger on. More of a 360 view or something.

There is a lot of garbage that passes for liberal education nowadays, but the real thing is still worthwhile IMO. Taleb seems content to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I agree with everything you write. I should have been more precise when describing Chicago's STEM curriculum (science and math). My godson is finishing his second year. He had ideas of being a math major, but tells me that the students who do major in math are on a level that he is not familiar with (and he is a math wiz!). Critical thinking is what Chicago is all about, which is why you and other graduates have an advantage over others. I believe taleb's point about a dual education system is actually an acknowledgement that not all students are created equal, some with the ability to be critical thinkers and some not.

...seems just a brief, pointless discussion by members of the chattering class

mountains of words & text exist on education and educational philosophy --- 99% are totally worthless (like this one0

"Otherwise, the day may come when there are no philosophers."

Wait, and that's a bad thing?

The central problem with 21st century study of philosophy or other "liberal" topics, is that it is no longer any common language or common understanding among scholars - let alone between scholars and average people.

Since there is no accepted corpus of knowledge regarding what Plato means, or even an accepted language for debating what he means, a scholar of Plato is required to participate in a particular academic clique (Classicist, postmodernist, Straussian, whatever).

The result is that "scholarship" means writing or lecturing for an audience of a few hundred people, of whom most will be indifferent or hostile to whatever a particular scholar has to say.

Whereas in STEM, or in practical psychology (Jordan Peterson again) it is possible to actually communicate with people and do things that make a difference to people.

"BS in a citation ring" is gold.

Taleb writes, "The educational model is now imploding." If this is implosion, I suspect most industries would be very happy to implode: colleges keep acquiring more students for longer periods of time.

It's a Bubble. If we ended the government guarantees and central bank/GSE purchases many colleges would disappear and the remaining ones would de-scale.

Is it a bubble?

We have yet to answer the question - as we move to a post-Ag, post-industrial society - of what we are going to do with all these people.

Keeping them busy in academia and academic/bureaucratic make-work is one answer.

I' m angry with Taleb for his friendship Cernovich. Pal-ing around with a dude who debates "the Jewish question?" Not ok. And that's a shame because Taleb is always thought-provoking and challenging, even when he's wrong.

So why Tyler linked to him I thought, "Maybe I should give the guy another chance?" And discovered he blocked me on Twitter.


What is the "the Jewish question"?

It's something Marx dabbled in. So the commenter above is upset that Taken is pal-ing around online with someone asking questions Marx asked.

I am also somewhat weird-ed out by the alt right ideas about Jews. The alt right has certain communist ideas along the lines that their economic future would be safe if they could redistribute the wealth of Soros and other rich hypocritical meddlers.

But they do have a point about the control of the narrative:

I am genuinely curious about what is the (false and outrageous) claims made in the protocols of zion:


Given that we are enlightened, is a brief synopsis too dangerous information? Reading the long and boring wikipedia article leaves me with exactly zero information about what was claimed about Jews. I consider this omission a form of history falsification.

This was very good. I think we have to add dry fly trout fishing to the list of civilizing pursuits.

The government-university complex is of course aware that people come for technical education, and while they have hold of students, "general education" should be applied.

My thought, immediately after graduating with a scientific degree of the more technical type, was that graduates in the workforce have a lot of new time for reading. Better to graduate fast, make money, and read those great books in the Jacuzzi.

I was young. I soon found better uses for the Jacuzzi.

Taleb is always excellent. His willingness to take on the establishment, in any field, and to speak his mind clearly is a very welcome change over other “commenters”.

What world do these guys live in where liberal arts is a major issue in American education?

Very few students get liberal arts degrees. Most students get business, health, education, engineering and psychology degrees. The problem is that business, education, and psychology are crappy non-rigorous degrees which don't teach students much of anything, not the small fraction of students who are getting liberal arts degrees.

Way too much elite discourse is just replicating campus politics from posh liberal arts schools on the national stage while being blind to the fact that those schools are not at all representative of higher education in general.

This is absolutely correct. Being an academic myself, I've also wondered what all this fuss is about regarding major in "underwater basket weaving" or whatever conservatives think everyone is studying. Whatever one thinks of women's studies and such, not that many students study it except at the high levels of american education full of rich people. Moreover, the useless majors do not consume many of the university's resources; they do not have many professors or research staff, use up space or require much equipment. They tend to use their grad students as lecturers pretty intensively, too.

I think these majors are superfluous and ought to be pared down, but I'm not kidding myself it would make a big difference. I am not even sure they water down the value of a degree from a given university that much: employers look at your resume and see some such major; they are smart enough to distinguish.

The whole liberal arts thing pales in comparison with the various business rackets that universities are currently running. I ride the subway and see posters for online MBA's from low-ranked schools...featuring some proud latina lady leading a meeting next to a handsome black guy in warby parker glasses. They are duping working class people who don't know anything about MBA's and grad credentials into massively indebting themselves, to keep the bloated administration humming along. I suspect something is similar with the profusion of health degrees: a "masters in elder care" or what have you. I look at those ads and ask, "so are they going to be nurses? does anyone care about your master's in elder care relative to if you just worked for free for a year taking care of people?"

I think for many of these practical jobs, what the government ought to do is just pay poor people's salaries for a year or two. There would be abuse of that system, but at least not total destruction of people's finances and some would at least get real experience.

Excellent comment.

The problem I have is that regulatory, compliance, and general bureaucratic classes pulls disproportionately from these fields. It would be one thing if people studying such things stayed quietly in the corner and left me alone, however the current setup gives preference to wealthy highly educated people. Those who cannot do something of direct value very often end up as paper pushers (e.g. Title IX compliance). There they often try to enforce on the rest of us their ideas about what is "just" and what is "necessary". In the long haul shuffling off the women's studies and other majors to such positions results in creeping impositions of the women's studies assumptions and values in the rest of society.

Worse, having trained students to see structural oppression and a need for intervention we end up with ever growing armies of functionaries who suck down resources to satisfy some silly theory of "justice" that never seems to actually get better (i.e. require fewer resources).

If you want conservatives not to care about subsidizing useless upper class degrees, then you need those degrees not be tickets that give the graduates petty power.

When after many years' absence we briefly stepped back onto the campus of State U, I found, rather to my sadness, that large schools billed it as a feature that your son would spend nearly all his time in the building associated with his major, having "tested out" via AP, of most everything old people associate with college. No putzing around with Shakespeare, botany, astronomy, philosophy, or the randomly-chosen foreign language. I recall a student tour guide at Texas A&M's then-new office park-resembling business school proudly reciting her sophomore class roster of all business courses. Thus, history had been forfeited in favor of a class in stock-picking "with real money!"

The cool exception to the narrowness at such places was the universally-obligatory semester or summer session abroad, though even there I think the dreary concentration was invoked.

I had cause to look at some BA Business course design. I don't know about rigor, but the coverage looked pretty good.

We have one kid who leans that way. I hope it will have enough accounting that he'll understand when he's making money and when he's not.

Business degrees get short shrift from snobs around here, but, given the cost of college today, I would strongly recommend such a strategy for smart people who don't have large bags of money lying around, particularly for kids who aren't "intellectually inclined" which, I think, is most kids.

Nothing wrong with having useful skills.

I'm not against business education as a concept. I just think that the programs that actually exist produce way too many graduates who haven't actually learned much of anything either about the technical aspects of business or the practical interpersonal skills.

I fully support having useful skills and most students are selecting degree programs that nominally should give them useful skills. If most college graduates don't have useful skills it's not because a few percent of them are selecting impractical majors. It's that the majority of students which already are selecting practical majors apparently aren't learning skills from them.

What do you base this on? We hire 4-5 college graduates a year and yes, in certain respects, they know nothing about business. I don't think this can be helped; large parts of any job will be learned on the job.

But these kids do have lots of skills too. I would say that some exposure to accounting, marketing, and finance provide an excellent base for almost any kind of job in business.

In my experience, business majors are way more difficult than, say, education or psychology, which you chose to group it with. Most kids don't have the test scores to even make it into business majors.

Regardless of what is learned, these kids almost all can step into jobs after graduation making $50K ($70K for accounting majors), which ties into my comment about the cost of college and the need to be ruthlessly practical in a way you didn't have to 40 years ago.

I though of the business degree as a kind of sorting process.

It shows what type of technical stuff kids are capable of learning/memorizing. The ones with a mind for accounting/finance go one way, those with marketing/communications go the other.

This sends them into careers pre-sorted, where they then receive their actual necessary technical education.

And what's more, that sophomore accounting class, the "weed out" class, is not so much a test of who will be a good accountant, it is a test of who has the ability and willingness to sit down and sort through the arcane mundane details without losing their minds.

The main gateway skill for accounting and finance (analysis) is a belief that details matter plus a willingness to track them down with discipline.

Actually the gateway "skill" for finance is skepticism; most people who are employed in finance are on the investment side, where the job is to decide whether a particular investment being considered is a good idea when set against all the other, competing opportunities. That's an art, not a science, although understanding the numbers is a minimum necessary requirement. Historians tend to make the best finance professionals.

'In my experience, business majors are way more difficult than, say, education or psychology, which you chose to group it with. Most kids don't have the test scores to even make it into business majors."

Interesting considering the average estimated I.Q.s in majors:

Business 114
Psychology 113
Business Admin. & Mgmt 111
Accounting 110
Education 110

(Banking and Finance 125)

lol @ Education = Accounting

Thems the stats:


The "skin in the game" concept applies very much to academic research also. The problem with the recently much criticized social psychology results (priming, etc.) for example is not fundamentally one of statistical methodology. The larger issue is that the results don't really matter that much.

Is Tyler recommending these tweets because Taleb summarized the conversation of Tyler and Bryan in 9 points so well that no one should listen to that conversation?

"Distilling the conversation with @bryan_caplan hosted by @tylercowen "

Or because Taleb revealed the flaws in the argument made in the conversation?

Or, contrary to what he says, the 9 points are Taleb's, not Caplan's?

Twitter sucks at conveying coherent ideas, arguments.

If this is the Conversation I am remembering, it went pretty whole hog that all education is signalling, really that anything Bryan doesn't have a natural interest in is signalling.

Signalling is real, because status is an innate desire, but it's not like it is the only desire we have, nor is pure signalling always the winning strategy.

It is part of the human mindset that skills give us status. This probably goes back to neanderthals in boats. We continue today with (as may apply) how to apply makeup and how to weld steel.

It may be a short-cut to claim status without actual skills, but I'm sure we all know people who were found out.

Tyler likes to promote Caplan, and other members of the GMU "We are all the greatest geniuses ever" club.

It's vaguely reminiscent of the smart kids cliques in high school. Maybe more than vaguely.

The attraction many feel for twitter is really pretty funny - its a faster telegraph, with broadcast capability.

This is great for announcing "the company picnic is cancelled", not so much for communicating content with any complexity.

Its funny to hear Taleb criticize academics who know nothing about what they speak (rightfully so) but then proceeds to commit the same mistake. Separate institutions already exist. Universities don't teach carpentry/HVAC/plumbing/machining etc. Trade schools don't teach quantum mechanics or French poetry.


The educational model is now imploding as the only thing people seem to learn at colleges is ideology by losers who became professors because they aren't good enough to create things & got together to BS in a citation ring

This is nonsense, as is most of the rest, but I wonder whether Taleb includes Caplan among the losers he refers to.


mathematics as taught for "liberal" education, was theoretical mind exercise. Euclid's theorem was never used in building.

Meanwhile builders (parts of guilds with trade secrets) were using their own heuristic, richer, geometry.

Silly. First of all, Euclid's theorem relates to prime numbers and has nothing to do with Euclidean geometry.

Second, while it is true that early builders discovered some basic geometric principles on an ad hoc basis, that hardly means it was a "richer" geometry. Knowing you could make a right angle by putting lengths of 3,4 and 5 into a triangle is not some magical secret that early mathematicians didn't know.

Finally, what exactly is wrong with "mind games," i.e. logical thinking exercises.

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