My Conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interesting throughout, so interesting I don’t feel the need to give you an excerpt, here is the audio and transcript.  There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context, as far as I am aware.  At the end of the conversation, just keep on scrolling, Taleb starts up with Bryan Caplan for an hour, mostly on education.  Here is the link for the Caplan segment only.


Should word "interesting" be read in a Straussian context?

Mood affiliation is the term of MR art here.

'Just to be clear, as always, this is the conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb I want to have, not the one that you want to have.'

Of course it is - I have zero interest in a conversation with Taleb at all.

But you have enough negative interest to tell the rest of us you have no interest...very interesting.

Bonus trivia: Taleb plays around with coding, as do I. He wrote in one of his books for example that he approximated the value for pi (Greek symbol: π ) via the Monte Carlo method, details here:

I do stuff like this all the time. This shows me the Great Man is in many ways like me. You could say I'm a mini-Taleb.

I would like to see a conversation between Ray and Tyler. Not joking.

'But you have enough negative interest to tell the rest of us you have no interest'

Actually, it was in contrast to the idea that Prof. Cowen feels even the slightest need to say his Conversations are the ones he wants to have - I would have thought that completely obvious, particularly in light of the fact that many of the Conversations that Prof. Cowen has are with people that many other people would have no interest in talking to at all, and providing a personal example.

Basically, I stopped reading the transcript when Taleb started talking about how no one in Lebanon could grasp how destructive war could be - when both the 1967 and 1973 wars that were fought around Lebanon (Golan Heights in particular) would seem to have offered pretty clear examples.

That's a weak reason to stop reading.

hearty chuckle at the 45lb weight in the picture!

Perhaps, if nearly all your comment writers, of all political stripes, would like you to challenge interviewees more — and I think they would — then you might actually consider it.

You may not want to have confrontational conversations but if you don’t challenge lazy arguments and false assertions (in a polite way) then we’ll never know if you guests can produce better arguments that would actually justify updating our priors.

I find it disappointing when weak statements slip through unchallenged, but I'm not sure the format allows anything more.

Its nearly impossible to develop a sound argument under time constraints. Doubly so in front of a crowd.

If the interview was taking place via correspondence I think there could be much more rigor, but if you spring an undue surprise in a live setting you are unlikely to get anything useful.

Possibly. And I'm certainly not advocating the sort of all-out confrontation that makes it impossible for guests to actually advance any points. That said, I feel like one of Tyler's guests could say "and since the world is actually flat..." and Tyler would just nod along for fear of giving offense.

Taleb has some interesting ideas and some ideas that seem, at least on their surface, crazy. I'd like to see them challenged enough that I could see if they merited further consideration. And, frankly, I think the same holds true for a lot of the folks Tyler has interviewed.

I think what Tyler would say would be this:
If he challenges an interviewee on something obviously wrong or a bit wishy-washy, it's unlikely they're going to provide a satisfying answer, and even less likely that NNT of all people is going to admit that a lot of what he says is BS.
The purpose of the conversations is not to maximise the rate of correct statements. It's to be interesting and thought-provoking, and hopefully you can learn something from it.
Indeed if a guest's propositions often go unchallenged they are more likely to say unguarded things that give some insight into the prism of their thought and its limitations.

is there a video?

no video, just podcast and transcript

What, no mime re-enactment?

Why is there is so much brazen mime-hatred at Marginal Revolution?

Finally, someone brave enough to stand up to the Big Hearing Lobby and ask the real questions around here!

First they came for the faux-Brazilians and then they came for the mines.

Mimes. Stupid autocorrect

Do you even lift, Nassim? (I only ask because you look rather fragile.)

I have listened to the first half, the Taleb-Cowen non-fight, and it was fine. Actually it was good, I don't want to group myself with the squalid commentary above. But, did it take risks? Where were they?

But perhaps this venue was good for showing Taleb in a more human setting, and not a Twitter fight.

Interesting that Taleb comes off as a moderating influence on Caplan in the second half.

'So they invented themselves some genetic story that they came from Yemen, they came from a tribe called the Banu Ghassan. The Christians invented themselves some kind of story, “Yeah, the Phoenicians were here, but the Arabs kicked them out, and we, the Christians, come from . . .” and it’s totally genetically bogus that the population had to move.'

There's a better known, and older, example of that sort of invented tosh in that part of the world.

As for who the Lebanese are genetically:

I think Taleb is putting too much emphasis on that study. Population relatedness is notoriously difficult to determine with any accuracy, even in more recent times (there's still disagreement over England's DNA ratio of Ango-Saxon, Romano-British, Norman, or Scandinavian descent for instance) --yet here he is stating facts from 3,500 years ago based on a study of a whole 5 ancient remains, only 2 of which had measurable Y-chromosome data.

"Ango-Saxon, Romano-British, Norman, or Scandinavian descent for instance": that's bound to be difficult because they were all pretty similar to start with.

The Celts, however ....

Apparently more cultural than genetic.

Right, but that's the problem I'm referring to. Geographically close demographic groups are rarely distinct homogeneous entities by DNA, they're a blend of each other from the start. It's 600 miles from Beirut to Iran, just like it's 600 miles from Copenhagen to London.

You can note large genetic diffusions over many thousands of years by looking at Y-Haplogroups, but rarely can you get any more accuracy than that other than vague correlations.

There's quite a difference between northern and southern Europeans. If Britannia had been invaded by Iberians rather than Germans the DNA would tell the tale.

"There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context, as far as I am aware. "

Heh. For all the grief you get on your own blog, I'ma allow this.

There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context,

For context, why not review his predictions made in 2008 and 2009 and compare them to what then happened?

"Better skin in the game is, teach people young, very young, spend three or four hours doing something. How did people learn medicine in the old days? It was a generational thing.
Your father was a doctor, and you walked around with your father, or maybe mother."

Excellent point. In India, back in the 50s, we had Mr C Rajagopalachari (the first Indian head of state, and also the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu at the time), a great conservative thinker, who actually got this, and suggested an education policy where kids would spend barely 3 hours a day in classrooms and the rest of the time actually in guilds or with their parents learning trades. There is more about Rajaji's plan here.

Unfortunately populism prevailed and Rajaji, a conservative brahmin in his private life, was vilified and his plan dubbed as a diabolical attempt to perpetuate the iniquities of the caste system. Nothing could be further away from the truth, because Rajaji was a great advocate of social justice long before the term even got popular. He was booted out of power, and the plan was shelved for ever.

I would've totally been all for Rajaji's plan if he had suggested that Brahmin kids should "learn the trade" of cleaning shit while Dalit kids should learn how to sit on their ass and get fat while reciting fairytales and religious mumbo jumbo. Somehow I don't think your Brahmin ass would've been very excited by that plan.

I highly doubt that he is actually Brahmin.

Why do you keep making this absurd statement denying the guy's Brahminness? You've done this before. I have plenty of Brahmin friends. Do you imagine they are some super rare genius breed? They're all over the place, there are tens of millions of them and most of them are very mediocre.

You are constructing a strawman here. Rajaji never insisted that the plan be based on "hereditary trades". It was the Dravidian Opposition parties that dubbed it "hereditary education policy".

While kids should be free to engage in the crafts of their parents, if both parties are interested, the plan could have evolved, had it been given a chance, to engage kids in crafts outside of their hereditary professions, with the aid of the government.

My point is Rajaji was saying exactly what Taleb and Caplan are talking about here. His ideas weren't given a chance because of the vitiated political atmosphere.

Sam Haysom - Your speculations on my caste are irrelevant to me or to most readers here.

Could you recommend a stack of books for readers familiar with Taleb but not the history of Lebanon to explore the connection with his work?

Or maybe a bleg on the subject?

What were some of the books you read to prepare?

That was an odd conversation. I read the transcript. Maybe I should have listened. Taleb devotes an inordinate amount of time talking about history, the history of Lebanon, then at the end of the interview advises listeners not to study history because it will be revised. Thus, am I to assume that his entire discussion of history was false, that it was merely his revision?

I think he means that history in school is a waste because learning it once is futile? Whereas becoming an autodidact means staying current?

I'd say learning history once is worthwhile.

Ever known someone who talks in circles? Do they do it because they don't know what they are talking about? Because they don't want to commit? Because they are so smart? The contrast between the interview of Cowen by Klein and the interview by Cowen of Taleb is so stark that it reminds me how different people are. Lebanon is a diverse country; unlike in America, it's a diversity that's impossible to deny. Cowen's questions about what's fragile and antifragile were excellent.

Goodness that Khalil Gibran interlude was pure cringe. Either Cowen tried to pull off a really cheap shot low blow by comparing the two or Cowen actually didn't realize how much of a joke Gibrain is to basically any semi literate person.

The best review of Taleb is still Falkenstein's demolition of the Black Swan:

Even Taleb's own proteges (Spitznagel) have all but abandoned him.

Not true. Taleb is a principal and oener at Universa.
and about Falkenshtein

That link proved nothing. Taleb didn't even try to retort against any claims. He simply used the fallacy sword & strawman shield defense. Sad.

Audio quality is too low on this one to play, I'm afraid.

It bothered me for the first few minutes, but then I stopped hearing it. FWIW.

How can you have a podcast for years but still botch audio quality?

My friend, Nassim, made one extremely erroneous statement: that the first translation into Arabic of the Bible happened in Beirut in the late 19th century. While we can be pretty certain it happened even earlier, the oldest extant Bible in Arabic is at the St. Catherine's monastery in the Sinai and dates from 867 CE.

Nassim's discussion of Aramaic is interesting, and does note that there are dialects of Aramaic, with his comment about Eastern Aramaic as well as his commenting on some form of Aramaic being spoken in rural parts of Lebanon indicating that. He told me personally that the Arabic spoken in much of northern Lebanon is really more a dialect of Aramaic, although I am not in a position to pass on that. I find it curious that he insisted on referring to Syriac as a separate Semitic language, when many consider it to be yet another dialect of Aramaic, but then, these are obviously complicated and difficult matters regarding which there is disagreement among well-informed parties.

For what it is worth, Wikipedia identifies Syriac as being a dialect of Middle Aramaic, but then, just to complicate things further, Syriac itself has dialects. So the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church is Western Syriac while that of the Assyrian Orthodox Church is Eastern Syriac. How much these differ from each other, I have no idea.

Sad to say, on a subject like this, the only way I would think Wikipedia is going to win (if the question is "'for what it is worth', is Wikipedia worth reading or not") is if Wikipedia provides us with long block quotes from a real scholarly source.

And if I feel confident that the long block quotes from that source were not sneakily distorted.

Anyways, thanks for the comments, they were very interesting.

Nassim Taleb has communicated with me privately that what was retranslated into Arabic in Beirut in the late 19th century was the Qur'an itself, older versions being viewed as out-of-date.

This Conversation is proof that Taleb is overrated as a thinker. Many factual errors, full of platitudes, lacking in insight, nothing original. If anything, he's a Lebanese Jordan Peterson.

Sure, but this isn't new. He's not completely lacking in insight, but I have never met anyone else that seemed less interested in learning.

Intellectually speaking, he is the mirror image of Patrick Collison.

Harry please provide example of what you call Tyler's "Many factual errors" and "platitudes"

I would personally have paid $1000 for a better mic! That guy is hard to follow with the best sound technology. Hearing him through a tin can was rough. Love everyone involved though. That’s a lot of brain power in one place and I appreciate that. 👌

Taleb's observations about India's education scene is the bitter truth. We in India did not place the required emphasis on good school education, overemphasised university education, and the universities are producing, in the world of Taleb, "too many sociologists" and the like. They are largely unemployable students and public money of a poor nation is used to pay large salaries for those teaching these wasteful academic programmes.

I am glad Taleb agrees with a policy I have argued for in response to earlier posts on education: the institutions offering programmes like Sanskrit and other classical languages , history and philosophy should be offered in separate campuses by and for the very few who genuinely love these subjects. A poor nation like India can do with two well endowed humanities institutes while others should impart skills which will provide jobs to students, the kind of skills most humanities teachers in India ensure their own kids acquire

Are you nuts? You think India is producing too many sociologists? I haven't met a person of my generation who hasn't studied STEM in undergrad. Something like 98% of middle class Indians who attend university seem to be studying STEM.

You are right: most students in India would like to be doctors or engineers. But Taleb is also right: in India ... I am not talking about Indians studying in America... the students studying subjects in college which have no market value are too high. In india most enrol for those programmes because they could not get admission in good, job oriented programmes. The state funded universities charge very low fees and I was shocked to learn that in the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu , government owned colleges charge no fees at all! In addition, students who belong to a particular Hindu caste group also get scholarships! So students can join these colleges to tell people they are studying something. You can imagine the number of unemployable students being churned out every year in that state alone!

A poor country can do with far, far less number of state-funded education in the social sciences, producing students who have low or even zero job prospects, get frustrated and complain about how materialistic Indian society has become! These students should ask their teachers , who fight tooth and nail against closing useless departments, why they tell their own kids to join only courses with good job prospects

Taleb = intellectual for idiots.

Best review of this charlatan Taleb's book Antifragile -

This guy is a joke and impresses mostly idiots. Just look at how vague and rambling his responses are to simple questions posed by Cowen and Caplan. That was the most insipid conversation I've read in a while.

I think Taleb's view that humanities should be taught in separate institutions actually shows his respect for these subjects. Their stature will be protected there. My academic friends complain that here in India at least, with very few exceptions, in universities which also offer programmes of study with high job value, the status of social sciences and humanities is ( in my opinion rightly) in the gutter and the faculty are treated like "3rd class citizens who have to be tolerated because they cannot be dismissed". By contrast, faculty in institutes devoted solely to these subjects work with pride in their disciplines ( which, of course, by itself does not justify tax payers money spent on so many of them)

Interesting conversation.

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