Black Swans and Barber Shops

Nassim Taleb has published a chapter from his recent book “Skin in the Game” at  According to Amazon, in this book:

Taleb challenges long-held beliefs .. Among his insights:

– For social justice, focus on symmetry and risk sharing…

– Ethical rules aren’t universal. You’re part of a group larger than you, but it’s still smaller than humanity in general.

– Minorities, not majorities, run the world. The world is not run by consensus but by stubborn minorities imposing their tastes and ethics on others.

– You can be an intellectual yet still be an idiot. “Educated philistines” have been wrong on everything from Stalinism to Iraq to low-carb diets.

– Beware of complicated solutions (that someone was paid to find) ..

The chapter published at is titled The Facts are True, the News is Fake. In it he puts a new slant on the current debate about the effects of social media, arguing that, far from representing a revolutionary development, they represent a reversion of the transmission of information to traditional forms from which it temporarily deviated under the 60-odd-year reign of the Mainstream Media.

The period of time that corresponds to the reliance on one-sided accounts such as television and newspapers, which can be controlled by the mandarins, lasted from the middle of the twentieth century until the U.S. elections of 2016. In that sense, social networks, allowing a two-way flow of information, put back the mechanism of tidings in its natural format.

My own unconscious model of the checks and balances on information transmission was essentially binary, based on the century-old two-party system current in the UK and the US, (and almost nowhere else.) I’d always assumed that if one side says something silly, the other side would shout it down, and have been scratching my head for years about why the model doesn’t work in the case of climate change.

Taleb’s model of the normal process of the exchange of information is that of the barber shop, the market place, the soukh, where “there is a long term advantage to being dependable.”

Information transmits organically by word-of-mouth, which circulates in a two-way manner. In ancient Rome, people got information without a centralized filter. In the Ancient Mediterranean marketplaces, people talked; they were the receivers and the purveyors of news. Barbers offered comprehensive services; they doubled as surgeons, dispute resolution experts, and news reporters. If people were left to filter their own rumors, they were also part of the transmission. Same with pubs and London coffee houses … My social grandmother would have her “rounds” of visits of condolences some days in Beirut’s then significant Greek Orthodox community, and knew practically everything down to the most insignificant details. If the child of someone prominent flunked an exam, she knew it. Practically every affair in town was detected.

Interestingly, his essentially conservative libertarian model corresponds closely to that developed by the Marxist Christopher Lasch in “the Culture of Narcissism,” right down to the example of the barber shops. He claims that this model doesn’t apply to mainstream journalism, because:

..[the] problem .. of the current press is systemic, as its interests will keep diverging from that of its own public, until the eventual blowup… The divergence is evident in that journos worry considerably more about the opinion of other journalists than that of the general public. Compare to a healthy system, say that of restaurants. As we saw [in a previous chapter], restaurant owners worry about the opinion of their customers, not those of other restaurant owners, which keeps them in check and prevent the business from straying collectively away from its interests. Further, skin in the game creates diversity, not monoculture. Economic insecurity worsens the condition: journalists are currently in the most insecure profession you can find: the majority lives hand to mouth and ostracism by their friends would be terminal. Thus they become easily prone to manipulation by lobbyists, as we saw with GMOs, the Syrian wars, etc. You say something unpopular in the profession about Brexit, GMOs, Putin, and you become history.

What’s interesting for us is the example he chooses to illustrate his thesis, taken from his own experience with journalists.

In the summer of 2009, I partook of an hour long discussion with David Cameron, who was in the running for, and later became, the U.K. Prime Minister. The discussion was about how to make society robust, even immune to Black Swans, what structure was needed for both decentralization and accountability, and how the system should be built, that sort of thing … I subsequently went to a Chinese restaurant in (London’s) Soho to celebrate with a few people when I received a phone call by a horrified friend. All London newspapers were calling me a “climate denier”, portraying me as someone part of a large anti-environment conspiracy. […]

I managed to defend myself by making a lot of noise, and with explicit legal threats, forced every newspaper to publish my correction. Even then someone at The Guardian tried (unsuccessfully) to tone down my letter by showing that it was some type of disagreement with what I said, not a correction of their misrepresentation. In other words I was disagreeing with myself. But if I eventually cleared my ideas, thanks to my bully pulpit, other can’t do the same. The London newspapers were actively misrepresenting something to their own public. ..

His conclusion about this affair is most gratifying:

There is no difference between a journalist at The Guardian and the restaurant owner in Milan, who, when you ask for a taxi, calls his cousin who does a tour of the city to inflate the meter before showing up. Or the doctor who willfully misdiagnoses you to sell you a drug in which he has a vested interest.

The twenty second extract which the press misinterpreted concerned his view on the precautionary principle, which he explains thus:

It turned out that I presented my version of the precautionary principle during the conversation, worth restating here. It asserted that one does not need complex models as a justification to avoid a certain action. If we don’t understand something and it has a systemic effect, just avoid it. Models are error prone, something I knew well with finance; most risks only appear in analyses after harm is done. The burden is on those who pollute –or introduce new substances in larger than usual quantities –to show their lack of risk. In fact the more uncertainty about the models, the more conservative one should be.

The italics are mine in the above paragraph, underlining a point of contention which needs further discussion, since it could be applied to almost any change in society you care to mention. Did the development of the motor car and the roads to carry it lead to a demand that its developers demonstrate the lack of risk? About thirty million are thought to have died in road accidents. Was Henry Ford supposed to show that they wouldn’t happen? What this demonstrates, I think, is that no general enunciation of the precautionary principle can ever be accepted, because there is no principle involved. There are risks, and precautions you can take in particular cases, and that’s all. And the more you spend on nonsensical precautions to stop the level of CO2 in the atmosphere rising to a particular level, the less you have left over to spend on flood defense, disaster prevention, and good old-fashioned weather forecasting.

The second proposition I’ve put in italics is the point of Lewandowsky’s Grand Theorem (though Lewandowsky goes further, claiming that the more uncertain the models, the more likely their most dire warnings are to come true.) An unfortunate corollary of Taleb’s point is that, the more conservative one’s aims (i.e. the more determined on is to keep coal in the ground and CO2 out of the atmosphere) the more motivated one is to rely on models with a high level of uncertainty. “Two degrees” is far less frightening than “somewhere between one and six degrees.”

Looking for the offending Guardian article, I found this one by chief political correspondent Nicholas Watt who quotes Taleb as saying:

“I’m a hyper-conservative ecologically. I don’t want to mess with Mother Nature, OK. Even I don’t believe that carbon thing is necessarily anthropogenic right. I just don’t want to mess with Mother Nature. I don’t understand Mother Nature. It is much more intelligent than us. It has been around for longer than anything else.”

and a second article by Michael White commenting on the first which says:

I wasn’t present. But … others who were – including Watt – insist he did … tentatively question the notion that climate change is caused by man-made activity.

And finally this one by Lucy Mangan:

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for David Cameron. Or laugh yourself sick – you know, according to taste. First there’s Alan Duncan, lamenting the short rations of the post-expenses scandal MP. Then there’s Sir Patrick Cormack and Douglas Hogg calling for MPs’ salaries to be doubled. And finally there is his appearance with new political guru Nassim Taleb (pictured), who – wouldn’t you just know it? – turned out to be the author of a book that could easily cause him to be summed up as a recession-loving, tax-hating, climate-change denier.

Taleb’s right of reply is exercised here, in an opinion piece under the bizarre headline “Climate experts and bank risk managers have both failed us” with the even more bizarre side heading “Opinion David Cameron.”

None of the three Guardian articles actually says anything false about Taleb, as far as I can see. His point is that they misrepresent him by blowing up a twenty second aside into a major issue, thus deflecting attention from his message. It seems to me that the insult here is not to Taleb but to us climate change deniers. If in commenting on someone’s position you point out that he’s a Jew, you’re not insulting him, but Jews in general. You’re making an insidious suggestion about the value of his opinions based on a mass of unspoken but insulting assumptions about what it means to be a Jew. That’s why the flattering comments made about Taleb’s intellectual prowess by the Guardian journalists don’t wash. The suggestion is not that Taleb has said something factually incorrect, but that he shares views with a group of people who, even back in 2009, were considered beyond the pale. Taleb seems to agree with the Guardian on this point.

7 thoughts on “Black Swans and Barber Shops

  1. For those who are interested, Taleb’s views on the precautionary principle (PP) and its application are expanded in some detail in the following paper:

    His views are not as unconventional as he would like us all to believe. The paper provides a pretty standard summary for the reasoning behind the PP.

    As far as the climate system is concerned, it is a presupposed non-linearity of response to destabilising influences that he uses as the justification for the application of the PP (there being a presupposed high uncertainty, embracing the possibility of high impact outcomes).

    I wouldn’t say I agree with everything in his paper (for example, the section on ‘Fallacious Arguments against PP’ needed to address the problem of the Focusing Effect in relation to the PP). However, it is still well worth a read.


  2. John Ridgway
    Taleb’s views on the precautionary principle are supposed to have a much further reach than simply the protection of the environment. He says:

    If we don’t understand something and it has a systemic effect, just avoid it. Models are error prone, something I knew well with finance; most risks only appear in analyses after harm is done.

    So, don’t start a blog like Cliscep. You don’t know what it might lead to. Maybe it will lead to people of left and right finding common ground, leading to a challenge to the status quo and harmful risks to life on our planet as we know it.

    I’m pretty sure that Ben Pile has published a decent demolition of the precautionary principle somewhere at Climate Resistance. I know I’ve been pointing out that it’s bollocks for ten years in various places.

    As far as the climate system is concerned, it is a presupposed non-linearity of response to destabilising influences that he uses as the justification for the application of the PP (there being a presupposed high uncertainty, embracing the possibility of high impact outcomes).

    Yeah. There’s a presupposed non-linearity of response to destabilising influences in the presupposed high uncertainty of Brits attending the semi-finals being attacked by unicorns whose horns have been swabbed with Novichok. But given the possibility of high impact outcomes, we should be on our guard, right?

    From Wiki:

    The 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle summarises the principle this way: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

    Translation: There are threats; but we don’t know that there are threats; but the principle states that we must pretend that there are threats. Bollocks.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Geoff,

    One of the many statements within the Taleb paper, with which I disagree, is:

    “PP is not risk management.”

    This is simply not true. The precautionary principle is all about risk management, but it is risk management without risk analysis, and therein lies its difficulty; it uses aversion to uncertainty as a strategy for dealing with risk.

    However, the principle cannot be dismissed as ‘bollocks’. When levels of uncertainty are such that probabilities cannot be reliably calculated, there may be no alternative but to apply the principle, particularly when the posited impacts are potentially catastrophic or irreversible. However, even when it is necessary to apply the principle, that doesn’t always mean that is desirable – it is a principle that can be fundamentally self-defeating and is wide open to abuse and misunderstanding. What gets me most, however, is that the people who assert that the probabilities relating to CAGW are well understood are often the same people who invoke the precautionary principle. This is logically inconsistent – pure and simple.



  4. ‘Beware of complicated solutions (that someone was paid to find.’)

    Serf musings on Precautionary-Principle and Popular-Delusions-and-Madness
    -of-the-Crowd-Syndrome … the current model.

    First musing: The Precautionary Principle when applied to ‘globul warming’s’
    sea-change, name-change to ‘climate-change,’ beware! From the specific
    terminology to something that can mean just about anything regarding weather
    history, lessons from history here, tyrants’ smoke and mirrors games with words
    ljke ‘freedom’ and ‘truth.’

    Second musing: The Precautionary Principle, when applied to justify any $ costly
    guvuhmint policy, further beware! Let us not ferget I.E. Mencken’s insight:
    ‘The whole aim of practical politicks is to keep the populace alarmed ( and hence
    clamorous to be led to safety by menacing it with an endless series of hob-goblins,
    all of them imaginary.’

    Supplementary musing: The Precautionary Principle, when requiring guvuh-mint
    subsidies, financed by us, beware of! Guvuh-mint picking winners usually means
    themselves and their voting selectorate … (Bruce Bueno de Mesquita ECON Talk
    for this.)

    Fourth musing: Re Precautionary Principle and complicated solutions that some
    one was paid to find,’ O beware, beware! Remember the origin of our current
    Popular-Delusion-and -Madness-of-the-Crowd-Syndrome? The IPCC mission ‘n
    raison d’etre – and look at the data…

    Fifth musing:Re Precautionary Principle, “look-at-the-data,” cross reference, a
    smidgeon of trust but a large dollop of precautionary verification and mebbe
    falsification… Herewith some falsification of AGW CO2 climate change… That
    ‘Missing Hot Spot,’ that IPPC ARS4 temperature graph where predictions don’t
    match obs, ( Ref Climate Audit, 30th Sept. 2013.) and re AGW CO2 theory,
    temperature is supposed to rise monotonically but hasn’t. Some nice research
    from Otto Weiss here….

    Final musing: (You’ll be glad to hear,) re those vociferous venders of the
    Precautionary Principle, note less what they say and more what they do,
    like Importing Drax wood chips to replace coal, ramping up fossil fuel energy,
    ( the power behind the curtain,) to back-up those inter-mittent ‘renewables’…
    making believe they’re reliable. Selling yr nation’s fossil fuels to China, making
    a farce of the precautionary principle, the pretense of lowering those dreaded
    CO2 emission levels while, in reality, imposing insanely costly energy policies
    on business and deluded cits. ’twas nevah really about the science, … nor
    was it evah really about the precautionary principle.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. He seems rather circular irt to climate.
    For me, the only trult interesting question left regarding the so-called “climste consensus” is
    why is the “consensus” so immune to critical review?
    The idea of making something immune to a black swan event is rather curious if you think about it.


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