You are in a classroom listening to someone self-important, dignified, and ponderous (but dull), wearing a tweed jacket (white shirt, polka-dot tie), pontificating for two hours on the theories of history. You are too paralyzed by boredom to understand what on earth he is talking about, but you hear the names of big guns: Hegel, Fichte, Marx, Proudhon, Plato, Herodotus, Ibn Khaldoun, Toynbee, Spengler, Michelet, Carr, Bloch, Fukuyama, Schmukuyama, Trukuyama. He seems deep and knowledgeable, making sure that no attention lapse will make you forget that his approach is "post-Marxist," "postdialectical," or post-something, whatever that means. Then you realize that a large part of what he is saying reposes on a simple optical illusion! But this will not make a difference: he is so invested in it that if you questioned his method he would react by throwing even more names at you.
It is so easy to avoid looking at the cemetery while concocting historical theories. But this is not just a problem with history. It is a problem with the way we construct samples and gather evidence in every domain. We shall call this distortion a bias, i.e., the difference between what you see and what is there. By bias I mean a systematic error consistently showing a more positive, or negative, effect from the phenomenon, like a scale that unfailingly shows you a few pounds heavier or lighter than your true weight, or a video camera that adds a few sizes to your waistline. This bias has been rediscovered here and there throughout the past century across disciplines, often to be rapidly forgotten (like Cicero's insight). As drowned worshippers do not write histories of their experiences (it is better to be alive for that), so it is with the losers in history, whether people or ideas. Remarkably, historians and other scholars in the humanities who need to understand silent evidence the most do not seem to have a name for it (and I looked hard). As for journalists, fuhgedaboudit! They are industrial producers of the distortion.
- Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan (2008)
I wish there were some less snotty way of saying this, but The Black Swan is remarkably erudite and provocative for an airport bestseller. Taleb is a Europeanized intellectual writing for somewhat pretentious Amherst-educated Wall Street traders, and it shows: there's a lot of chrome in the form of references to Umberto Eco and assorted Respectable Humanistic Thinkers You May Have Heard Of. Yet there is a great deal of genuine learning, too, and Taleb seems utterly sincere in his admiration of Sextus Empiricus, a thinker who receives more time in the spotlight here than he has for probably three hundred years. There is none of that stereotyped pop-non-fiction air of authority that comes from ventriloquizing a cherry-picked study or a dubious expert.
There is still, however, an air of authority that permeates the whole book: Taleb's claim to superior insight based on being both very well-read and a former successful Wall Street trader. This is not a modest book. Taleb includes chunks of very thinly-disguised autobiography and plenty of anecdotes in which he is invariably the smartest guy in the room. No doubt they were at least partially motivated by the need to cater to that particular school of business-think that assumes that people who don't self-advertise have nothing to say. Most of them are not wholly implausible, either, even accounting for the distortions introduced by selective memory and the lack of the other side of the story. Above all, they help you identify with the guy--after all, don't we all know plenty of academic stuffed shirts?
The problem with this is that Taleb is telling you that everyone else is wrong, that their fields are based on flawed premises, that almost all forms of recognition based on successful predictions are misguided and delusional. I like to think of myself as a Pyrrhonian. I get off on reading things like that. But even I recognize that dismissing whole areas of inquiry based on the say-so (or even the admittedly plausible argumentation) of a self-interested guru is dangerous. I don't think Taleb even has the insight into economics he thinks he has, much less philosophy or history. The Black Swan is great for pseuds--or, to put it more nicely, snotty autodidacts--because it indulges their tendency to reduce their workload by giving themselves an intellectual escape clause. (I only recognized this tendency in myself fairly recently, and it's been quite a revelation.)
Passages like the one I've quoted above give me the most pause. Does Taleb not realize that the scenario he is depicting is, on its own terms, absurd? The history professor who is teaching you about this posse of dead historical theorists cannot possibly be making the point that history moves in a stable and predictable pattern, because all of these Big Names are mutually exclusive. It would be like arguing that a single currency is a good thing and we should therefore adopt twelve of them. And this is leaving aside the more minor absurdities, such as the idea that someone who describes himself as "post-dialectical" would be throwing Toynbee and Spengler in your face rather than, I dunno, Badiou or something. (Not to mention that historical determinism of any sort is laughably out of fashion these days.)
Actually, I think Taleb has a point in this passage, he just doesn't really know what it is. Part of the problem associated with this moment in the life of The Profession is that no one who is on the cutting edge is really thinking all that hard about causality as an epistemological or methodological problem for historians. This is because picking away too hard at causality will reveal the necessity of taking one of two positions: either causality is some specific thing, which you then have to commit to like some mustachioed bell-bottom-wearing old social historian, or it's just a vague intuitive sense we have of stuff that happens in some sort of order, which doesn't really leave much room for reflection. (I prefer the second view because I am utterly bewildered by the concept of causality itself, but that may be fodder for another post.) Taleb's critique, if it were actually specific and well-motivated rather than hectoring and unfocused, would be an excellent way of opening up this discussion.
It's too bad. The Black Swan is the clearest and freshest defense of a thoughtful, humane skepticism that I've encountered in a long time. If it weren't so overstructured, so self-aggrandizing, and so packed with pretensions to universality, it wouldn't make for a bad Enchiridion as far as these things go. But who needs one, really? All you have to do is imitate a pig on a ship.
(When the Natalie Portman movie came out last winter, I was thinking it was an adaptation of this book. Boy was I surprised fifteen minutes in when I realized no funky randomness would be forthcoming. Frankly, I would have preferred the adaptation.)