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Eric Falkenstein is not such a fan of The Black Swan and its author.


Taleb’s style is to criticize experts of all sorts severely, while implying that both he and his reader or listener are exempt from their many biases...deflating puffed-up egos, criticizing the insular world of academics, and suggesting the experts have a huge blind spot on something important, can be fun reading. But it has to be making points that are true if new, or important if true, and here he fails to deliver.

...Martin Gardner wrote a popular column for Scientific American, and in the process received a lot of mail from ‘cranks’ telling him about perpetual motion machines and the like. So he wrote a book called Fads and Fallacies. In the book he describes "cranks" as having five invariable characteristics:

1. They have a profound intellectual superiority complex.
2. They regard other researchers as idiotic, and always operate outside the peer review
3. They believe there is a campaign against their ideas, a campaign compared with the persecution of Galileo or Pasteur.
4. They attack only the biggest theories and scientific figures.
5. They coin neologisms.


So far, I haven't seen Taleb exhibit (3).

I remember that in college when I read Hegel (I forget which body of work) for a class, I was struck by the fact that he had no citations or quotes from other thinkers. To me, that is the sign of a crank. If you have so much regard for your own work that you cannot trace any intellectual ancestry, then something is wrong.

Read Eric's whole essay.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
stylemaster writes:

Good points, but make it more generally

Luke G. writes:
If you have so much regard for your own work that you cannot trace any intellectual ancestry, then something is wrong.

That pretty interesting, and I am trying to think of other thinkers that might fall in that category. It pretty much describes Ayn Rand, doesn't it? Didn't she claim only Plato as a predecessor?

Luke G. writes:

That should be "That's" rather than
"That." Blargh.

Dennis Mangan writes:

Another sign of Taleb's superiority complex is his refusal, at least with his first book "Fooled by randomness", to let editors clean up his language. Taleb's English is, I believe, his third language, and it shows on every page.

Eric Hanneken writes:

Luke, I think you mean Aristotle, not Plato.

Blackadder writes:

I would think the important characteristic that cranks have in common is that their theories are garbage.

bwv writes:

Of the 5 listed I would argue only 2 and 3 are unique to cranks

Taleb clearly does cite his sources - Poincare, various obscure classical skeptics etc.

I work in the investment industry and while many perceive Taleb's attacks on classical statistics as a Straw Man, I see everything he rails against used in sales pitches every day. Of course Eric is correct that the creators of VAR likely know the weaknesses of the system, but it is also true that the weaknesses get downplayed by those with a vested interest in promoting it.

But is comes down to what you expect from Taleb's work. As a popular business / investment book it is one of the best available (but admittedly there is not alot of competition there). As a treatise on theory and practice for professionals or academics, it is of course overly polemic and most of the criticisms apply.


Did anyone catch the irony of Eric referring to the short-vol trader Victor Neiderhoffer as the superior investor to Taleb
(Neiderhoffer blew up his second fund last year, the first blow up was in 1998)

Gamut writes:

I disagree; Taleb spends an entire chapter in Black Swan tracing back ancestry of his ideas. I would put him in a similar camp with Hume, and he alludes to having more in common with philosophers than modern researchers.

I've spent enough time in what passes for a world-class "neuroscience of cognition" lab, and have done enough math for "researchers" to know that Taleb's points have massive applicability. They're not new ideas, but they've certainly gone by the wayside in the social sciences.

R. Pointer writes:

I think this Falkenstein is probably a crank too.

http://falkenblog.blogspot.com/2008/04/expelled_20.html

Statistics seared on the brain.

jsalvati writes:

While I found Taleb's writing style pretty irritating (poorly written, poorly organized, angry rants), I think his message about the risk of infrequent events with huge consequences is quite valuable.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Try Tyler Cowen's review in Slate and Taleb's response to it. Google "Tyler Cowen Taleb" to find these quickly. Taleb's response to Cowen could have been a little more tactful, but Taleb's "interesting" style needs to be separated from the concepts he's popularizing. Most of Taleb's critics zoom in on style -- see some of the posts above.

Falkenstein goes off the reservation in his criticisms. Falkenstein definitely omits or ignores the whole Niederhoffer story in his critique. Anyone remember if he's ever commented here before or likely found the preceding post via blog search feeds? I'd add to the definition of a crank someone who goes searching for places to do their cranking. If someone was stalking me like Falkenstein seems to be stalking Taleb, I might call up his boss too. Ick.

Matt McIntosh writes:

#2 is not true of Taleb either. He's got several peer-reviewed pubs:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=720581
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1091925
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=970480
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1012075
http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a783684117~db=all

He's also now working with Dan Goldstein in his decision science lab at London Business School. Benoit Mandelbrot agrees with most of what he has to say. If he's a crank then so are they by association.

Roger writes:

I believe the 5 papers Einstein published in 1905 had virtually no references.

They covered the photovoltaic effect, Brownian motion and relativity.

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