‘Antifragile’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Review by Robert M Ellis

This extremely rewarding book is full of insights about the justification of our beliefs, many of which have a close relationship to the Middle Way. Taleb recognises that the key condition for an objective attitude is the recognition that we do not have the full story, and that ‘evidence’ is of limited use when interpreted within a limited frame. He has taken on board the lessons of the sceptics in a direct and practical way, and communicates those lessons forcefully. He also writes in a highly engaging fashion, with useful metaphors, stories and bits of autobiography that enliven the presentation of a nevertheless rigorous theoretical base.Antifragile

However, the author’s own approach to the wide range of issues he tackles is often far from balanced. Rather than seeing balance as a goal, Taleb has a rather macho, heroic, Nietzschean approach to asserting his own insights against the mistakes of much of the rest of the world. Many of the limitations of the book are connected to this rather over-assertive one-sidedness.

The central theme is that of the title: antifragility is the property of a person, object or system of benefitting from volatility, even extreme shocks. An antifragile system is one that is typically subject to fairly frequent minor stresses and a range of unexpected events, from which it develops new capacities to cope with this volatility. It thus has a better chance of adapting to major new unexpected stressors. A fit human body, not just trained in one narrowly specialised way but in relation to a variety of stresses, is antifragile in this way. An antifragile system can be contrasted to a fragile one such as a glass vase. A glass vase can survive very minor stresses unharmed, but is suddenly and completely destroyed by a major one.

Taleb explains that antifragile systems have options – that is, a variety of possible responses to different conditions. Narrowly specialised animals (dependent on only one food source, for example) may thrive in certain restricted conditions, but are rapidly wiped out when those conditions change. They don’t have any other options to fall back on. ‘Options’, however, often look inefficient, because if we maintain extra capacities that we don’t use, just in case we need them, we have to keep putting resources into maintaining them. It’s all too easy to close down our options by being too specialised – whether you’re an animal, a person in a career, or a theorist.

Crucially, one of the other key properties of antifragility is the recognition of the value of error. Antifragile systems advance through a negative feedback loop, making mistakes and correcting from what is learnt from those mistakes. Fragile systems, on the other hand, depend on a positive feedback loop that merely reinforces the specialised assumptions already being made. This is where there is a crucial relationship between fragility and metaphysics. Metaphysics involves absolute claims that are self-reinforcing through positive feedback loops. In talking about antifragility, then, Taleb is effectively exploring the nature of provisionality and its contribution to objectivity.

Taleb has some hard-hitting observations about modern tendencies towards fragility, that I would also say are metaphysical tendencies. He observes that new technology is producing a huge wealth of data from which it becomes ever easier to cherry-pick confirmatory evidence for our beliefs. It thus becomes ever easier to reside in a deluded sphere in which a positive feedback loop keeps reinforcing existing assumptions. This tendency is also reinforced by academic specialisation, by academic competition in which scientists are obliged to keep producing positive results to keep their jobs, by rationalising efficiency drives and by the vested interests of corporations who invest in the harvesting of this positive ‘evidence’. Taleb paints a compellingly grim picture of the decline of science under these pressures, contrasting current practice unfavourably with the creative amateurism of eighteenth and nineteenth century scientists who were clergy or landed gentlemen.

Taleb also forcibly attacks the illusions that accompany interventionism, such as in government or education. Interventionists, he argues, often confuse a thing with its function. The function of a thing in a system can develop most effectively without intervention, whereas interventionists tend to focus on developing the whole thing and are often under illusions about what its functional elements are. For example, in education, students are educated in the theory of a whole subject or a wide set of skills, according to a prescribed curriculum. However, Taleb argues that the key skills we really need in a given set of conditions tend to develop naturally in contact with those conditions. He cites the uneducated traders he worked with in the city of London, who had very little understanding of economics but understood the operative practical aspects of trading very well. We often assume that practice follows from theory, but often practice develops more effectively independent of theory. He calls this assumption the ‘green lumber fallacy’ after a successful trader in unseasoned (‘green’) timber who worked very effectively whilst under the impression that ‘green lumber’ meant timber that was painted green.

These observations on the delusions of the rationalising intellect fit very well with those of Iain McGilchrist on the operation of the over-dominant left hemisphere. The tendency of the left hemisphere is to rationalise in exactly this type of way – assuming that it has the whole story and projecting its own view onto the information available to it. More effective practical adaptations to conditions, it seems, require a more balanced interaction between the hemispheres in which the left hemispheres models are more sparingly applied at the points where they are most needed. Taleb, however, does not discuss the brain, any more than he explicitly discusses metaphysics. He does not need to, as he effectively covers much of the same territory using his own favoured vocabulary.

Taleb also has some interesting observations to make about ethics, which focus on the relationship between risks taken by different people. Those he chastises most for being unethical are those who pass on their risks to others whilst remaining largely free of risk themselves. This would include the bankers who managed to retire on handsome pensions despite their catastrophic impact on the world in 2008, and generally the managers of large corporations who (thanks to huge bonuses and limited liability) have much to gain and nothing to lose from taking excessive risks, which only result in losses for their employees rather than for them. He also chastises commentators who are able to get away with irresponsible talk that does not affect them personally because they have no ‘skin in the game’ – i.e. nothing substantial to lose. He urges us to trust only those who, as the traditional saying has it “put their money where their mouth is”.

The moral heroes for Taleb, on the other hand, are those who make sacrifices for their community: the soldiers, saints, or those who die for their beliefs. He sees these people as providing the options for their societies that enable them to adapt to new circumstances. After all, whenever a new option is taken, an old one perishes. Here I think Taleb makes insufficient distinction between those who die in the service of metaphysical beliefs (who may have sado-masochistic tendencies, taking their metaphysics to be more important than their bodies), and those who are genuinely integrated with their communities and are really motivated by love of them.

However, it is broadly on the issue of ethics that Taleb’s book is far too sparse. His observations about the ethical implications of risk-taking are valuable, but sit uneasily with wider ethical assumptions that seem to be taken for granted, even when they may be in conflict with his case about antifragility. The ethics he offers also often seems contradictory.

On the one hand his ethical basis often seems to be individualistic. He takes for granted the value of egoistic fulfilment of desires in a wide variety of cases, and adopts the colloquial American language to match. His exemplar ‘Fat Tony’, the straight-talking man of affairs, makes his money by betting against the deluded fragile investments of others. Those who don’t act in this way are ‘suckers’. Compassion, as opposed to antipathy, for those deluded souls he dubs ‘fragilistas’ seems to be very far from Taleb’s macho moral repertoire.

On the other hand, it also seems that Taleb’s ethical basis is very traditional. He admits to be a faithful follower of the Orthodox Church, and shows no desire to be in the least critical of its metaphysical rigidities. It seems rather odd that he can blame scientists for cherry-picking data but not priests for cherry-picking the Bible, and react strongly to economic bigwigs who unethically subject others to risks, whilst apparently letting off the Church, which has been doing exactly the same thing through its tithing systems from many centuries. Taleb rightly identifies ways that tradition can be antifragile, and organically develop responses to a variety of conditions that are far more effective in the long-term than rationalised interventions. However, he seems blind to the metaphysical dogmas that also often accompany tradition, and the fragility and exploitation that often accompany these dogmas.

Taleb’s ethical stance is so inconsistent that I can only assume he just hasn’t thought very much – or very critically – about ethics. Yet ethics are an inseparable part of the overall case that he creates. Fragility and antifragility are as much a moral property of systems as they are a factual property. To thoroughly complete the task that he sets out to do here, he needs to reconsider the whole area of ethics.

Taleb’s lack of a coherent moral vision has a number of other implications that undermine the force and value of his book. The most important of these is a marked lack of balance throughout. Often he has very good points to make that correct a particular set of dogmatic assumptions – for example, on interventionism and on modernity, but only the occasional weak corrective sentence is offered to try to avoid us jumping to the conclusion that he believes in the opposite extreme. For example, he points out the ways that effects of science on technology are often overestimated, and that many technological breakthroughs have resulted in random tinkering rather than the direct application of scientific theory. However, he fails to balance this with a recognition of the value of science in altering the base conditions in which the tinkering took place, and the numerous more indirect ways in which science might contribute to technology.

The lack of balance in his criticisms of education is particularly striking. He is scathing about the ineffectual interventionism of those who believe that a fixed set of educational expectations can result in effective preparation for a variety of conditions, but his only exploration of this is based on an autobiographical account of his own case. Taleb would almost undoubtedly come out in the top 5% of any assessment of educational ability, so the fact that he educated himself far more effectively than his school and university could educate him is hardly indicative of the value of the educational system as a whole. The vast majority of students would not be self-motivated enough to engage in the vast range of reading that Taleb recounts – which suggests that for all its weaknesses interventionist education tends to benefit most students even if it did not benefit Taleb.

In his haste to reject modernity, Taleb also seems to be uncritical in his embrace not only of tradition and individualist egoism, but also of ‘Nature’. Not just ‘Nature’ but ‘Mother Nature’ constantly pops up with the reassurance that her antifragile works are far superior to the fragile works of humankind. Taleb shows no awareness that ‘Nature’ is just a human metaphysical creation, and that the idea of a system being free of human interference may itself be just as deluded as the interventionism he decries. In the Irish Famine of 1845-52, for example, ‘letting nature take its course’ effectively meant allowing a million people to starve under an economic and political system that simultaneously allowed substantial food exports from Ireland. What we regard as ‘natural’ may often be the result of past interventionism – or even if it is not, may still be hugely unjust.

In short, Taleb needs the Middle Way to address some of the huge weaknesses that remain in his nevertheless engaging and insightful project. A sense of the Middle Way would enable him to engage with the metaphysical dogmas that create an over-dependence on limited ‘evidence’ in a much more even-handed way. Without this, he is in constant danger of being taken (rightly or wrongly) when he attacks one sort of metaphysics for being a supporter of the opposite. This would mean that in pointing out one sort of fragility, he merely leads us into another. The balancing process of the Middle Way is thus not just a possible refinement of the critical process he offers, but a central structural feature that is required to prevent it being counter-productive. Nevertheless, I still highly recommend a reading of Taleb’s exciting and insightful work.

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