Category Archives: FEATURE ARTICLES

The Black Swan: All in the Mind?

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Penguin, 2007.

I had a mixed reaction to this book, spending much of it trying to avoid being suffocated by Taleb’s ego. More serious was the ignoring of Taleb’s bar-room philosophy (see my previous article) as he pontificated on anything that lurched into view on his meander to the meat of the book in part 3 (p. 213). He says that he gets emotional (p. 252) because of the irrationality of those around him in not coming round to he is way of thinking (and he does have a point) but there is nothing rational about being ’emotional’ and the various rage fits he seems to enjoy provoking in others (p. 64) or indulging in himself (p. 128). Interestingly Taleb’s mother elicits the most revealing passage:

I am reminded of a measure my mother concocted, as a joke, when I decided to become a businessman. Being ironic about my (perceived) confidence, though not necessarily unconvinced of my abilities, she found a way for me to make a killing. How? Someone who could figure out how to buy me at the price I am truly worth and sell me at the price I think I am worth would be able to pocket a huge difference. Though I keep trying to convince her of my internal humility and insecurity concealed under a confident exterior; though I keep telling her I am an introspector–she remain skeptical. Introspector shmintrospector, she still jokes at the time of writing that I am still a little ahead of myself.

Why don’t we all listen to our mothers more. As this article is not nearly flattering enough I guess it will never be read but should Taleb ever read these words I really think he should find out just what humility, what its cause are and what it looks like. Humility comes from inner confidence but bluster comes from insecurity. We all have to do battle with our insecurities and arrogant demons but it is going to be much more difficult if these categories are confused.

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The Causation Debate

I have been discussing causation over at Crooked Timber and despite a couple of attempts to explain myself I am not being understood. Having chucked a simple textbook example at me folks seem to have just ignored my point which I find interesting. To recap the point at issue is when does a set of correlations become a cause? I have proposed that it becomes a cause when some of those correlations lie in the future, when there are predictions involved and the correlation is surprising—i.e., is the correlation is true it adds to our knowledge of the world (see here; my thinking here has been entirely shaped by the late, great Richard Feynman). So if I claim that when you jump up and down on one leg while picking your noes, your tooth ache will always disappear then you can try it out and see it is it works—see if you observe this correlation the next time you get a tooth ache. If you do (and repeatedly so) then you have some new tentative causal knowledge that will become strengthened as you reliably see the correlation in a variety of circumstances. The textbook example that people have been throwing at me is that if I take causation is correlation too seriously then I will be forced to conclude that cock’s crows cause sun to rise, but this isn’t a problem here. Suns rising after cocks crowing isn’t surprising to me—I am not looking to explain that correlation having a perfectly satisfactory set of causal relationships to explain it (but thanks anyway).

I prodded noen (a commentator of this blog) and noen was good enough take pity on me and explain what nobody had thought worth spelling out to me:

I’m not sure what you’re getting at Chris. Discovering a correlation is an invitation to further study. One shouldn’t leap to conclusions. The problem is that no matter how fine grained our mechanism is there will always be a leap involved. So we are left with observing that B follows A and concluding that A causes B. We call that deduction but there is a gap in our understanding. There always will be.

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The Mac Droids (The Register)

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here The Register) on my blog-roll; see the about page. ]

With The Register reporting in its usual scurrilous style Microsoft’s ongoing difficulties in killing Windows XP, Bill Gates stepping down as the head of Microsoft and Taleb making an instructive blunder on the Mac-versus-Windows religious wars I thought I would indulge myself in a rare techie post.

It is also part of the review Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan.

Windows 3.0 (1990)

One of the many interesting (and instructive) observations that Taleb made in The Black Swans was the following.

A person can get slightly ahead for entirely random reasons; because we like to imitate one another, we will flock to him. The world of contagion is so underestimated.

As I am writing these lines I am using a Macintosh, by Apple, after years of using Microsoft-based products. The Apple technology is vastly better, yet the inferior software won the day. Why? Luck.

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Of Causation and History (Crooked Timber)

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Crooked Timber) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

I have completed Taleb’s The Black Swan and will say more about it later but I first want to take him to task on one of his opinions (one that he doesn’t really hold as it turns out). From page 171:

Popper’s insight concerns the limitations in forecasting historical events and the need to downgrade “soft” areas such as history and social science to a level slightly above aesthetics and entertainment, like butterfly or coin collecting. (Popper who received a classical Viennese education didn’t go quite so far; I do. I am from Amioun.) What we call the soft historical sciences are narrative dependent studies.

To confuse historicism and history is a horrible conflation, and no claims to rural roots should excuse this kind of boorishness. As Aristotle by way of Aquinas and Schumacher reminds us,

‘the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.'(*) ‘Slender’ knowledge is here put in opposition to ‘certain’ knowledge, and indicates uncertainty.

(*) Aquinas, Summa theologica, I, 1, 5 ad 1.

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Metaphysical Bloviation (II)

The Ducks have challenged me on my pleas for metaphysical tolerance and Hey Skipper has posted some reflections on an Economist article, When Religions Talk, asserting “By definition, religions assert mutually exclusive metaphysical claims”.

Robert Duquette strikes close to the heart of the issue in his comment on my article:

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Ye shall know them by their fruits (I am back!)

I hit quite a block after posting that acknowledgment of what a superior blogger Yglesias is. To what extent was it ego? I don’t know: it is difficult to be sure, but I suspect it was one of several factors.

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Metaphysical Bloviation?

Over at talkingphilosophy blog Jeff Mason has an elegant essay on metaphysics that takes the Kantian view that the physical sciences are the source of all knowledge and everything else is mere speculation. My problem with this essay, and Kant’s critique, is that they are the worst examples of the very thing that they are complaining about—making, as they do, grandiose excessively-general statements about the nature of reality that are quite immune from empirical or logical examination, the most extravagant metaphysical conceit of them all. The genre really should be called metametaphysics as it installs itself as the last arbiter on truth and preemptively disqualifies, tout court, anything that could offer an alternative to its dogmatically positivistic understanding of reality.

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