Friday, March 11, 2016

Nassim Taleb is the Donald Trump of Probability

Nassim Taleb is officially pissed at me.

In deference to Bartlett versus Ritchie, let's get one thing straight first. Mr Taleb, "straw man" is two words, not one.

But at least there is some honesty here. Taleb's annoyance has everything to do with the 13,000 views this video has received on YouTube, despite the obscurity of the topic addressed and its length (almost ten minutes). I now appear on his shortlist of "bad apples" - those who dare to question his authority on probability.

Flattery goes a long way ... though actually I cannot remember two hundred digits of Pi. If I could, I would definitely list that as my "sole attribute" when responding to Quora questions - even on answers to chess questions which I notice Taleb has been reading alongside my finance/math responses (yeah Taleb, that is just a little creepy). In any case, clearly I must be taken out lest my dangerous thoughts infect the precious minds of Taleb's followers.

Now parenthetically, it is remarkable how Taleb really cannot manage a couple of sentences without being disingenuous. Are we to believe that Taleb's concern is for his co-authors, not himself? Really? Perhaps for Pablo Triana, Taleb's understudy who suggested we need a Council of Nicaea comprised of non-technical people to opine on what was good and bad mathematics. Sure, I can see why he might need protection from any responses to that COLOSSALLY FANTASTICALLY STUPID position.

But the real question is how Taleb plans to "deal with me" for having the temerity to answer a question "outside my field of expertise". A question like "What do quants think of Nassim Taleb?" that - oh wait - that would be entirely within my expertise actually.  And actually, Mr Taleb you can refer to me as Dr Cotton from now on, Mr Taleb, and you can have the honestly to remind your readers, Mr Taleb, which cereal box you got your degree from because no, installing a giant oversize cardboard cutout of yourself outside a conference center doesn't actually make you an expert on anything. While we are cutting through the delusions, Mr Taleb, I'll point out that you find my writing repetitive only because you read it over and over again.

Now curious about this list I found myself on, I got in contact with another person in that same club: Eric Falkenstein who has written some pretty funny articles about Taleb (Scott Locklin deserves a spot, incidentally, for this articulate gem alone). Eric revealed to me that Taleb - ever the cheap thug - had contacted his boss directly in an attempt to intimidate him. Well,  I honestly can't wait to see what happens if Taleb tries that one on me. Not sure how it will turn out exactly, but I reckon there will be tears streaming down my boss' face every time he retells the story over beers.

And now I am wondering why I never noticed before the uncanny similarity in the bullying tactics of Nassim Taleb and those of Donald Trump. Trump insulted his way to the nomination. Taleb insulted his way to a kind of popular probability presidency. Taleb tosses around autism whereas Trump's game is Islam (I think it is pretty clear which is the most offensive, given that one is a medical condition).

Trump tries to make people feel better by bringing down everyone in the public sphere. Sure, most of them are civic minded people working hard to make the country better and, often, forgoing more lucrative options in the private sector. They deal with incredible frustration on a daily basis and stomach churning compromise as they inch their way to what they earnestly (for the most part) believe in. That doesn't matter to Trump. He wants to make people feel good about the fact that there are simple solutions perceived in an instant by amateurs that have somehow escaped the career professionals for years.

Taleb played exactly the same game. By standing up the straw man of naive frequentism and then knocking it down (in a rather longwinded fashion) he invited the lay audience to make fun of "autistic savants" working in banks in quantitative roles. Having never had anything to do with Fixed Income he offered zero perspective on the actual causes of the crisis and zero actionable intelligence thereafter - unless you think that "models bad" or "debt bad" is advice. Personally, I find it right up there with "China bad" or "Mexico bad". Hey Taleb, should we get rid of "waste and abuse" too?

Then there is the absence of a platform. Trump's tremendous confidence is rooted in the knowledge that his supporters don't give a damn that he has virtually no actual policy. What exists is so counter to basic arithmetic it beggars belief, but that doesn't matter either. Taleb, similarly, offers no actual theory to speak of. His arguments are in no danger of being moulded into actual logic (by himself or others). And worse, he is too lazy or ignorant to point out to readers where the existing literature would step in. On top of that, he actually thinks it is clever to reduce knowledge. Taleb appeared before congress and suggested, entirely seriously, that it would be better to have no research into financial stability because knowledge is a bad thing.

Finally, there is the manipulation of the audience. Trump, we must acknowledge, is an intelligent human being. So is Taleb, though I suspect less so. But both know that they have an audience who is uneducated and easily swayed by emotion and posturing. They can play the strong man with little chance of pushback. They are fundamentally patronizing and dishonest. Taleb addresses audiences who haven't picked up a textbook in thirty to fifty years, if ever, and knows he isn't going to be challenged on logical flaws in his arguments or callous disregard for literature. Readers want someone to help them beat up on all the bad people out there like academics who dare to write papers about economics.

We should be deeply suspicious of those who offer simple answers to complex problems. As Bartlett said to Ritchie, what are the next ten words in your answer, Mr Taleb? And the next ten after that?