Tag: <span>Antifragility</span>

Remind Me What The Heck Your Point is Again?

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The other day I was talking to my brother and he said, “How would you describe your blog in a couple of sentences?”

It probably says something about my professionalism (or lack thereof) that I didn’t have some response ready to spit out. An elevator pitch, if you will. Instead I told him, “That’s a tough one.” Much of this difficulty comes because, if I were being 100% honest, the fairest description of my blog would boil down to: I write about fringe ideas I happen to find interesting. Of course, this description is not going to get me many readers, particularly if they have no idea whether there’s any overlap between what I find interesting and what they find interesting.

I didn’t say this to my brother, mostly because I didn’t think of it at the time. Instead, after few seconds, I told him, well of course the blog does have a theme, it’s right there in the title, but I admitted that it might be more atmospheric than explanatory. Though I think we can fix that with the addition of a few words. Which is how Jeremiah 8:20 shows up on my business cards. (Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff your donations get spent on, FYI.) With those few words added it reads:

The harvest [of technology] is past, the summer [of progress] is ended, and we are not saved.

If I was going to be really pedantic, I might modify it, and hedge, so it read as follows:

Harvesting technology is getting more complex, the summer where progress was easy is over, and I think we should prepare for the possibility that we won’t be saved.

If I was going to be more literary and try to pull in some George R.R. Martin fans I might phrase it:

What we harvest no longer feeds us, and winter is coming.

But once again, you would be forgiven if, after all this, you’re still unclear on what this blog is about (other than weird things I find interesting). To be fair, to myself, I did explain all of this in the very first post, and re-reading it recently, I think it held up fairly well. But it could be better, and this assumes that people have even read my very first post, which is unlikely since at the time my readership was at its nadir, and despite my complete neglect of anything resembling marketing, since then, it has grown, and presumably at least some of those people have not read the entire archive.

Accordingly, I thought I’d take another shot at it. To start, one concept which runs through much (though probably not all) of what I write, is the principle of antifragility, as introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book of (nearly) the same name.

I already dedicated an entire post to explaining the ideas of Taleb, so I’m not going to repeat that here. But, in brief, Taleb starts with what should be an uncontroversial idea, that the world is random. He then moves on to point out the effects of that, particularly in light of the fact that most people don’t recognize how random things truly are. They are often Fooled by Randomness (the title of his first book) into thinking that there’s patterns and stability when there aren’t. From there he moves on to talk about extreme randomness through introducing the idea of a Black Swan (the name of his second book) which is something that:

  1. Lies outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. Has an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterwards to show how it should have been expected.

It’s important at this point to clarify that not all black swans are negative. And technology has generally had the effect of increasing the number of black swans of both the positive (internet) and negative (financial crash) sort. In my very first post I said that we were in a race between these two kinds of black swans, though rather than calling them positive or negative black swans I called them singularities and catastrophes. And tying it back into the theme of the blog a singularity is when technology saves us, and a catastrophe is when it doesn’t.

If we’re living in a random world, with no way to tell whether we’re either going to be saved by technology or doomed by it, then what should we do? This is where Taleb ties it all together under the principle of antifragility, and as I mentioned it’s one of the major themes of this blog. Enough so that another short description of the blog might be:

Antifragility from a Mormon perspective.

But I still haven’t explained antifragility, to say nothing of antifragility from a Mormon perspective, so perhaps I should do that first. In short, things that are fragile are harmed by chaos and things that are antifragile are helped by chaos. I would argue that it’s preferable to be antifragile all of the time, but it is particularly important when things get chaotic. Which leads to two questions: How fragile is society? And how chaotic are things likely to get? I have repeatedly argued that society is very fragile and that things are likely to get significantly more chaotic. And further, that technology increases both of these qualities

Earlier, I provided a pedantic version of the theme, changing (among other things) the clause “we are not saved” to the clause “we should prepare for the possibility that we won’t be saved.” As I said, Taleb starts with the idea that the world is random, or in other words unpredictable, with negative and positive black swans happening unexpectedly. Being antifragile entails reducing your exposure to negative black swans while increasing your exposure to positive black swans. In other words being prepared for the possibility that technology won’t save us.

To be fair, it’s certainly possible that technology will save us. And I wouldn’t put up too much of a fight if you argued it was the most likely outcome. But I take serious issue with anyone who wants to claim that there isn’t a significant chance of catastrophe. To be antifragile, consists of realizing that the cost of being wrong if you assume a catastrophe and there isn’t one, is much less than if you assume no catastrophe and there is one.

It should also be pointed out that most of the time antifragility is relative. To give an example, if I’m a prepper and the North Koreans set off an EMP over the US which knocks out all the power for months. I may go from being a lower class schlub to being the richest person in town. In other words chaos helped me, but only because I reduced my exposure to that particular negative black swan, and most of my neighbors didn’t.

Having explained antifragility (refer back to the previous post if things are still unclear) what does Mormonism bring to the discussion? I would offer that it brings a lot.

First, Mormonism spends quite a bit of time stressing the importance of antifragility, though they call it self reliance, and emphasis things like staying out of debt, having a plan for emergency preparedness, and maintaining a multi-year supply of food. This aspect is not one I spend a lot of time on, but it is definitely an example of Mormon antifragility.

Second, Mormons, while not as apocalyptic as some religions nevertheless reference the nearness of the end right in their name. We’re not merely Saints, we are the “Latter-Day Saints”. While it is true that some members are more apocalyptic than others, regardless of their belief level I don’t think many would dismiss the idea of some kind of Armageddon outright. Given that, if you’re trying to pick a winner in the race between catastrophe and singularity or more broadly, negative or positive black swans, belonging to religion which claims we’re in the last days could help break that tie. Also as I mentioned it’s probably wisest to err on the side of catastrophe anyway.

Third, I believe Mormon Doctrine provides unique insight into some of the cutting edge futuristic issues of the day. Over the last three posts I laid out what those insights are with respect to AI, but in other posts I’ve talked about how the LDS doctrine might answer Fermi’s Paradox. And of course there’s the long running argument I’ve had with the Mormon Transhumanist Association over what constitutes an appropriate use of technology and what constitutes inappropriate uses of technology. This is obviously germane to the discussion of whether technology will save us. And what the endpoint of that technology will end up being. And it suggests another possible theme:

Connecting the challenges of technology to the solutions provided by LDS Doctrine.

Finally, any discussion of Mormonism and religion has to touch on the subject of morality. For many people issues of promiscuity, abortion, single-parent families, same sex marriage, and ubiquitous pornography are either neutral or benefits of the modern world. This leads some people to conclude that things are as good as they’ve ever been and if we’re not on the verge of a singularity then at least we live in a very enlightened era, where people enjoy freedoms they could have never previously imagined.

The LDS Church and religion in general (at least the orthodox variety) take the opposite view of these developments, pointing to them as evidence of a society in serious decline. Perhaps you feel the same way, or perhaps you agree with the people who feel that things are as good as they’ve ever been, but if you’re on the fence. Then, one of the purposes of this blog is to convince you that even if there is no God, that it would be foolish to dismiss religion as a collection of irrational biases, as so many people do. Rather, if we understand the concept of antifragility, it is far more likely that rather than being irrational that religion instead represents the accumulated wisdom of a society.

This last point deserves a deeper dive, because it may not be immediately apparent to you why religions would necessarily accumulate wisdom or what any of this has to do with antifragility. But religious beliefs can only be either fragile or antifragile, they can either break under pressure or get stronger. (In fairness, there is a third category, things which neither break nor get stronger, Taleb calls this the robust category, but in practice it’s very rare for things to be truly robust.) If religious beliefs were fragile, or created fragility then they would have disappeared long ago. Only beliefs which created a stronger society would have endured.

Please note that I am not saying that all religious beliefs are equally good at encouraging antifragile behavior. Some are pointless or even irrational, but others, particularly those shared by several religions are very likely lessons in antifragility. But a smaller and smaller number of people have any religious beliefs and an even smaller number are willing to actively defend these beliefs, particularly those which prohibit a behavior currently in fashion.

However, if these beliefs are as useful and as important as I say they are then they need all the defending they can get. Though in doing this a certain amount of humility is necessary. As I keep pointing out, we can’t predict the future. And maybe the combination of technology and a rejection of traditional morality will lead to some kind of transhuman utopia, where people live forever, change genders whenever they feel like it and live in a fantastically satisfying virtual reality, in which everyone is happy.

I don’t think most people go that far in their assessment of the current world, but the vast majority don’t see any harm in the way things are either, but what if they’re wrong about that?

And this might in fact represent yet another way of framing the theme of this blog:

But what if we’re wrong?

In several posts I have pointed out the extreme rapidity with which things have changed, particularly in the realm of morality, where, in a few short years, we have overturned religious taboos stretching back centuries or more. The vast majority of people have decided that this is fine, and, that in fact, as I already mentioned, it’s an improvement on our benighted past. But even if you don’t buy my argument about religions being antifragile I would hope you would still wonder, as I do, “But what if we’re wrong?”

This questions not only applies to morality, but technology saving us, the constant march of progress, politics, and a host of other issues. And I can’t help but think that people appear entirely too certain about the vast majority of these subjects.

In order bring up the possibility of wrongness, especially when you’re the ideological minority there has to be freedom of speech, another area I dive into from time to time in this space. Also you can’t talk about freedom of speech or the larger ideological battles around speech without getting into the topic of politics. A subject I’ll return to.

As I have already mentioned, and as you have no doubt noticed the political landscape has gotten pretty heated recently and there are no signs of it cooling down. I would argue, as others have, that this makes free speech and open dialogue more important than ever. In this endeavor I end up sharing a fair amount of overlap with the rationalist community. Which you must admit is interesting given the fact that this community clearly has a large number of atheists in it’s ranks. But that failing aside, I largely agree with much of what they say, which is why I link to Scott Alexander over at SlateStarCodex so often.

On the subject of free speech the rationalists and I are definitely in agreement. Eliezer Yudkowsky, an AI theorist, who I mentioned a lot in the last few posts, is also one of the deans of rationality and he had this to say about free speech:

There are a very few injunctions in the human art of rationality that have no ifs, ands, buts, or escape clauses. This is one of them. Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever.

I totally agree with this point, though I can see how some people might choose to define some of the terms more or less broadly, leading to significant differences in the actual implementation of the rule. Scott Alexander is one of those people, and he chooses to focus on the idea of the bullet, arguing that we should actually expand the prohibition beyond just literal bullets or even literal weapons. Changing the injunction to:

Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.

In essence he want’s to include anything that’s designed to silence the argument rather than answer it. And why is this important? Well if you’ve been following the news at all you’ll know that there has been a recent case where exactly this thing happened, and a bad argument got someone fired. (Assuming it even was a bad argument which might be a subject for another time.)

Which ties back into asking, “But what if we’re wrong?” Because unless we have a free and open marketplace of ideas where things can succeed and fail based on their merits, rather than whether they’re the flavor of the month, how are we ever going to know if we’re wrong? If you have any doubts as to whether the majority is always right then you should be incredibly fearful of any attempt to allow the majority to determine what gets said.

And this brings up another possible theme for the blog:

Providing counterarguments for bad arguments about technology, progress and religion.

Running through all of this, though most especially with the topic I just discussed, free speech, is politics. The primary free speech ground is political, but issues like morality and technology and fragility all play out at the political level as well.

I often joke that you know those two things that you’re not supposed to talk about? Religion and politics? Well I decided to create a blog where I discuss both. Leading me to yet another possible theme:

Religion and Politics from the perspective of a Mormon who thinks he’s smarter than he probably is.

Perhaps the final thread running through everything, is like most people I would like to be original, which is hard to do. The internet has given us a world where almost everything you can think of saying has been said already. (Though I’ve yet to find anyone making exactly the argument I make when it comes to Fermi’s Paradox and AI.) But there is another way to approximate originality and that is to say things that other people don’t dare to say, but which hopefully, are nevertheless true. Which is part of why I record under a pseudonym. So far the episode that most fits that description is the episode I did on LGBT youth and suicide, with particular attention paid to the LDS stand and role in that whole debate.

Going forward I’d like to do more of that. And it suggests yet another possible theme:

Saying what you haven’t thought of or have thought of but don’t dare to bring up.

In the end, the most accurate description of the blog is still, that I write about fringe ideas I happen to find interesting, but at least by this point you have a better idea of the kind of things I find interesting and if you find them interesting as well, I hope you’ll stick around. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it within an actual post, but on the right hand side of the blog there’s a link to sign up for my mailing list, and if you did find any of the things I talked about interesting, consider signing up.


Do you know what else interests me? Money. I know that’s horribly crass, and I probably shouldn’t have stated it so bluntly, but if you’d like to help me continue to write, consider donating, because money is an interesting thing which helps me look into other interesting things.


The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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At the moment I find myself in the middle of two books by Steven Pinker. The first, Better Angels of Our Nature, has been mentioned a couple of times in this space and I thought it a good idea to read it, if I was going to continue referencing it. I’m nearly done and I expect that next week I’ll post a summary/review/critique. The second Pinker book I’m reading is his book on writing called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. When the time comes you’ll see that my review of Better Angels of Our Nature is full of criticisms, but a criticism of Pinker’s writing will not be among them. Sense of Style is his book of writing advice, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It continues a wealth of quality advice on non-fiction writing.

One piece of advice in particular jumped out at me. Pinker cautions writers to avoid the curse of knowledge. This particular example of bad writing happens because authors are generally so immersed in the topics they write about that they assume everyone must be familiar with the same ideas, terms and abbreviations they are. You see this often in academia and among professionals like doctors and attorneys. They spend so much of their time talking about a common set of ideas and situations that they develop a professional jargon, within which  acronyms and specialized terms proliferate leading to what could almost be classified as a different language, or at a minimum a very difficult to understand dialect. This may be okay, if not ideal, when academics are talking to other academics and doctors are talking to other doctors, but it becomes problematic when you make any attempt to share those ideas with a broader audience.

Pinker illustrates the problems with jargon using the following example:

The slow and integrative nature of conscious perception is confirmed behaviorally by observations such as the “rabbit illusion” and its variants, where the way in which a stimulus is ultimately perceived is influenced by poststimulus events arising several hundreds of milliseconds after the original stimulus.

Pinker points out that the entire paragraph is hard to understand and full of jargon, but that the key problem is that the author assumes that everyone automatically knows what the “rabbit illusion” is, and perhaps within the author’s narrow field of expertise, it is common knowledge, but that’s almost certainly a very tiny community, a community to which most of his readers do not belong. Pinker himself did not belong to this community despite the fact that the quote was taken from a paper written by two neuroscientists and Pinker, himself, specializes in cognitive neuroscience as a professor at Harvard.

As an aside for those who are curious, the rabbit illusion refers to the effect produced when you have someone close their eyes and then you tap their wrist a few times, followed by their elbow and their shoulder. They will feel a series of taps running up the length of their arm, similar to a rabbit hopping. And the point of the paragraph quoted, is to point out that the body interprets a tap on the wrist differently if it’s followed by taps farther up the arm, then if it’s not.

This extended preface is all an effort to say that in the past posts I may have have fallen prey to the curse of knowledge. I may have let my own knowledge (meager and misguided though it may be) blind me to things that are not widely known to the public at large and which I tossed out without sufficient explanation. I feel like I have been particularly guilty of this when it comes to the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, thus this post will be an attempt to rectify that oversight. It is hoped that this, along with a general resolve to do better about avoiding the curse of knowledge in the future will expulcate me from future guilt. (Though apparently not of the desire to use words like “expulcate”.)

In undertaking a survey of Taleb’s thinking in the space of a few thousand words, I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but I’m optimistic that I can at least give you the 10,000 foot view of his ideas.

Conceptually Taleb’s thinking all begins with the idea of understanding randomness. His first book was titled Fooled by Randomness, because frequently what we assume is a trend, or a cause and effect relationship is actually just random noise. Perhaps the best example of this is the Narrative Fallacy, which Taleb explains as follows:

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

Upon initially hearing that explanation you may be thinking of the previous paragraph about the “rabbit illusion”. I think Taleb’s writing is easier to understand, but the paragraph is a little dense, so I’ll try and unpack it. But first, what’s interesting, is that there is connection between the “rabbit illusion” and the narrative fallacy. As I mentioned the “rabbit illusion” comes because the body connects taps on the wrist, elbow and shoulder into a narrative of movement, in this case a rabbit hopping up the arm. In the same way the narrative fallacy comes into play when we try to collect isolated events into a single story that explains everything, even if those isolated events are completely random. This is what Taleb is saying. It’s almost impossible for us to not try and pull events and facts together into a single story that explains everything. But in doing so we may think we understand something when really we don’t.

To illustrate the point I’ll borrow an example from Better Angels, since I just read it. The famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould was touring the Waitomo glowworm caves in New Zealand, and when he looked up he realized that the glowworms made the ceiling look like the night sky, except there were no constellations. Gould realized that this was because the patterns required for constellations only happened in a random distribution (which is how the stars are distributed) but that the glowworms actually weren’t randomly distributed. For reasons of biology (glowworms eat other glowworms) each worm kept a minimum distance. This leads to a distribution that looks random but actually isn’t. And yet, counterintuitively we’re able to find patterns in the randomness of the stars, but not in the less random spacing of the glowworms.

It’s important to understand this way in which our mind builds stories out of unconnected events because it leads us to assume underlying causes and trends when there aren’t any. The explanations going around about election are great examples of this. If 140,000 people had voted differently (125k in Florida and 15k in Michigan) then the current narrative would be completely different. This is, after all, the same country who elected Obama twice, and by much bigger margins. Did the country really change that much or did the narrative change in an attempt match the events of the election? Events which probably had a fair degree of randomness. Every person needs to answer that question for themselves, but I, for one, am confident that the country hasn’t actually moved that much, but how we explain the country and it’s citizens has moved by a lot.

This is why understanding the narrative fallacy is so important. Without that understanding it’s easy to get caught up in the story we’ve constructed and believe that you understand something about the world, or even worse that based on that understanding that you can predict the future. As a final example, I offer up the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of at least 100,000 people (and probably a lot more). And all because of the narrative: Islamic bad-guys caused 9/11, Sadaam is only vaguely Islamic, but definitely a bad guy. Get him! (This is by no means the worst example of deaths caused by the narrative fallacy, see my discussion of the Great Leap Forward.)

Does all of this mean that the world is simply random and any attempts to understand it are futile? No, but it does mean that it’s more important to understand what can happen than to attempt to predict what will happen. And this takes us to the next concept I want to discuss, the difference between the worlds of Mediocristan and Extremistan.

Let’s start with Mediocristan. Mediocristan is the world of natural processes. It includes things like height and weight, intelligence, how much someone can lift, how fast they can run etc. If you’ve ever seen the graph of a bell curve this is a good description of what to expect in Mediocristan. You should expect most things to cluster around the middle, or the top of the bell curve, and expect very few things to be on the tail ends of the bell curve. In particular you don’t expect to see anything way off to the right or left of the curve. To put it in numbers for anything in Mediocristan 68% will be one standard deviation from the average, 95% will be within two standard deviations and 99.6% will be within three standard deviations. For a concrete example of this let’s look at the height of US Males.

68% of males will be between 5’6” and 6” tall (I’m rounding a little). 95% of males will be between 5’3” and 6’3” and only one in a 1.7 million males will be over 7’ or under 4’7”. Some of you may be nodding your heads and some of you may be bored, but it’s important that you understand how the world of Mediocristan works. The key points are the average, and the median are very similar. That is that if you took a classroom full of students and lined them up by height the person standing in the middle of the line would be very close to the average height. The second key point is that there are no extremes, there are no men who are 10 feet tall or 16 inches tall. This is medicrostan. And when I said it’s more important to understand what can happen, than attempting to predict what will happen, in Mediocristan lots of extreme events can not happen. You’ll never see a 50 foot tall woman, and the vast majority of men you meet will be between 5’3” and 6’3”.

If the whole world was Mediocristan, then things would be fairly straightforward, but there is another world in which we live. It takes up the same space and involves the same people as the first world, but the rules are vastly different. This is Extremistan. And Extremistan is primarily the world of man-made systems. A good example is wealth. The average person is 5’4”, the tallest person ever was 8’11” tall. But the average person in the world has a net worth of $26,202 while the richest person in the world (Currently Bill Gates) has a net worth of $75 billion which is 2.8 million times the worth of the average person. Imagine that the tallest person in the world was actually 2,800 miles tall, and you get a sense of the difference between Mediocristan and Extremistan.

The immediate consequence of this disparity is that the exact opposite opposite rules apply in Extremistan as what applies in Mediocristan. The average and the median are not the same. And some examples will be very much on the extreme. In particular you start to understand that in a world with this sorts of extremes in what can happen it becomes very difficult to predict what will happen.

Additionally Extremistan is the world of black swans, which is the next concept I want to cover and the title of Taleb’s second book. Once again this is a term you might be familiar with, but it’s important to understand that they form a key component in understanding what can happen in Extremistan.

In short a Black Swan is something that:

  1. Lies outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. Has an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterword to show how it should have been expected.

You’ll notice that two of those points are about the prediction of black swans. The first point being that they can’t be predicted and the third point being that people will retroactively attempt to show that it should have been possible to predict it. One of the key points I try and make in this blog is that you can’t predict the future. This is terrifying for people and that’s why point 3 is so interesting. Everyone wants to think that they could have predicted the black swan, and that having seen it once they won’t miss it again, but in fact that’s not true, they will still end up being surprised the next time around.

But if we live in Extremistan, which is full of unpredictable black swans what do we do? Knowing what the world is capable of is one thing, but unless we can take some steps to mitigate these black swans what’s the point?

And here we arrive at the last idea I want to cover and the underlying idea behind Taleb’s final book, Antifragility. As I mentioned the concept of Antifragility is important enough that you should probably just read the book, in fact you should probably read all of Taleb’s books. But for the moment we’ll assume that you haven’t (and if you have you why have you even gotten this far?)

Antifragility is how you deal with black swans and how you live in Extremistan. It’s also your lifestyle if you’re not fooled by randomness. This is why Taleb considered Antifragile his mangum opus because it pulls in all of the ideas from his previous books and puts them into a single framework. That’s great, you may be saying, but you’re unclear on what antifragility is.

At it’s core antifragility is straightforward. To be antifragile is to get stronger in response to stress. (Up to a point.) The problem is when people hear that idea it sounds magical, if not impossible. They imagine cars that get stronger the more accidents they’re in or software that becomes more secure when someone attempts to hack it, or a government that gets more stable with every attempt to overthrow it. While none of this is impossible, I agree, that when stated this way the idea of antifragility seems a little bit magical.

If instead you explain antifragility in terms of muscles, which get stronger the more you stress them, then people find it easier to understand, but at the same time they will have a hard time expanding it beyond natural systems. Having established that Extremistan and black swans are mostly present in artificial systems antifragility is not going to be any good if you can’t extend it into that domain. In other words if you explain antifragility to people in isolation their general response will be to call it a nice idea, but they may have difficulty understanding the real world utility of the idea, and it’s possible that my previous discussions on the topic have left you in just this situation. Which is why I felt compelled to write this post.

Hopefully by covering Taleb’s ideas in something of a chronological order the idea of antifragility will be easier to understand. And it comes by flipping much of conventional wisdom on it’s head. Rather than being fooled by randomness, if you’re antifragile you expect randomness. Rather than being surprised by black swans, you prepare for them, knowing that there are both positive and negative black swans. Armed with this knowledge you lessen your exposure to negative black swans while increasing your exposure to positive black swans. All of this allows you to live comfortably in Extremistan.

If this starts to look like we’ve wandered into the realm of magical thinking again, I don’t blame you, but at it’s essence being antifragile is straightforward, for our purposes antifragility is about making sure you have unlimited upside, and limited downside. Does this mean that something which is fragile has limited upside and unlimited downside? Pretty much, and you may wonder if we’re talking about man-made systems why would anyone make something fragile. This is an excellent question. And the answer is that it all depends on the order in which things happen. In artificial systems fragility is marked by the practice of taking short term, limited profits, but having the chance of catastrophic losses. On the opposite side antifragility is marked by incurring short term limited costs, but having the chance of stratospheric profits. Fragility assumes the world is not random, assumes there are no black swans and ekes out small profits in the space between extreme events. (If this sounds like the banking system then you’re starting to get the idea.) Antifragility assumes the world is random and that black swans are on the horizon and pays small manageable costs to protect itself from those black swans (or gain access to them if they’re positive).

In case it’s still unclear here are some examples:

Insurance: If you’re fragile, you save the money you would have spent on insurance every month, a small limited profit, but risk the enormous cost of a black swan in the form of a car crash or a home fire. If you’re antifragile you pay the cost of insurance every month, a small limited cost, but avoid the enormous expense of the negative black swan, should it ever happen.

Investing: If you put away a small amount of money every month you gain access to a system with potential black swans. Trading a small, limited cost for the potential of a big payout. If you don’t invest, you get that money, a small limited profit, but miss out on any big payouts.

Government Debt: By running a deficit governments get the limited advantage of being able to spend more than they take in. But in doing so they create a potentially huge black swan, should an extreme event happen.

Religion: By following religious commandments you have to put up with the cost of not enjoying alcohol, or fornication, or Sunday morning, but in return you avoid the negative black swans of alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies, and not having a community of friends when times get tough. If you don’t follow the commandments you get your Sunday mornings, and I hear whiskey is pretty cool, but you open yourself up to all of the negative swans mentioned above. And of course I haven’t even brought in the idea of an eternal reward (see Pascal’s Wager.)

Hopefully we’ve finally reached the point where you can see why Taleb’s ideas are so integral to the concept of this blog.

The modern world is top heavy with fragility, and the story of progress is the story of taking small limited profits while ignoring potential catastrophes. In contrast, Antifragility requires sacrifice, it requires cost, it requires dedication and effort. And, as I have said again and again in this space, I fear that all of those are currently in short supply


The Change Hurricane: Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East German’s in 1988?

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Every so often in history everything changes, and people can find themselves in situations which seemed unthinkable just a few years or even a few months beforehand. Examples of this include the Sack of Baghdad (which I’ve already talked about), Poland during World War II, the Taiping Rebellion, the fall of the Aztecs and of course the recent Syrian Civil War. In all of these cases there was definitely a certain degree of surprise attached, which is not to say that these catastrophes came out of nowhere, or even that no one could have predicted them, just that they generally happened more quickly than expected and when they did happen the consequences were much worse than generally anticipated.

As we look back at these catastrophes they are all strong arguments in favor of preparing for the worst. Of course preparing for the worst is costly, but these are all situations where even large costs would have been worth it if you could be sure of avoiding the one big catastrophe. As just one example if you were a Jew in Poland in 1937, however inconvenient it might have been to take your family to America, it would have been way better than any outcome which involved staying in Poland. Yes you may not have spoken the language. Yes immigration would have been costly and difficult. Yes, you may have left friends and family and your home, but anything is better than what did happen.

Some people will argue that while all of this is obvious in hindsight, could you really expect the Polish Jews to realize all of that was coming in 1937? And this is an excellent point. To put it in more recent terms, no one imagined in January of 2011 that the Syrian Civil War would still be going on in November of 2016, that Assad would still be in power (and likely to remain in power) and that 400,000 people would have died. But in the same vein of things being clear only in hindsight, once things have happened it’s too late to do anything about them. Obviously the ideal solution is to see things before they happen, but that’s impossible. Or is it?

It is impossible to be sure about anything that hasn’t happened. Our hypothetical Jew could have fled Poland in 1937 only to have Hitler assassinated in November of 1939 by Johann Georg Elser, perhaps leading to a situation where death camps never happened. In other words it could have very easily ended up being a bad idea to make huge sacrifices in order to flee Poland. To use an actual example you could have crafted a daring plan to escape from East Berlin to West Berlin in May of 1989, risking death, when all you had to do was wait six months.

This is the question we’re faced with. Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East Germans in 1988? And that’s nearly impossible to know, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to which way the wind is blowing and whether it’s a gentle breeze or hurricane force winds. Lately it appears that it might be the latter and that it might be blowing in the wrong direction.

As I said in my last episode, I’m at least as worried about the reaction to the election of Trump as I am about the actual election. But it’s not just the US where winds seem to be blowing in a worrisome direction and with powerful force. I’m seeing things all over the world that are worrisome and potentially catastrophic. Here’s a quick sample of some areas of concern from around the world:

1- NATO could be disintegrating: First there’s the election of Trump, but on top of that we have the top two candidates in the upcoming French Election both favoring closer ties to Russia, with even the establishment candidate saying “Russia poses no threat to the west.” As I have argued in the past Russia views NATO expansion as a major threat and a major betrayal, there’s no easier way to get on their good side than pulling back from that expansion and no quicker way to get on their bad side than seeking to continue NATO expansion.

2- Italy might be on the verge of collapse. You may or may not have heard about the huge vote recently in Italy, regarding some constitutional reforms. The leader of Italy, Matteo Renzi, said that the reforms were necessary to bring stability to Italy and he consequently resigned when they were not passed. Having a change of governments in Italy is nothing newsworthy, but Italy is in a serious financial crisis and Italian bonds represent the third largest bond market in the world. Italy may be facing a financial Armageddon regardless of what happens.

3- Turkey is getting progressively more autocratic. Turkey is still a democracy, and they still hold elections (also there’s the occasional coup) but those elections are becoming increasingly pointless. Recep Erdogan has a pretty good chokehold on things and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Also as Turkey becomes more autocratic, the ideological split between them and Europe widens. As an example the EU Parliament recently voted to end talks on Turkey’s membership in the EU. Turkey is still part of NATO, but on that issue I refer you back to point number 1.

4- The Middle East and North Africa are still a mess. We’ve already talked about the Syrian Civil War, and of course there’s ISIS. The good news is that ISIS appears to be near defeat, the bad news is that no one knows what happens once the various players in the region no longer have a common enemy. Also, like most people you may have forgotten about Libya, or if you haven’t you may have heard that a peace deal was signed. Well whatever the effects of that deal there’s still a vast civil war taking place, with Obama saying that not being prepared for a post Gaddafi Libya was the biggest mistake of his presidency.

5- Venezuela is suffering from hyperinflation and economic collapse. Of course the economic problems are the result of a huge power struggle between President Nicolás Maduro and his opponents, but just because there’s an explanation doesn’t mean that there’s an easy to fix. And as a side effect of this Venezuela has the highest per capita murder rate in the world.

As it stands, individually, none of these five items seems like that big of a deal or that catastrophic. Just the normal rumblings of the world. But each of them could grow into something huge. Going back through the list:

The end of NATO would mean the end of American hegemony. It has to end eventually, and better it end with a whimper than a bang, but the world that comes after it ends could be very different.

Events in Italy could mean the end of the EU, which is already looking shaky after Brexit. Also we’ve see how financial contagion spreads. The failure of Italian banks or bonds could mean another global financial crisis.

Turkey is the traditional foe of Russia. If both are resurgent and NATO goes away, do hostilities start again? How soon before Turkey and Erdogen decide that they need nukes?

The Middle East and North Africa have never been poster childs for stability, but now the chaos is beginning to spread. Refugees from these two areas are one of the major driving factors behind the EU crisis and a contributing factor to what’s happening in Italy. Syria seems bad enough already but it could get worse.

Venezuela is on it’s way to becoming a failed state. Does having a failed state to our south look the same as Europe having failed states to the south of them? It seems like, best case scenario, we end up in a situation similar to Argentina under Pinochet, and as someone who spent the latter half of the 80’s in high school debate, I can vouch for how much hand-wringing he caused.

But perhaps you remain unconvinced. So I will turn to something which does involve potential global catastrophe, nukes, war, China and shamans… I’m speaking of course about North and South Korea.

We all know that North Korea has nukes, but since the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011, the rate of advancement North Korea has shown both with nuclear weapons and missiles, has been, well, impressive. Just this year they’ve done two nuclear tests and 21 missile tests. There has always been an appalling lack of any concrete options with respect to North Korea, but as their technology gets better all the former bad options just keep getting worse.

When North Korea had just one nuke they mostly used it for leverage to acquire food aid, and as one more deterrent against invasion. Now that they have several nukes and increasingly advanced delivery systems what will they do? I think people kind of assume that things would continue as before, there would be a lot of bluster. Minor cross border incidents involving fatalities, a general despair, but nothing big would happen. But increasingly the winds of change in that region appear to be blowing more strongly. A sense of urgency is growing, and a consensus developing that North Korea is planning to use its weapons to dictate events on the peninsula. Perhaps demanding that the Americans leave.

I’ve talked before, at some length, about how nukes are qualitatively different than any previous weapon. And this illustrates the point. Imagine that North Korea got to the point where they could hit the west coast with an nuke. (Some estimates put this at only five years away.) And they threaten to nuke San Francisco unless we  remove all our forces from the Korean Peninsula. What are our options? We might hope that China would cut off trade, but it’s not like the North Koreans aren’t used to sanctions and hardship. In other words I’m sure there would be all sorts of diplomatic reactions, but there’s a good chance they wouldn’t work. So we’re looking at the threat of a nuke hitting San Francisco, and we’re out of diplomatic options. Now what?

Obviously it would be great if we could shoot the missile down, but as I mentioned in the previous episode on nukes, that’s actually difficult. A lot would depend on whether we had the right ships in place to shoot the missile down when it was launched. But let’s say, optimistically, that we have an 80% chance of shooting it down. Are we willing refuse their demands and accept a 20% chance of SF getting nuked? If we’re not willing to do that (and I suspect we wouldn’t be) what other options do we have? We could, of course, always invade, but that just changes the SF missile from a possibility to a certainty. And adds enormous war deaths on top of it.

In addition to the increased external tension between South and North Korea. South Korea is dealing with a major political crisis of its own. It’s current president Park Geun-hye has an approval rating among 19-39 year olds of 0%. Yes, you read that right, the number of people under 40 who like her is statistically undetectable. This is where the shamans come in. The reason for her unpopularity is that she has engaged in frequent consultation with an old friend who is the leader of a shamanistic cult. (In a fashion similar to Nancy Reagan.) Just the consultation might be a storm that could be weathered, but the president also funneled money to her friend.

Does the weakness and unpopularity of the South Korean president make the North Korean situation worse? That’s hard to say for sure, but it certainly doesn’t make it any better. And it seems safe to assume that for people living in South Korea things must seem pretty chaotic. Thus just like the Polish Jew in 1937 and the East German in 1988. The South Korean of 2016 is faced with a choice. They can do nothing and take their chances. Or they can spend time and money trying to mitigate the downsides of various potential catastrophes. In the latter case they’re still taking their chances they’re just trying to lower the odds of something truly bad happening.

It’s always possible that the North Korean government will collapse (though this isn’t necessarily great for South Korea either) or that some other, positive black swan will emerge, and the 2016 South Korean will be in the situation of the 1988 East German. But it’s also possible that the 2016 South Korean will be much closer in circumstances to the 1937 Polish Jew. As I said you can’t know for sure. And it’s always a balancing act between the admittedly high probability that things will be okay which makes preparing for the worst just wasted time and money, or, on the other hand, the small possibility that things will be awful, and you’ll be grateful for every bit of preparation and upset that you didn’t do more.

One of the reasons I’m recording this episode and indeed one of the reasons for having this podcast in general is that people have a tendency to underestimate the chances of something bad happening. So if you’re on the fence about which course to choose I think you should choose to be prepared. But perhaps even more important I think you need to be aware of the political weather. If you’re a 1937 Polish Jew and you’re not paying attention to Hitler then of course you’re going to make the wrong choice. On the other hand for those East Germans preparing to escape in 1988 Gorbachev had been in power since 1985, so for them the wind was blowing the opposite direction and they just had to wait.

The title of the episode is The Change Hurricane, and thus far all I’ve talked about is some local storms which, while scary, and possibly globally significant (I can only imagine what would happen if North Korea nuked San Francisco) are still fairly local. If we’re talking about hurricane’s one would expect something bigger than just a spat between the two Koreas which has been going on since 1948. I am of the opinion that things are bigger than just the isolated incidents I mentioned above, but this is also where things get more speculative. Also it’s time for another list.

Outside of the storms I’ve mentioned here are some of the longer term weather patterns which I think are blowing in the wrong direction:

1- Declining American Power: We’ve already talked about the end of the American hegemony and as I mentioned it has to end eventually, and when it does I doubt we’re going to transition to another unipolar world, or even a bipolar world. I think there will be lots of countries trying to fill the gap. Certainly China and Russia, but also Turkey, Iran, India and Brazil are all going to want a piece of the pie. And that could play out in interesting and potentially violent ways.

2- Nuclear proliferation: Closely related to the last point. There are a lot of countries who could currently make a nuclear weapon, but have chosen not to because they consider themselves to be under the US nuclear umbrella. Turkey and Japan would certainly fall into this category. Does a declining America and a belligerent Russia and China set off a new round of proliferation? If it does the chances of weapons being used goes way up.

3- Immigration: This is a hot button issue with lots of emotion on both sides, and by classifying it as a negative trend you may feel that I’m already choosing a side, and perhaps I am, But in a sense this is a secondary effect. If things get worse because of wars or famine or global warming, then the number of people willing to risk nearly anything to get to a better country (similar to our 1937 Polish Jew) is going to go way up. And insofar as I am taking a side I think that there is a limit to the rate at which immigrants can be assimilated, and when this limit is exceeded, things can start changing in unexpected ways, as we’re seeing in Europe.

4- Debt: The modern, developed nation state, is able to accumulate debt in amounts never before imagined. I see that as a huge source of fragility. Perhaps it is or perhaps it isn’t, but we could be getting an example of how bad it can be if Italy runs into problems with its bonds. One early indication that makes me worry about Trump is it looks like he might explode the deficit.

5- Social Unrest: I think by historical standards the level of social unrest is still pretty low. But, as a consequence our tolerance for it is not that high either. What happens if Trump is as bad as his worst critics fear, and we have riots every night in most major cities? I can’t even begin to predict what that looks like, but I think, at a minimum, It’s safe to say that the anti-cop/pro-cop division would become much more pronounced.

6- Environmental concerns: I already mentioned this to a certain extent under immigration, but for many people the trend that worries them the most is global warming. One of the chief arguments is that this makes things worse in places where it’s already pretty bad, like Sub-Saharan Africa. But also if the sea level rises by six meters that’s not good either. I think this is more slow moving than the rest, but it could also be the hardest to do anything about.

This entire episode could be written off as nothing more than fear-mongering. We’re probably not the 1937 Polish Jews and I assume most of my readers aren’t even 2016 South Koreans. We could in fact all be like the 1988 East Germans and we’re only a short time away from the dawning of a new age where we never have to worry about another Hitler, or Nuclear Proliferation or Global Warming, and any preparation you do now is just a waste of time. As they say, anything is possible, but that particular scenario seems unlikely, and not just because we’ve completely neglected to mention things like natural disasters. At least with Korea and Syria we have some control.

In other words.Bad things happen, and most people are surprised by them. But you don’t have to be. If you see which way the wind is blowing you can take steps to lower your risk. And it’s possible that those steps will be a waste of time and money, but it’s also possible that in 2019 when President Trump defaults on the debt, and panic grips the world, that you’ll be glad you spent some time preparing for the worst.


Not Intellectuals Yet Not Idiots

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Back at the time of the Second Gulf War I made a real attempt to up my political engagement. I wanted to understand what was really going on. History was being made and I didn’t want to miss it.

It wasn’t as if before then I had been completely disengaged. I had certainly spent quite a bit of time digging into things during the 2000 election and its aftermath, but I wanted to go a step beyond that. I started watching the Sunday morning talk shows. I began reading Christopher Hitchens. I think it would be fair to say that I immersed myself in the the arguments for and against the war in the months leading up to it. (When it was pretty obvious it was going to happen, but hadn’t yet.)

In the midst of all this I remember repeatedly coming across the term neocon, used in such a way that you were assumed to know what it meant. I mean doesn’t everybody? I confess I didn’t. I had an idea from the context, but it was also clear that I was missing most of the nuance. I asked my father what a neocon was and he mumbled something about them being generally in favor of the invasion, and then, perhaps realizing that, perhaps, he wasn’t 100% sure either, said Bill Kristol is definitely a neocon, listen to him if you want to know.

Now, many years later, I have a pretty good handle on what a neocon is, which I would explain to you if that what this post were about. It’s not. It’s about how sometimes a single word or short phrase can encapsulate a fairly complicated ideology. There are frequently bundles of traits, attitudes and even behavior that can resist an easy definition, but are nevertheless easy to label. Similar to the definition of pornography used by Justice Stewart when the Supreme Court was considering an obscenity case,

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it(my emphasis)

It may be hard to define what a neocon is exactly, but I know one when I see it. Of course, as you have already surmised, neocon is not the only example of this. Other examples include, hipster, or social justice warrior, and lest I appear too biased towards the college millennial set, you could also add the term “red neck” or perhaps even Walmart shopper.

To those terms that already exist, it’s time to add another one: “Intellectual Yet Idiot” or IYI for short. This new label was coined by Taleb in just the last few days. As you may already be aware, I’m a big fan of Taleb, and I try to read just about everything he writes. Sometimes what he writes makes a fairly big splash, and this was one of those times. In the same way that people recognized that there was a group of mostly Jewish, pro-israel, idealistic, unilateralists, with a strong urge to intervene who could be labeled as neocons, it was immediately obvious that there was an analogous bundle of attitudes and behavior that is currently common in academia and government and it also needed a label. Consequently when Taleb provided one it fit into a hole that lots of people had recognized, but no one had gotten around to filling until then. Of course now that it has been filled it immediately becomes difficult to imagine how we ever got along without it before.

Having spent a lot of space just to introduce an article by Taleb, you would naturally expect that the next step would be for me to comment on the article, point out any trenchant phrasing, remark on anything that seemed particularly interesting, and offer amendments to any points where he missed the mark. However, I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to approach things from an entirely different perspective, with a view towards ending up in the same place Taleb did, and only then will I return to Taleb’s article.

I’m going to start my approach with a very broad question. What do we do with history? And to broaden that even further, I’m not only talking about HISTORY! As in wars and rulers, nations and disasters, I’m also talking about historical behaviors, marriage customs, dietary norms, traditional conduct, etc. In other words if everyone from Australian Aborigines to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon to the Romans had marriage in some form or another, what use should we make of that knowledge? Now, if you’ve actually been reading me from the beginning you will know that I already touched on this, but that’s okay, because it’s a topic that deserves as much attention as I can give it.

Returning to the question. While I want “history” to be considered as broadly as possible, I want the term “we” to be considered more narrowly. By “we” I’m not referring to everyone, I’m specifically referring to the decision makers, the pundits, the academics, the politicians, etc. And as long as we’re applying labels, you might label these people the “movers and shakers” or less colloquially the ruling class, and in answer to the original question, I would say that they do very little with history.

I would think claiming that the current ruling class pays very little attention to history, particularly history from more than 100 years ago (and even that might be stretching it), is not an idea which needs very much support. But if you remain unconvinced allow me to offer up the following examples of historically unprecedented things:

1- The financial system – The idea of floating currency, without the backing of gold or silver (or land) has only been around for, under the most optimistic estimate, 100 or so years, and our current run only dates from 1971.

2- The deemphasis of marriage – Refer to the post I already mentioned to see how widespread even the taboo against pre-marital sex was. But also look at the gigantic rise in single parent households. (And of course most of these graphs start around 1960, what was the single parent household percentage in the 1800s? Particularly if you filtered out widows?)

3- Government stability – So much of our thinking is based on the idea that 10 years from now will almost certainly look very similar to right now, when any look at history would declare that to be profoundly, and almost certainly, naive.

4- Constant growth rate – I covered this at great length previously, but once again we are counting on something continuing that is otherwise without precedent.

5- Pornography – While the demand for pornography has probably been fairly steady, the supply of it has, by any estimate, increased a thousand fold in just the last 20 years. Do we have any idea of the long term effect of messing with something as fundamental as reproduction and sex?

Obviously not all of these things are being ignored by all people. Some people are genuinely concerned about issue 1, and possibly issue 2. And I guess Utah (and Russia) is concerned with issue 5, but apparently no one else is, and in fact when Utah recently declared pornography to be a public health crisis, reactions ranged from skeptical to wrong all the way up to hypocritical and, the capper, labeled it pure pseudoscience. In my experience you’ll find similar reactions to those people expressing concerns about issues 1 and 2. They won’t be quite so extreme as the reactions to Utah’s recent actions, but they will be similar.

As a personal example, I once emailed Matt Yglesias about the national debt and while he was gracious enough to respond that response couldn’t have been more patronizing. (I’d dig it up but it was in an old account, but you can find similar stuff from him if you look.) In fact, rather than ignoring history, as you can see from Yglesias’ response, the ruling case often actively disdains it.

Everywhere you turn these days you can see and hear condemnation of our stupid and uptight ancestors and their ridiculous traditions and beliefs. We hear from the atheists that all wars were caused by the superstitions of religions (not true by the way). We hear from the libertines that premarital sex is good for both you and society, and any attempt to suppress it is primitive and tyrannical. We hear from economists that we need to spend more and save less. We heard from doctors and healthcare professionals that narcotics could be taken without risk of addiction. This list goes on and on.

For a moment I’d like to focus on that last one. As I already mentioned I recently read the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones. The book was fascinating on a number of levels, but he mentioned one thing near the start of the book that really stuck with me.

The book as a whole was largely concerned with the opioid epidemic in America, but this particular passage had to do with the developing world, specifically Kenya. In 1980 Jan Stjernsward was made chief of the World Health Organization’s cancer program. As he approached this job he drew upon his time in Kenya years before being appointed to his new position. In particular he remembered the unnecessary pain experienced by people in Kenya who were dying of cancer. Pain that could have been completely alleviated by morphine. He was now in a position to do something about that, and, what’s more morphine is incredibly cheap, so there was no financial barrier. Accordingly, taking advantage of his role at the WHO he established some norms for treating dying cancer patients with opiates, particularly morphine. I’ll turn to Quinones’ excellent book to pick up the story:

But then a strange thing happened. Use didn’t rise in the developing world, which might reasonably be viewed as the region in the most acute pain. Instead, the wealthiest countries, with 20 percent of the world’s population came to consume almost all–more than 90 percent–of the world’s morphine. This was due to prejudice against opiates and regulations on their use in poor countries, on which the WHO ladder apparently had little effect. An opiophobia ruled these countries and still does, as patients are allowed to die in grotesque agony rather than be provided the relief that opium-based painkillers offer.

I agree with the facts, as Quinones lays them out, but I disagree with his interpretation. He claims that prejudice kept the poorer countries from using morphine and other opiates, that they suffered from opiophobia, implying that their fear was irrational. Could it be instead, that they just weren’t idiots

In fact the question should not be why the developing countries had problems with widespread opioid use, but rather why America and the rest of the developing world didn’t. I mean any idiot can tell you that heroin is insanely addictive, but somehow (and Quinones goes into great detail on how this happened) doctors, pain management specialists, pharmaceutical companies, scientist, etc. all convinced themselves that things very much like heroin weren’t that addictive. The people Stjernsward worked with in Kenya didn’t fall into this trap because basically they’re not idiots.

Did the Kenyan doctors make this decision by comparing historical addiction rates? Did they run double-blind studies? Did they peruse back issues of the JAMA and Lancet? Maybe, but probably not. In any case whatever their method for arriving at the decision (and I strongly suspect it was less intellectual than the approach used by western doctors) in hindsight they arrived at the correct decision, while the intellectual decision, backed up by data and a modern progressive morality ended up resulting in  exactly the wrong decision when it came time to decide whether to expand access to opioids. This is what Taleb means by intellectual yet idiot.

To give you a sense of how bad the decision was, in 2014, the last year for which numbers are available 47,000 people died from overdosing on drugs. That’s more than annual automobile deaths, gun deaths, or the number of people that died during the worst year of the AIDS epidemic. You might be wondering what kind of an increase that represents. Switching gears slightly to look just at prescription opioid deaths they’ve increased by 3.4 times since 2000. A net increase of around 13,000 deaths a year. If you add up the net increase over all the years you come up with an additional 100,00 deaths. No matter how you slice it or how you apportion blame, it was a spectacularly bad decision. Intellectual yet idiot.

And sure, we can wish for a world where morphine is available so people don’t die in grotesque agony, but also is simultaneously never abused. But I’m not sure that’s realistic. We may in fact have to choose between serious restrictions on opiates and letting some people experience a lot of pain or fewer restrictions on opiates and watching young healthy people die from overdosing. And while developing countries might arguably do a better job with pain relief for the dying, when we consider the staggering number of deaths, when it came to the big question they undoubtedly made the right decision. Not intellectual yet not an idiot.

It should be clear now that the opiate epidemic is a prime example of the IYI mindset. The smallest degree of wisdom would have told the US decision makers that heroin is bad. I can hear some people already saying, “But it’s not heroin it’s time released oxycodone.” And that is where the battle was lost, that is precisely what Taleb is talking about, that’s the intellectual response which allowed the idiocy to happen. Yes, it is a different molecular structure (though not as different as most people think) but this is precisely the kind of missing the forest for the trees that the IYI mindset specializes in.

Having arrived back at Taleb’s subject by a different route, let’s finally turn to his article and see what he had to say. I’ve already talked about paying attention to history. And in the case of the opiate epidemic we’re not even talking about that much history. Just enough historical awareness to have been more cautious about stuff that is closely related to heroin. But of course I also talked about the developing countries and how they didn’t make that mistake. But I’ve somewhat undercut my point. When you picture doctors in Kenya you don’t picture somehow who knows in intimate detail the history of Bayer’s introduction of heroin in 1898 as a cough suppressant and the later complete ban of heroin in 1924 because it was monstrously addictive.

In other words, I’ve been making the case for greater historical awareness, and yet the people I’ve used as examples are not the first people you think of when the term historical awareness starts being tossed around. However, there are two ways to have historical awareness. The first involves reading Virgil or at least Stephen Ambrose, and is the kind we most commonly think of. But the second is far more prevalent and arguably far more effective. These are people who don’t think about history at all, but nevertheless continue to follow the traditions, customs, and prohibitions which have been passed down to them through countless generations back into the historical depths. This second group doesn’t think about history, but they definitely live history.

I mentioned “red necks” earlier as an example of one of those labels which cover a cluster of attitudes and behaviors. They are also an example of this second group. And further, I would argue, that they should be classified in the not intellectual yet not idiots group.

As Taleb points there is a tension between this group and the IYI’s. From the article:

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences.

The story of the developing countries refusal to make opiates more widely available is a perfect example of the IYI’s thinking that they know what someone’s best interests are better than they themselves. And yet what we saw is that despite, not even being able to explain their prejudice against opiates, that the doctors in these countries, instinctively, protected their interests better than the IYIs. They were not intellectuals, yet they were also not idiots.

Now this is not to say, that “red necks” and the people who voted for the Brexit are never wrong (though I think they got that right) or that the IYI’s are never right. The question which we have to consider is who is more right on balance, and this is where we return to a consideration of history. Are historical behaviors, traditional conduct, religious norms and long-standing attitudes always correct? No. But they have survived the crucible of time, which is no mean feat. The same cannot be said of the proposals of the IYI. They will counter that their ideas are based on the sure foundation of science, without taking into account the many limitations of science. Or as Taleb explains:

Typically, the IYI get the first order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains. In the comfort of his suburban home with 2-car garage, he advocated the “removal” of Gadhafi because he was “a dictator”, not realizing that removals have consequences (recall that he has no skin in the game and doesn’t pay for results).

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

With a record like that which horse do you want to back? Is it more important to sound right or to be right? Is it more important to be an intellectual or more important to not be an idiot? Has technology and progress saved us? Maybe, but if it has then it has done so only by abandoning what has got us this far: history and tradition, and there are strong reasons to suspect both that it hasn’t saved us (see all previous blog posts) and that we have abandoned tradition and history to our detriment.

In the contest between the the intellectual idiots and the non-intellectual non-idiots. I choose to not be an idiot.