Book Review of “Fooled By Randomness” Part II of II

Chapter six sees Taleb outline the most important thing anyone can learn and remember about science. It is perhaps also the most important thing anyone will ever learn. It is the underlying principle of the scientific method, perhaps the most powerful tool ever invented by humans (move over, hammer!) I of course learned this underlying principle when I was 18 years old and a freshwoman in undergraduate university majoring in biology. It seemed very logical to me then; now, it seems imperative.

What is this most important principle? That science can never prove anything, it can only disprove things. Taleb illustrates this with black swans.

Statement A: No swan is black, because I looked at four thousand swans and found none.
Statement B: Not all swans are white.

Of course, it is logical that no one can make a Statement A type of claim. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the color of swans, the height of people, or the length of hammerhead sharks, it’s simply not possible to measure all the swans, people, and hammerhead sharks simultaneously. You only need one observation to disprove something, though.

I’m very glad Taleb mentioned this. He’s not a scientist, strictly speaking (in the “hard” sciences, at least) and I’m pleasantly surprised that he lent such weight to this extremely vital principle. I probably shouldn’t be surprised since he seems like such a smart guy.

Chapter seven discusses the problem of induction. Taleb plays some impressive word gymnastics with this statement:

If the past, by bringing surprises, did not resemble the past previous to it (what I call the past’s past), then why should our future resemble our current past?

If you can work yourself through the maze that is this rhetorical question, you can see that Taleb is trying to illustrate an important point. He’s saying that the far past (the past’s past) is independent of the past and the future. Which may be true in certain areas, like the market, but probably isn’t true in others, like people’s personalities.

Taleb also said intriguingly that he dislikes the competitive nature of sports. I think I’ve always subconsciously felt the same way. I dislike what sports does to people, and what athletes do to others. Taleb says that he does “not like the asphyxiating structure of competitive games and the diminishing aspect of deriving pride from a numerical performance.” To avoid the asphyxiating structure of competitive games I suppose we should all play Calvinball. I myself enjoy playing tennis and hockey, but I do notice that when I allow myself to become competitive, I turn into an angry, insecure person. I like playing sports because they are a fun way to exercise, but I am careful to not take the game too seriously.

Taleb also criticizes competitive people, saying that they “have a tendency to commoditize and reduce the world to categories…” He further criticizes competitive people as being nonphilosophical, which I take as a serious insult, and assume he means it as such.

Taleb argues an important philosophical point, that of the problem of demarcation. Taleb defines it as the demarcation between science and nonsense, whereas Wikipedia defines it as the demarcation between science and nonscience. I’m not sure those two definitions are equal. Taleb argues that astrology is on the nonsense or nonscience side because it is not testable and therefore not scientific. This reminds me strongly of the concluding chapters of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience, which I also suppose I should do a review. Wilson argues that humanity must find a Unified Theory of Everything, whereby the laws of physics can explain culture (including religion). He argues that ultimately, religion must subsume science, or science must subsume religion, but he firmly believes that one of those two options will eventually happen when we acquire enough information. Interestingly, Taleb seemingly rejects this notion (or at least Wilson’s notion that if we measure and observe everything then we’ll know everything) by quoting his idol, Karl Popper:

More practically to me, Popper had many problems with statistics and statisticians. He refused to blindly accept the notion that knowledge can always increase with incremental information — which is the foundation of statistical inference. It may in some instances, but we do not know which ones… Sir Karl’s detractors believe that favorably repeating the same experiment again and again should lead to an increased comfort with the notion that “it works.”

I here see potential cognitive dissonance — I’ve long held one of the most harmful flaws to how science is practiced now is that experiments are not repeated by different people in different locations in different labs. I wonder if Taleb here is referring to the “soft sciences,” and have now convinced myself that he is. The “hard sciences” suffer immeasurably from experiments not being repeated, which is, after all, the intent of the scientific method. Perhaps one exception I can think of is some medicinal studies, but I recall reading papers on medical topics that aren’t repeated either, so must conclude that Taleb is referring to the humanities and perhaps psychology (which to me is still on the border of demarcation).

Anyway, back to Taleb’s quote. The main premise of science is that increasing incremental information leads to increased knowledge, since science is based on statistics. More samples, the scientist cries. Increase your sample size! yells the advisor. I need more turtles for my dataset, pleads Pam.

Popper goes on to praise scientists:

These are (wo)men with bold ideas, but highly critical of their own ideas; they try to find whether their ideas are right by trying first to find whether they are not perhaps wrong. They work with bold conjectures and severe attempts at refuting their own conjectures.

This, of course, is also the premise of the scientific method. It is why we teach the ridiculous null hypothesis in basic biology, and why you can only ever reject or fail to reject the null. The notion is ridiculous in practice, but sound in philosophy. Scientists are always trying to disprove things, and understand we cannot prove them.

Chapter eleven had an idea that caught my attention: satisficing. Coined by Herbert Simon, it is the relationship name of satisfy and suffice.

You stop when you get a near-satisfactory solution. Otherwise it may take you an eternity to reach the smallest conclusion or perform the smallest act. We are therefore rational, but in a limited way: “boundedly rational.”

However, Taleb argues that Kahneman and Tversky somewhat disproved this notion with their cognitive biases. “Flawed, not just imperfect,” in Taleb’s words. I think both probably apply. At least in my own decisions, I’ve noticed that I exhibit considerable cognitive biases and also satisfice myself.

Part III begins with the story of Odysseus and the sirens. Wax in my ears, says Taleb. One admission he made particularly struck me:

The first lesson I took from the story is not to even attempt to be Odysseus. He is a mythological character and I am not. He can be tied to the mast; I can merely reach the rank of a sailor who needs to have his ears filled with wax.

I think I oftentimes still think I’m Odysseus (word gymnastics!) But seriously, I often consider myself above the fray, able to be tied to the mast and listen to the alluring song. I wonder if true maturity is recognizing that I am not a Homerian hero, capable of inhuman feats like resisting the call of sirens. Is true maturity being able and willing to admit that I am a sailor, who must put wax in my ears at the start of each day? I am convincing myself of this definition of maturity as I write. Taleb expounds on wax in the ears:

I am just intelligent enough to understand that I have a predisposition to be fooled by randomness — and to accept the fact that I am rather emotional. I am dominated by my emotions — but as an aesthete, I am happy about that fact. I am just like every single character whom I ridiculed in this book. Not only that, but I may be even worse than them because there may be a negative correlation between beliefs and behavior (recall Popper the man). The difference between me and those I ridicule is that I try to be aware of it. No matter how long I study and try to understand probability, my emotions will respond to a different set of calculations, those that my unintelligent genes want me to handle. If my brain can tell the difference between noise and signal, my heart cannot.

Let me dissect this entire paragraph I quoted one sentence at a time. Sentence one: this to me is the epitome of intelligence. One can only say one is intelligent if one knows just how unintelligent one is. In less contorted English, only the truly intelligent know how little they know. Sentence two: I, too, consider myself an aesthete. I love music, and a masterfully written book, and even some art (I probably enjoy sculptures and bas-relief the most; something about three dimensional art speaks more vividly to me than two dimensional art). I don’t want to lose my love for aesthetics. I am happy Taleb says I do not have to in my pursuit for rationality. Sentence three: I am glad Taleb is humble. Humility is a quality I greatly admire, and I think it lends credence to an argument. I, too, need to be able to say, “I’m no better than you, or anyone else.” Sentence four: this one intrigues me. A negative correlation between beliefs and behavior? This may just be true. I think an ambitious PhD student in psychology/neurobiology should tackle this. I shall have to remember this: Is there a negative correlation between beliefs and behavior? I can immediately think of at least one major area in my life where this is true to the extreme.

I am further struck by Taleb’s self-control. What with the ubiquitious wickedness of online commenters, I expect he has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, and he indeed shares them with the reader. He imagines people as Martians, or dangerous animals, capable of hurting him but incapable of making him angry. This, I think, is a valuable tool. After all, when did a Great White Shark make you angry? Fearful, sure, but not mad. I also like his tip to just ignore them. He simply doesn’t read critics’ comments, and “Likewise with journalists. Not reading their discussions of markets spares me plenty of emotional expenditure. I will do the same with unsolicited comments on this book. Wax in my ears.”

Wittgenstein’s Ruler, Taleb says, is a mechanism of a probabilistic method called conditional information: “Unless the source of the statement has extremely high qualifications [skin in the game, Taleb?], the statement will be more revealing of the author than the information intended by him. This applies, of course, to matters of judgment.” Wittgenstein’s ruler is, to Taleb:

Unless you have confidence in the ruler’s reliability, if you use a ruler to measure a table you may also be using the table to measure the ruler. The less you trust the ruler’s reliability (in probability called the prior), the more information you are getting about the ruler and the less about the table. The point extends way beyond information and probability. This conditionality of information is central in epistemology, probability, even in studies of consciousness.

Taleb later says “My emotional system does not understand Wittgenstein’s ruler. I can offer the following evidence: A compliment is always pleasant, regardless of its authorship — something manipulators know rather well.” Very true. I am ruled by my amygdala (emotion center). No matter the situation, if I’m hangry, I can’t handle life. If I’m suffering the day after insomnia, I can’t handle life. If I’m in menstrual agony, I can’t handle life.

Chapter thirteen sees Taleb with an insightful dig aimed at scientists: “One would think that when scientists make a mistake, they develop a new science that incorporates what has been learned from it.” I agree with the implication here, that science is too fixed, not malleable enough, not saltatory enough. Science needs to evolve, and quickly. As Taleb says at the end of this chapter: “People confuse science and scientists. Science is great, but individual scientists are dangerous. They are human; they are marred by the biases humans have. Perhaps even more. For most scientists are hard-headed, otherwise the would not derive the patience and energy to… (spend) eighteen hours a day perfecting their doctoral thesis.” What did I learn from this? That I am dangerous. It reminds me of Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Scientists have great power, since they have powerful tools like induction, the scientific method, and statistics, at their disposal. And knowledge. A lot of knowledge and facts. But do they have wisdom? E. O. Wilson, a great scientist, laments in his Consilience: “We are drowning in knowledge while starving for wisdom.” I fear scientists are no different, and perhaps drowning even more than the average person since they have so many more facts memorized.

Chapter fourteen: Taleb concludes (before all the other conclusions):

The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behavior. Good luck.

And he also tells us that

the interesting thing about stoicism is that it plays on dignity and personal aesthetics, which are part of our genes. Start stressing personal elegance at your next misfortune. Exhibit sapere vivere (know how to live) in all circumstances.

Postscript: more conclusions from Taleb.

Causality is not clear: The question remains whether optimizers are unhappy because they are constantly seeking a better deal or if unhappy people tend to optimize out of their misery. In any case, randomness seems to operate either as a cure or as Novocain! I am convinced that we are not made for clear-cut, well-delineated schedules. We are made to live like firemen, with downtime for lounging and meditating between calls, under the protection of protective uncertainty.

Antifragile, in other words. I’ve listened to enough of his talks that I’m anticipating his next books. I’ve actually already started reading “Black Swan,” and am seeing many parallels to this book. I’ve been thinking a lot about this paradigm lately, that of intermittent stressors being ideal with long periods of inactivity in the interim. Taleb said in an interview that we are meant to live like cows during the stretches and intermittently like lions; in other words, raw salads with no dressing all the time, and rarely meat and protein in spikes. I imagine both the meat and stressors to look like this:

Downtime with intermittent stressors/meat

Taleb elaborates even more on this intermittent stressor principle:

This point has applications in evolutionary biology, evolutionary game theory, and conflict situations. A mild degree of unpredictability in you behavior can help you to protect yourself in situations of conflict.

Taleb goes on to say that if you change your threshold of reactivity people will take advantage of you. If, say, my threshold for people insulting my hair is 3x per week, and then I just go bananas and punch people in their teeth, people will insult me up to but not over my threshold.

Taleb ends with “standing on one leg.” Or, distilling everything down to something you can explain to someone while they stand on one leg. The Torah, he says, paraphrases to “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you; the rest is just commentary.” And, his generator is: “We favor the visible, the embedded, the personal, the narrated, and the tangible; we scorn the abstract.”

Well, in conclusion, this book is well worth the short time it takes to read (it’s a very easy read with simple concepts and plain language). It has given me quite a few new principles to think about, and it has reinforced quite a few of my ideals.