An Expert Called Lindy

Don’t eat their cheesecake– Meta-experts judged by meta-meta-experts– Prostitutes, nonprostitutes, and amateurs — Popper compatibility

(Background. The Black Swan explains the domain-dependence of expertise: why the electrician, dentist, are experts, while the journalist, State Department bureaucrat, and macroeconomist are not. Since then, there has been a global movement against the pseudo-expert, the serial incompetence of a certain class of babbling and pompous operatives across bureaucrato-academic professions. Which leads to the question: who is the real expert? Who decides on who is and who is not expert? Where is the metaexpert? Time it is. Or, rather, Lindy.)

Lindy is a deli in New York, now a tourist trap, that proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake, but in fact has been known for the fifty or so years of interpretation by physicists and mathematicians of the heuristic that developed there. Actors who hung out there gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted, say one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy Effect.

Let me warn the reader: while the Lindy effect is one of the most useful, robust, and universal heuristics I know, the cheesecake is… much less distinguished. Odds are the deli will not survive, by the Lindy Effect.

There had been a bevy of mathematical models that sort of fit the story, though not really, until yours truly figured out that the Lindy Effect can be best proved using the theory of fragility and anti-fragility. Actually the theory of fragility directly leads to the Lindy Effect. Simply, my collaborators and I managed to define fragility as sensitivity to disorder: the porcelain owl sitting in front of me on the writing desk, as I am writing these lines, wants tranquility. It dislikes shocks, disorder, variations, earthquakes, mishandling by dust-phobic cleaning service operators, travel in a suitcase transiting through Terminal 5 in Heathrow, and shelling by Saudi Barbaria-sponsored Islamist militias. Clearly, it has no upside from random events and, more generally, disorder. (More technically, being fragile, it necessarily has a nonlinear reaction to stressors: up until its breaking point, shocks of larger intensity affect it disproportionally more than smaller ones).

Vassari

Now, crucially, time is equivalent to disorder and resistance to the ravages of time, that is, what we gloriously call survival, is ability to handle disorder.

Is fragile what has an asymmetric response to volatility and other stressors, that is, will experience more harm than benefit from it.

The idea of fragility helped put some rigor around the notion that the only effective judge of things is time –by things we mean ideas, people, intellectual productions, car models, scientific theories, books, etc. You can’t fool Lindy: books of the type written by the current hotshot Op-Ed writer at the New York Times may get some hype at publication time, manufactured or spontaneous, but their five year survival is generally inferior to that of pancreatic cancer.

And the operation of time is necessarily done through skin in the game. Without skin in the game, via contact with reality, the mechanism of fragility is disrupted: things may survive for no reason for a while, then ultimately collapse causing a lot of side harm.

A few more details –for those interested in the intricacies, the Lindy Effect has been covered at length in Antifragile. There are two ways things handle time. First, there is aging and perishability: things die because they may have a biological clock, what we call senescence. Second, there is hazard, the rate of accidents. What we witness in physical life is the combination of the two: when you are old and fragile, you don’t handle accidents very well. These accidents don’t have to be external, like falling from a ladder or being attacked by a bear; they can also be internal, from random malfunctioning of your organs or circulation. On the other hand, animals that don’t really age, say turtles and crocodiles, seem to have a life expectancy that remains constant for a long time.

Only the nonperishable can be Lindy-compatible. When it comes to ideas, books, technologies, procedures, institutions, political systems, there is no intrinsic aging and perishability. A physical copy of War and Peace can age (particularly when the publisher cuts corner to save 20 cents on paper for a $50 book); the book itself as an idea doesn’t.

Do we need a Judge?

I have had most of my, sort of, academic career no more than a quarter position. A quarter is enough to have somewhere to go, particularly when it rains in New York, without being emotionally socialized by a group of people and lose intellectual independence. But one (now sacked) department head, one day came to me and emitted the warning: “As a businessman and author you are judged by other businessmen and authors, here as an academic you are judged by other academics. Life is about peer assessment.”

It took me a while to overcome my disgust –I am still not fully familiar with the way non-risk takers work; they actually don’t realize that others are not like them, what makes people in the real world tick. No, businessmen as risk takers are not subjected to the judgment of other businessmen, only that of their personal accountant –unless they are peons in a hierarchy, the type of servants judged by their masters, about whom later. They just need to avoid having a documented record of ethical violations. Furthermore, not only you didn’t want peer approval, but you wanted disapproval: an old fellow once came to me in the pit where I was trading and told me: “if people over here like you, you are doing something wrong”.

Further,

You can define a free person precisely as someone whose fate is not centrally or directly dependent on his peer assessment

And as an essayist, I am not judged by other writers, book editors, and book reviewers, but by readers. Readers? maybe, but wait a minute… not today’s readers. Only those of tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. So, my only real judge being time, hence future readers; it is the stability and robustness of the readership that counts. And as a risk taker, only time counts –for I could fool my accountant with steady earnings with a lot of risk, but time will eventually reveal the properties.

Being reviewed or assessed by others matters if and only if one is subjected to the judgment by future –not just present — others

And

More generally, a free person does not need to win arguments –just win

Tea With the Queen

Peers devolve honors, memberships in academies, Nobels, invitations to Davos and similar venues, tea with the Queen, requests by rich name-droppers to attend cocktail parties where you only see people who are famous. Believe me, there are rich people whose lives revolve around these things. They usually claim to be trying to save the world, the planet, the children, the mountains, the deserts –all the ingredients of the broadcasting of virtue.

But clearly they can’t influence Lindy –in fact it is the reverse. If you spend your time trying to impress others in the New York Club 21, there may be something wrong with you. Peers are valuable collaborators, not final judges.

Institutions

Within the institutionalization of the process, the rotting takes place as follows. In fact, there is something worse than peer-assessment: the bureaucratization of the process creates a class of new judges: university administrators, who have no clue what someone is doing except via external signals, become the actual arbiters.

Hard science might be robust to the pathologies –even then. So let us take a look at the very vulnerable social science. Given that the sole judge of a contributor is the “peers”, there is a mechanism of citation ring in place that can lead to all manner of pathologies. Macroeconomics for instance, can be nonsense since it is easier to macrobull**t than microbulls**t –given how abstract the effect on society, nobody can tell if a theory really works.

Academia can become a ritualistic publishing game

Now, while this is turning to be an athletic contest, Wittgenstein held the exact opposite: if anything knowledge is the reverse of an athletic contest: in philosophy the winner is the one who finishes last, he said.

Further,

Anything that smacks of a competition is a destruction of knowledge

In some areas, such as gender studies, psychology, the ritualistic publishing game gradually maps less and less to real research, by the very nature of the agency problem, to reach mafia-like divergence of interest: researchers have their own agenda, at variance with what their clients, that is, society and the students, are paying them for. Knowing “economics” doesn’t mean in the academic lingo knowing anything about economics in the sense of the real activity, but the theories produced by economists. And courses in universities, for which hard working parents need to save over decades, easily degenerate into fashion. You work hard for your children to be taught a gender study critique of quantum mechanics.

Against One’s Interest

The most convincing statements are those in which one stands to lose, ones in which one has maximal skin in the game; the most unconvincing ones are those in which one patently (but unknowingly) try to enhance one’s status without tangible contribution (like, as we saw, the great majority of academic papers that say nothing and take no risks). But it doesn’t have to be that way. Showoff is fine; it is human. As long as the substance exceeds the showoff content, you are fine. Stay human, take as much as you can, under the condition you give more than you take.

One should give more weight to research that, while being rigorous, contradicts other peers, particularly if it entails costs and reputational harm for its author

Further,

Someone with a high public presence who is controversial and takes risks for his opinion is less likely to be a Bulls***t vendor

Soul in the Game

The deprostitutionalization of research can be done as follows. Force people who want to do “research” to do it on their own time, that is to derive their income from other sources. Sacrifice is necessary. It may seem absurd to brainwashed contemporaries, but Antifragile documents the outsized historical contributions of the nonprofessional, or, rather, the non-meretricious. For their research to be genuine, they should first have a real world day job, or at least spend ten years as: lens maker, patent clerk, mafia operator, professional gambler, postman, prison guard, medical doctor, limo driver, militia member, social security agent, trial lawyer, farmer, restaurant chef, high volume waiter, firefighter (my favorite), lighthouse keeper, etc., while they are doing their initial research.

It is a filtering, nonsense expurgating mechanism. I have no sympathy for professional researchers. I for my part spent the first twenty three years of activity in a full-time highly demanding extremely stressful profession while studying, researching, and writing my first three books at night; it lowered (in fact, eliminated) my tolerance for fake research.

[Note: of course, this does not cover industrial science in which the researcher is subjected to the discipline of the market]

Science is Lindy Prone

We said earlier that without skin in game, the mechanism of survival is severely disrupted. This also applies to ideas.

Karl Popper’s idea of falsification is entirely Lindy-compatible; it actually requires the operation of the Lindy Effect, although Popper didn’t have any apparent knowledge of the dynamics, nor did he look at the risk dimension of things. The reason science works, in spite of buls**t vending people who talk about “scientific method”, isn’t because there is a proper scientific method derived by some nerds in isolation, or some “standard” that passes a test similar to an eye exam; rather because scientific ideas are Lindy-prone, that is not exposed to artificial propping up and subjected to their own fragility. Ideas need to have skin in the game. You know that the idea will fail if it is not useful, and can be therefore vulnerable to the falsification of time (and not that of naive falsificationism, that is by some government printed black-and-white guideline). The more an idea has been around without being falsified, the longer its future life expectancy. For if you read Feyerabend’s account of the history of scientific discoveries, you can clearly see that anything goes in the process –but not with the test of time.

Note that I am here modifying Popper’s idea; we can replace “true” (rather, not false) with “useful”, even “not harmful”, even “protective to its users”. So I will diverge from Popper in the following. For things to survive, they necessarily need to fare well in the risk dimension, that is be good at not dying, surviving, that type of thing. By the Lindy Effect, if an idea has skin in the game, it is not in the truth game, but in the harm game. An idea survives if it is a good risk manager, that is, not only doesn’t harm its holders, but favors their survival –this also affects superstitions that have crossed centuries because they led to some protective actions. More technically, it needs to be convex and reduce fragility somewhere.

Empirical or theoretic?

Academics divide research into theoretical and empirical. Empiricism consists in looking at data on a computer looking for something called statistically significant, or doing experiments in the laboratory under some purposefully narrow conditions. Doing things in the real world, in some professions, bears the name clinical, which is not deemed to be scientific.

In fact, by the Lindy Effect, there is a third category: robustness to time, that is doing under risk-taking conditions that is checked by survival. Things work if those who have been doing so 1) took some type of risk, and 2) managed to cross generations.

Which bring me to the grandmother.

Grandmothers vs Researchers

If you hear advice from a grandmother or elders, odds are that it works at ninety percent. On the other hand, in part because of scientism and academic prostitution, in part because the world is hard, if you read anything by psychologists and behavioral scientists, odds are it works at less than ten percent, unless it is also what has been covered by the grandmother and the classics, in which case why would you need a nerd-psychologist? This may seem aggressive, but it flows directly from the Lindy Effect, partly from my own assessment of the statistical significance of the results, which is subjected to a Fooled by Randomness effect (Note: see my Meta-distribution of p-values). Consider that a recent effort to replicate the hundred psychology papers in “prestigious” journals of 2008 found that, out of a hundred, only thirty nine replicated. Of these thirty nine, I believe than less than ten are actually robust and transfer outside the narrowness of the experiment. Similar defects have been found in medicine, neuroscience; on those later.

(I will discuss the misunderstanding of probability and tail risks in Chapter x –or why the warnings of your grandmother or interdicts aren’t “irrational” ; how most of the “irrational” comes from misunderstanding of probability.)

While our knowledge of physics has not been available to the ancients, human nature was. So everything that hold in social science and psychology has to be Lindy-proof, that is, have an antecedent in the classics; otherwise it will not replicate or not generalize beyond the experiment. By classics we can define the Latin (& late Hellenistic) moral literature (moral sciences meant something else than they do today): Cicero, Seneca, M. Aurelius, Epictetus, Lucian, or the poets: Juvenal, Horace or the later French so-called “moralists” (La Rochefoucault, Vaugenargues, La Bruyere, Chamfort). Bossuet is a class on his own. One can use Montaigne and Erasmus as a portal to the ancients: Montaigne was the popularizer of his day; Erasmus was the thorough compiler.

APPENDIX

This is a small sample.

Cognitive dissonance: Aesop , of course. But it looks even more ancient, with Ahiqar of Nineveh. Also in La Fontaine.

Loss aversion: Segnius homines bona quam mala sentiunt in Livy’s Annals (XXX, 21) (Men feel the good less intensely than the bad). Nearly all the letters of Seneca -

Negative advice: Nimium boni est, cui hinil est mali Ennius , via Cicero

Hyperbolic discounting: 3asfour bil 2id a7san bin 3ashra 3alshajra.

Madness of Crowds: Nietzsche: Madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations, it is the rule (this counts as ancient wisdom since Nietzsche was a classicist; I’ve seen many such references in Plato).

Antifragility Cicero (Disp Tusc,II, 22) When our souls are mollified, a bee can sting — See also Machiavelli and Rousseau.

The Paradox of Progress/Choice (Lucretius): there is a familiar story of a New York banker vacationing in Greece, who, from talking to a fisherman and scrutinizing the fisherman’s business, comes up for a scheme to help the fisherman make it a big business. The fisherman asked him what the benefits were; the banker answered that he could make a pile of money in NY and come back vacation in Greece; something that seemed ludicrous to the fisherman who was already there doing the kind of things bankers do when they go on vacation in Greece. The story was very well known in antiquity, under a more elegant form, as retold by Montaigne I, 42: (my transl.) when King Pyrrhus tried to cross into Italy, Cynéas, his wise adviser, tried to make him feel the vanity of such action. “To what end are you going into such enterprise?”, he asked. Pyrrhus answered:” to make myself the master of Italy”. Cynéas: “ and so?”. Pyrrhus: “to get to Gaul, then Spain”. Cynéas: “Then?” Pyrrhus: “ To conquer Africa, then … come rest at ease”. Cynéas:” but you are already there; why take more risks”? Montaigne then cites the well-known Lucretius (V, 1431) on how human nature knows no upper bound, as if to punish itself.

Overconfidence: Fiducia pecunias amici “I lost money because of my excessive confidence”, Erasmus citing Theognis, Epicharmus

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