Getting something for nothing

From the prologue of NN Taleb’s Antifragile:

Which brings us to the largest fragilizer of society, and greatest generator of crises, absense of “skin in the game.” Some become antifragile at the expense of others by getting the upside (or gains) from volatility, variations, and disorder and exposing others to the downside risks of losses or harm

[...]

While in the past people of rank or status were those and only those who took risks, who had the downside for their actions, and heroes were those who did so for the sake of others, today the exact reverse is taking place. We are witnessing a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, banks, Davos-attending members of the IAND (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.

Exhibit #1: Chris Turney and the Australasian Antarctic Expedition: When Turney’s team got stuck in Antarctic ice, their maritime chorus of tweets informed the world something unexpected had happened to them. It turns out the exact opposite was true, the incident almost entirely avoidable and a number of risks needlessly taken. After scrambling vessels thousands of miles away for their rescue, the ship’s obliviously ebullient occupants partied away in full view of a bewildered world audience. The ensuing outrage forced Chris Turney to the pages of Nature where he began name-dropping in support of his mission. When rescued, the team reminded how everyone looks after one another in Antarctica (when it was they getting looked after). Finally, landing in Hobart after a month’s delay, Turney offered apologies but capped it off with how there was “inherent risk” in Antarctic research and how his team members “have been on the other side and supported others when they’ve been caught”.

Exhibit #2: James Annan: Just as with the shameful Soon and Baliunas fiasco, a group of scientists got together, this time, to bring down an entire journal that carried papers by sceptic authors. Their instigator? James Annan. The publisher’s response, the toppled papers, and the blinking protests of the poor bastards are all in the open. Not Annan’s reasons however, who nevertheless admits to writing emails to “various people”, leading to the journal shutdown. When pressed to make his case explicit, Annan could come up with nothing. Unlike the past, where he made bets on climate, Annan got what he wanted but never put his money or reputation on the line.

5 comments

  • I found Taleb a perfect example of all he claims to be against…his intolerance to criticism must be legendary. It is for me.

  • I deal with this by giving him oodles of credit which help smooth out his idiosyncrasies. ;)

  • Some idiosyncrasies indeed:

    At the start of 2010, Taleb argued that betting against government treasuries is a “no brainer” due to the high U.S. deficit and what he perceived as the high risk of inflation. His view — if I understand it properly — was that the government’s and Federal Reserve’s attempts to stimulate the depressed economy were dangerous, ill-conceived, and likely to lead to negative side effects like high inflation and soaring interest rates. He quipped: “So long as you see the picture of Larry Summers going to Davos, you have to stay short U.S. Treasuries for another year. It means they [the Obama administration] don’t know what’s going on.”

    [...]

    In reality the price of Treasuries soared after Taleb made his prediction, and the price remains higher today than it was when he made the prediction. Inflation also remained low and contained. And countries with relatively larger stimulus packages — like the U.S. — have seen faster-falling unemployment, and stronger growth than countries like the U.K., which rejected (or were forced to reject) stimulus. Taleb wants economists to throw out the vast majority of their mathematical models, but mainstream economists using mathematical models, like Paul Krugman, got all of this very right.

    So I pointed out that any economist who debated Taleb would likely raise these off-target warnings. Taleb’s comeback was to accuse me of cherry-picking one statement to criticize him. Why?

    http://theweek.com/article/index/254694/nassim-taleb-used-to-be-my-hero-but-today-hes-just-plain-wrong

  • The idiosyncrasies I smooth out are intolerance to criticism, not his being right or wrong. Running up huge national debts trying to ‘stimulate’ the economy by spending money on green energy (Stephen Chu ‘photosynthesis is so inefficient’) and ‘basic’ research (which inflates the number of people stuck at the postdoc level), has the same consequences as measures that lead to the 2009 financial crisis, only things take longer with a whole country.

  • Shub,

    Have you seen the fun I’ve been having with Nate Drake over on the Nature thread about ‘Missing Heat’?

    He managed to get himself into the position of denying that means, running means, cascaded running means, etc. were FIR filters! Even when I pointed him to Vaughan Pratt as an authority and Wiki, and .edu sites.

    Should be fun to use that whenever I meet him again (or anyone who tries to support him either).

    So far I have Bart R in my sights for supporting him as well :-)

    Nothing like denying science and engineering. Makes for a good climate scientist!

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