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The ‘intellectual-yet-idiot’ and other ideas

For the global intellectual network, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an asset gone rogue. With his new book, 'Skin In The Game', he has risen to say that the modern intellectual is vastly inferior to your grandmother

‘Skin In The Game’ is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fifth book. Photo: AFP
‘Skin In The Game’ is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fifth book. Photo: AFP

An evil becomes moral when it gives everyone an equal opportunity to be a part of it. That is why all cunning caste systems have become ladders. People hate castes, but they love climbing. In the new hierarchies of our times, anybody can become a Brahmin, at least in theory. In the face of such freedom, a whole generation is then preoccupied with climbing the ladder. It does not occur to anybody to ask why they must climb, why something is deemed a superior state of mind.

This is the case in the vast caste system of global liberal academia, too, where there are whole hierarchies of clubs, intellectuals, courses and prizes. But now one man has begun to insult the very idea of intellectuality.

If he were an outsider, the establishment would have defamed him as a bitter simpleton and an endearing semi-literate. But then Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Brahmin among Brahmins. Here is how:

The intellectual establishment has a predilection for the upper class; Taleb, a Lebanese Orthodox Christian, is from that nation’s political and social aristocracy. The establishment has great regard for fancy universities; Taleb is from Wharton, and the University of Paris. The establishment has an unspoken view that mathematics is highbrow; Taleb is a professional and academic mathematician. The establishment finds scientists who can quote poetry very cute and important; Taleb is a scholar of probability, a former quant-trader who used complex mathematical financial tools, and he is said to speak several languages, including dead ones, and often quotes from serious English, French and Graeco-Roman literature. The intellectual establishment has promoted the idea that people who read a lot, especially obscure books, are deep; Taleb claims the establishment itself has not read what he has read.

Taleb is an anomaly that a system creates, an asset that has gone rogue. He is a perfect intellectual who has risen to say that the modern intellectual is vastly inferior to your grandmother. “…people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instincts and to listen to their grandmothers who have a better track record than these policymaking goons." He holds that the transformation of local cultures in the name of modernity, democracy, environment and other virtues is a crime that the “intellectual-yet-idiot" is perpetrating. These are the undercurrents in his latest book, Skin In The Game, which is a brief history of risk, and argues, among other things, that problems occur in a society when influential people do not have to face the consequences of their bad ideas.

Taleb first rose to prominence with his book The Black Swan, which claimed that improbable events have enormous impacts that dwarf everything else, and that certainty is a misunderstanding of incomplete data. The intellectual establishment, which includes the influential news media, rewarded him by declaring him one of the most important thinkers in the world. But over the years it has become evident that he wishes to take down the entire intellectual world, or at least that part which he does not agree with or which has slighted him in some way. He has said repeatedly that professionals like economists, historians and psychologists are frauds. And columnists too. Taleb finds the word “scientist" in “social scientist" hilarious.

He has frequently tweeted that Steven Pinker, the “cognitive psychologist" from Harvard who argued in his book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, that we are living through the most peaceful period in human history, is an ignoramus, or a fraud, because he has based his arguments on a faulty understand of data and math. “Pinker has about every attribute of the charlatan. Nothing short of a charlatan," he once tweeted. After the popular American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that if people are willing to accept that science can predict the solar eclipse, they should also accept the scientific predictions of climate change, Taleb tweeted, “This guy is an intellectual fraud," because it was deceitful to equate the science of predicting the path of a heavenly body with predicting more chaotic phenomena like climate. He has had spats with several popular intellectuals. Also, he has often called The New York Times’ columnists and journalists “imbeciles". He once insulted The New Yorker magazine: “The opposite of reading is not not reading, but reading something like the @NewYorker."

For mysterious reasons, the victims of his assaults have not been able to respond to him in powerful ways, or have simply chosen the elegance of silence over what would certainly be an eventful battle. Pinker did defend himself but he was so respectful of Taleb, it seemed like a tribute. Only Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and a popular author and podcaster, whom Taleb once called an “imposter", has demonstrated the ability to match Taleb’s venom: “This guy is just insufferable. I’ve actually never witnessed a marriage of incompetence and confidence so fully and grotesquely consummated in the mind of a person with a public platform."

Taleb’s arguments are not always ironclad. For example, his contempt for the science of genetically modified organisms is based chiefly on the argument that we do not know the risk they carry. By that reasoning there should be no mobile phone towers as we do not know the health risks they pose.

The sanctum sanctorum of American media has not reviewed Skin In The Game, yet. The New York Times has completely ignored him, but the book has made it to its Best Sellers list, which carried an incorrect description. Taleb then called them, once again, “imbeciles", following which the venerated newspaper made a correction. Taleb claims in his book, “Those who use foul language on social networks are sending an expensive signal that they are free—and, ironically, competent."

His intellectual-yet-idiot appears frequently in the book in various forms, “telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think, and 5) whom to vote for". He is also the type of person who “studies grammar before speaking a language…"

Within the ambit of action and consequences, Skin In The Game discusses numerous ideas:

That “we are much better at doing than understanding".

That if we do not take risks for our opinions, we “are nothing".

That a small number of people in a society can be exceedingly influential—for instance, it doesn’t take a majority to ban a film. And that the state of not being offended is less influential than the state of being offended.

That ethics will always outlive law.

That neighbours get along better than roommates.

That people with no intelligence at all will work well, “under the right market structure".

That if you have a choice between a surgeon who looks like a good surgeon (Hollywood version), and a surgeon who looks like a butcher, you must choose the guy who looks like the butcher.

And that “courage is the only virtue you cannot fake". Taleb, evidently, has not met some Indian empathy uncles.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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