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Black Swan Swindle

Warning: negativity follows!

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's bestselling 2007 book The Black Swan is a thoroughly annoying example of fuzzy thinking. It's a chatty mix of shallow truisms and fallacies, overstatements and misunderstandings. There are a few good ideas, the biggest one being: don't ignore low-probability high-impact events. But it doesn't take 300 pages to say that. And Taleb's references are a mess, not tied in any auditable way to his claims in the text. The bibliography is almost worthless, a 28-page fine-print laundry list of 800+ books, many irrelevant. The index is incomplete. The author fails to explain, and apparently doesn't understand, the mathematics of probability and statistics. But he's pretty good at ad hominem attacks on his enemies, and shines at self-promotion.

Earlier this month Tom Slee, a Canadian essayist and software engineer, posted a thoughtful critique of a semi-famous technophilic author's most recent bit of fluff. Slee's memorandum proposes tongue-in-cheek "Four Rules of Big Ideas":

  1. Tell stories and argue by analogy
  2. Make the point catchy but ambiguous
  3. Simplify and exaggerate
  4. Cast yourself in a rebellious and revolutionary light

That's a perfect description of The Black Swan. Beach reading? Maybe. Useful to learn from? Not very. And no, the book doesn't make any falsifiable predictions, and certainly doesn't anticipate the recent financial crisis. Disappointing? Yes.

(cf. AggressiveAggregation (2007-05-10), ...) - ^z - 2010-04-29