Antifragile 15: History Written by the Losers

Following the schedule of our reading calendar.

Taleb, as presented previously, sees that finance strategies are applied by practitioners long before the equations, that supposedly are the basis for that strategies, are discovered and published.

The formation of knowledge is a practical process and only afterwards there is a reinterpretation by intellectuals to pretend that theoretical development were prior and necessary for the practice. Why?

Practitioners don’t write; they do. Birds fly and those who lecture them are the ones who write their story. So it is easy to see that history is truly written by losers with time on their hands and a protected academic position. (p. 220)

Taleb goes beyond financing and presents us with a lot of evidence of how this happens in all types of knowledge. He explains to us how the Industrial Revolution was developed by the work and enthusiasm of a bunch of amateurs with limited theoretical knowledge. He presents the case of medicine where, for centuries, the field was based in a theoretical foundation without sense nor utility while the only progress was made using empirical trial and error by outsiders who where ridiculed and prosecuted. These are heroes.

Now, reader, let us take a minute and pay some respect. Consider our ingratitude to those who got us here, got our disrespect, and do not even know that they were heroes. (p. 248)

So, should we burn universities and sent the intellectuals to labor camps Mao Style? Of course not. There is a place for theoretical knowledge. It can function, and there are lots of examples of it, as a repository of ideas and intuitions that can be useful in the advance of civilization. What Taleb considers as useless is the objective oriented system of financing science. Governments should just give money for research in a shotgun way trying to maximize the number of approaches to give opportunities to serendipity.

We have talked about this idea in our blog previously here (in Spanish) commenting an interesting paper in Plos One. From the abstract of that paper:

We conclude that scientific impact (as reflected by publications) is only weakly limited by funding. We suggest that funding strategies that target diversity, rather than “excellence”, are likely to prove to be more productive.

Already deepening in the concept of uselessness of management, Taleb goes further and labels all management theory (including Taylorism) as pseudoscience. I have to admit that this surprises me. He cites a text: “The Management Myth” by Mattew Stewart, that I have already printed and will be my next reading. I will comment on it soon.

And finally, because Taleb is not Taleb if he doesn’t talk about everything everywhere, a quote from this chapter about the relationship between religion and skepticism.

(…) one can see religion’s effect here in reducing dependence on the fallibility of human theories (…). It has been difficult for people to understand that, historically, skepticism has been mostly skepticism of expert knowledge rather that skepticism about abstract entities like God, and that all the great skeptics have been largely either religious or, at least, pro-religion (that is, in favor of others being religious). (p. 234)


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