We have reached Book VI, following our reading calendar
In the introduction to this new book we find the concept of via negativa. Following ideas from the mystics, that stated that you can’t understand God by saying what He is, but what he isn’t, Taleb proposes an alternative approach to knowledge, which is not about having positive knowledge, certainties, but negative knowledge. That is, removing what is wrong.
So, says Taleb, do not trust those books about 10 steps to get rich; but look for books that explains what not to do in order to not become poor. This is why he recommends What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars as the only book about how to make money that is not written by a charlatan.
Using the Popperian formulation of falsification -despite Taleb states that the idea is far more ancient, the way he is putting it is Popper’s account- we can see that negative knowledge is a lot more robust than positive one. Seeing another white swan in order to still believe that all swans are white is far less powerful that watching a black swan and realizing that our theory that all swans are white must be wrong.
Inspired in the idea of “fast and frugal heuristics” by Gigerenzen, and how basic rule of thumb based decisions are much better than complicated analysis, Taleb also argues that we don’t need more data, but robust “this is wrong” type of knowledge and the inverse philosopher’s stone to detect fragility.
To summarize the main idea of the intro, in Taleb’s own words:
“What is wrong is quite robust, what you don’t know is fragile and speculative, but you do not take it seriously so you make sure it does not harm you in case it turns out to be false.”
Let’s move to chapter 20. Here he presents a first application of this idea of via negativa when thinking about time. This is certainly a superb chapter in which Taleb develops good arguments against this sickness of our times: neomania, or the idea that the newer is something (object, theory, song, piece of clothing) the better.
But Taleb argues precisely in the opposite direction and presents a very helpful strategy; the Lindy effect. According to the Lindy effect, the more time an object, a literary work, a theory a product have been present, the more we can trust it will also be present in the future. Wine has been with us for several millennia, so we can be quite sure that people will still be drinking wine in ten years. But do not expect to see Iphones in ten years.
The effect in non-linear, and therefore the more time an object endures, the more confident we can be of its future endurance. In Taleb’s own words:
“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!”
This heuristics has helped me a lot to change what I’m reading, for example. I have to admit I was tempted by neomania myself, but then I realized that is far more better to read Seneca on how to manage time -Still discussed after two millennia- than some new theory published yesterday about the same subject.
Taleb discusses several subjects like architecture or science development,and the general idea is the same. We really don’t know why some ideas, objects, people success, it is actually a mystery. Only time can tell:
“There are secrets to our world that only practice can reveal, and no opinion or analysis will ever capture in full.
This secret property is, of course, revealed through time, and, thankfully, only through time.”