In “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the blockbuster “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” explains how a variety of things, from the human body to, ahem, books being reviewed, actually benefit from attempts to harm them. They are “antifragile.” Just as a bout with the flu can bolster one’s immune system in the long run, negative publicity can attract more interest in a book.
There are limits to this effect, of course, but Taleb’s overall point is that whenever possible, we should seek to build technologies and products and institutions that are antifragile (a banking system with many small banks dealing in straightforward financial products) rather than fragile (a banking system composed of giant, too-big-to-fail banks connected to various sectors of the economy in opaquely complex ways). Unfortunately, as Taleb sees it, various cognitive biases — not to mention many aspects of modern human culture — defeat us in this aim.
“Antifragile” sits at the nexus of many other recent books dealing with prediction and psychology; it’s a little bit “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, a little bit “Future Babble” by Dan Gardner, and a little bit “Resilience” by Andrew Zolli. Like all these books, it seeks to dig into the related questions of why humans are so bad at predicting the most important events — particularly catastrophic ones — and how to mitigate the risks imposed by the possibility of catastrophe.
For such a lengthy book, “Antifragile” is a quick, enjoyable read, packed with interesting ideas, but it isn’t particularly tightly organized, and one gets the sense this wasn’t an accident on the author’s part.
Taleb admits to suffering from a level of intellectual attention deficit disorder, and his book possesses a meandering quality that in seven sections takes the reader from definitions of the book’s basic ideas to examining the concepts from a variety of angles, ending with a consideration of the ethics of fragility and antifragility.
He rarely spends much time expounding on one idea before bounding on to the next and goes out of his way to avoid the dryness so often associated with social science, blending scientific explanation with parables, personal asides, amusing anecdotes, and other entertaining diversions.
Taleb’s provocative style, however, can be a double-edged sword, and it’s hard not to get the sense that he overplays his hand at various points. He has a tendency to make an important, valid point, and to follow it up with an over-the-top example that immediately saps a good chunk of his credibility. So he’s not content to say that modern medicine’s tendency to over-treat is harmful; he goes on to say that “[I]f you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor.” He’s not content to say that there are major problems with academia, particularly the attempts to squeeze social-scientific phenomena into models that we have no good reason to fully trust; he goes on to say that “political science and economics . . . have never produced anything of note.”
Taleb has a very important role in a society where it isn’t always easy to tell science from pseudoscience — even at the university level. There is so much dogma passing as “objective truth” in the sciences, and there are so many so-called forecasters who get things wrong over and over again without being held accountable, that a noodge like Taleb can greatly guide us toward a closer understanding of how things work. And “Antifragile’’ does have some useful, original ideas. It’s just that sometimes Taleb seems more interested in being a provocateur than in exercising the rigor he advocates so forcefully.