Skip to main content

The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb ***

I have a strange relationship with this book. Back in 2008 I was having a talk with my then-agent about what to write next. He said to me ‘You ought to write something like The Black Swan,’ proving, as we shall see, that he hadn’t read the book. I duly bought a copy, had a quick flick through it, decided it was pretentious tosh and put it to one side. So it has sat there unread for four years, until I was needing a bit of light relief from physics books and decided it was time it was reviewed.
I quickly discovered this is in many ways a very readable book, though with some serious reservations I’ll mention in a moment. Nassim Nicholas Taleb really only makes one point in the entire 292 pages, but it is a very important point: that there are two types of randomness, and the sort physicists and economists deal with bears very little relationship to the kind of randomness that drives everything from the weather to sales of books and the success or failure of traders.
This is a hugely significant point, and Taleb has no end of fun pointing out the idiocy of those who try to use predictions based on the normal distribution bell curve in situations that are dominated by huge unexpected discrepancies. As he points out, a turkey trying to predict the future given its normal distribution of life’s ups and downs in the past would never predict the day when Christmas looms on the horizon and it gets the chop.
So far, so good. And Taleb uses some great examples and makes some excellent points along the way. (Or rather scores some excellent points as this is very much a ‘me versus the world’ book.) But, despite this flash of genius there are good reasons for this book only getting three stars.
One is the style. It is often pompous, didactic, nit-picking and irritating. There is far too much of the author in it – I really don’t care about him or want to know about him. The other is the lack of content. My agent was wrong about ‘writing another Black Swan‘ because the whole point of mega-successful books is you can’t predict their coming. And Black Swan also proves him wrong as one of his tests of a successful non-fiction book was to say ‘Is it a book or is it an article?’ I.e. does it have enough material to make a book? Black Swan is definitely an article posing as a book – it makes the one point over and over and over again, because there is really very little else to say. There is no real defence against this kind of randomness (though he gives a couple of pages of vague suggestions) and so it is just a warning of things going wrong, repeated indefinitely.
As such it shouldn’t have worked as a book – but it did (sorry, agent). I find it difficult to recommend it because I disliked so much of it,  but I have to admire that key would-make-a-great-article point, so in the end it’s a book I would probably go out and buy anyway.
Audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…