I don’t pay much attention to Nassim Taleb. I doubt that it’s worth paying attention to anyone who claims that, after carefully pondering the matter, he’s concluded that Claire Lehmann of Quillette is a “neo-Nazi.” He’s also concluded that he’s a genius, and anyone who disagrees with him is an imbecile. Just ask him. Recently, however, he’s become the guru of the most extreme proponents of government lockdowns in response to virus pandemics. Let’s consider what they’re so excited about.
A good summary appears in a gushing article by Yves Smith at the “naked capitalism” website, entitled, “Taleb: The Only Man Who Has A Clue.” Smith does not inform us on what basis he feels himself qualified to dismiss every highly trained virologist and epidemiologist on the planet as “clueless.” Be that as it may, he cites Taleb’s “Systemic Risk Of Pandemic Via Novel Pathogens – Coronavirus: A note,” which summarizes his point of view under the headings, “General Precautionary Principle,” “Spreading Rate,” “Asymmetric Uncertainty,” and “Conclusion.” Let’s consider what he has to say under the first of these:
General Precautionary Principle : The general (non-naive) precautionary principle  delineates conditions where actions must be taken to reduce risk of ruin, and traditional cost-benefit analyses must not be used. These are ruin problems where, over time, exposure to tail events leads to a certain eventual extinction. While there is a very high probability for humanity surviving a single such event, over time, there is eventually zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events. While repeated risks can be taken by individuals with a limited life expectancy, ruin exposures must never be taken at the systemic and collective level. In technical terms, the precautionary principle applies when traditional statistical averages are invalid because risks are not ergodic.
Extinction? Zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events? Seriously?? There are millions of species on the planet. They all bear genetic material that has been around, in one form or another, for upwards of two billion years. Presumably, unless Taleb is claiming virus pandemics are unique to human beings, many of them have survived repeated exposures to such events. If life on our planet is not capable of surviving repeated exposures to pathogens without implementing Taleb’s nostrums, how is it that any life survives at all? It should all be gone, with the viruses turning out the lights on their way out. In what even remotely rational sense are we “risking ruin” with the coronavirus? We have lived with all kinds of much deadlier diseases throughout most of our history. Many of them have been persistent, and many others have passed over us repeatedly, and yet none of them, not even the Black Death, has managed to “ruin” us. Indeed, if you ask some of the legions of anti-natalists and radical environmentalists out there, this sort of “ruin” is just what the doctor ordered. After all, the global population has grown to the point where we are at least rocking the boat a bit lately.
This begs the question of where you draw the line when it comes to “ruination.” Apparently, we are not sufficiently “ruined” by the yearly visitations of flu. When is a new pathogen serious enough to take the proposed drastic steps? Assuming we do magically find a way to identify this “ruination” line in the sand, is it really probable that our only choices are obeying Taleb or going extinct? I rather suspect that our species, in spite of all the idiots and imbeciles that Taleb has identified among us, is intelligent enough to come up with measures a great deal more effective than lockdowns and wearing masks, if it ever really comes to our staring extinction in the face.
As far as “ruin exposures” go, there are many who believe that the risk at the “collective level” is much greater from shutting down systems as complex as modern economies than it is from COVID-19. No doubt Taleb, who considers himself a genius in economics as well as epidemiology would dismiss this concern with a wave of the hand. I’m not so sure. I rather doubt he’s the only man in the universe who has a clue. He informs us that this “precautionary principle applies when traditional statistical averages are invalid because risks are not ergodic.” This is a bit of jargon apparently intended to impress the rubes. I doubt that many of his worshipful fanboys have a clue what “ergodic” even means, and the term is best left in the realm of statistical mechanics in any case.
Speaking of rubes, have a look at the comments by Taleb’s followers on a Twitter thread in which Dr. Phil has the misfortune of being officially added to his list of “imbeciles.” These guys all consider themselves only a peg below Taleb among the ranks of the world’s greatest living geniuses. They must all walk around with permanent scowls on their faces from the stress of living among the rest of us idiots and imbeciles. They all imagine that they’re uttering great profundities as they squawk out variations on his latest tweets like so many parrots. In this case, Dr. Phil was being interviewed by Laura Ingraham, rightly pointing out that we accept significant risks of death from driving, smoking, swimming, etc., without feeling any need to do something as extreme as locking down the economy. Taleb tweeted the interview with the snarky comment, “Drowning in swimming pools is extremely contagious and multiplicative.” All of his acolytes thought this was most profound, but in fact it is a matter of complete indifference. Dr. Phil was making a point about acceptance of the risk of death. The fact that COVID-19 happens to be contagious just adds another number to factor in when quantifying risk. Overall risks can be calculated and compared regardless of whether one of them derives from a contagious disease or not.
I started to have my doubts about Taleb when I started wading through the grab bag of banalities in his third book, “The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms.” Anyone whose tastes run to that sort of thing would be well advised to forget Taleb and buy a copy of Rochefoucauld’s maxims instead. They’re both more intelligent and more entertaining. One of them happens to be most appropriate in this case: “Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers.” In Taleb’s opinion, Claire Lehmann is a neo-Nazi, Bjorn Lomborg is a right-wing, sociopathic quack, and Dr. Phil is an imbecile. He’s entitled to his opinion. I’m entitled to mine too. In my opinion, he’s an over-inflated windbag.