Feature: Antifragile Review

Photo Credit: Malerapaso

The cover of 'Antifragile'

“If you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile presents the paradigm breaking idea that volatility, and randomness are both necessary and beneficial across all domains, and that those ideas, objects or systems which do not benefit from this volatility (the fragile) will eventually lose out to those which benefit from the unpredictable (antifragile).

Antifragile covers a variety of subjects from iatrogenics (relating to illnesses from examinations or treatment) to Taleb’s views on tourism, and hormesis. All these subjects are linked by the underlying importance of randomness and antifragility.

However, this impressive range of fields that Taleb makes compatible with this antifragility theory is weakened by a few logical fallacies in his arguments. For example, he commits ad hominem attacks on famous figures who failed to realize the importance of volatility and/or their own ignorance by giving Greenspan the derogatory epithet “uber-fragilista” and considering Harvard professors to be “charlatans.” Furthermore, Taleb also often omits details and over-simplifies ideas in order to try to force readers into recognizing the validity of his concept of the antifragile.

While being wary of Taleb’s fallacies, he still has an interesting and strong point, that three main topics in Antifragile demonsrate: hormesis, iatrogenics and ‘tinkering’. Taleb introduces the concept of antifragility in the human body with hormesis. Taleb suggests intensive exercise is not only more time-efficient than prolonged less intense exercise but also strengthens the body by more, because the human body overcompensates for stress and comes to anticipate the higher degrees of stress. Similarly in nutrition it is better to eat inconsistently or randomly than to follow the percent daily values suggested by government offices. In nutrition as well as in innovation, Taleb often supports traditional knowledge, which he calls ‘grandparents’ knowledge over modern logical conclusion. Taleb sees traditional knowledge as antifragile because it has been refined by the volatility of time whereas modern methods have not, and are thus often fragile.

Iatrogenesis is an application of antifragility in the human body and government planning.  In both systems a little bit of harm, and volatility helps avoid and prepare for larger swings or mishaps.  In the human body immunizations prevent deadlier diseases and micro-tears in muscles encourage growth (even in babies) ; in national economies volatility and down swings discourage excessive optimism and borrowing. Both the human body, economies and whole nations suffer when deprived of this volatility.  An unprepared immune system is vulnerable to the flu, while artificially stable countries are prone to revolution and sudden upheaval, as seen in the Arab Spring.

Iatrogenesis is a word for over-interventionism, when parents shield their children from any harm or volatility, only to leave the child overwhelmed by a bully in pre-school or a mild cold over Winter.  On a national level the U.S.’ support for artificially stable governments such as those of Egypt (prior to the revolution) and Saudi Arabia (likely also prior to  a future revolution). Taleb brings up a couple other interesting applications of iatrogenesis such as the fact that the pharmaceutical industry encourages over-medication of many modern diseases, for example the famously controversial crack down on ADHD with Ritalin or Adderall.

This pharmaceutical example brings up a key commonality between cases of iatrogenesis, a mismatch of interests.  Pharmaceutical companies want profits, so they benefit from over-medication, whereas the consumer loses out.  Moreover many cases of iatrogenesis involve unrecognized long term costs in unknown drug side effects or future economic crashes.

Another cause of iatrogensis is the asymmetry in recognition given to action or commission as opposed to deliberate inaction, in other words omission.  In the case of national policies, no president has been applauded for inaction, in medicine no doctor is commended for not operating, no money manager is lauded for passivity.

A third central idea described by Taleb is the under-valuing of ‘tinkering’ (Taleb’s name for practical experimentation) and the over-valuation of formal (government sponsored or university academic) research.  Taleb cites the jet engine as a case in point, Philip Scranton of Rutgers university found that formal research into jet engines during the cold war lagged behind practical knowledge derived from experimentation, trial and error.  Similarly Western medicine which was based on the enlightenment principals of rationality continued the practice of bleeding and the use of leeches far past the point simple trial and error would have invalidated these practices.

Although Taleb’s arguments introduce a potent, even revolutionary perspective on the workings of the world, from economics to personal health, Taleb’s arguments often leave couner-arguments unaddressed even bordering or commit straw man fallacies.  In his section on tinkering Taleb fails to recognize formal definition and research are key to refinements and optimization of any technology: after jet engines initial stages of development modern computer models and  fluid dynamics equations undoubtedly refined the product of tinkering and experimentation.  Taleb also over generalizes in his condemnation of university researches’ role in innovation, particularly here in Silicon Valley Stanford produces start ups every year.

Antifragile  introduces a great variety of ideas while tying all these disparate threads with the vital role of randomness in our lives.  However in covering such a number of subjects Taleb’s discussions often lack depth or any counter-arguments.  Overall Antifragile surpasses The Black Swan’s (one of Taleb’s earlier works) legacy in originality and interdisciplinary applications of Taleb’s unique perspective but also in Taleb’s characteristic overstatement and unnecessary ad hominem attacks.