Communicating science to people who aren’t scientists is very hard to do well. Nassim Taleb should be very good at it, based on his enormous book sales and even more enormous opinion of his own skills. But we all have our demons, and Taleb has succumbed to his. Rather than encouraging a healthy discussion about science, he’s picked a side and declared all-out war on the people who disagree with him. Taleb even admits that his strategy is to prevent conversations from happening by abusing and insulting people who question him, and encouraging his followers to join in. What’s the point of that strategy? It doesn’t help communicate science, resolve legitimate questions about the facts, or even address the supposedly evil motives of his critics. All it really does is feel good. Nassim Taleb has chosen self-gratification over real engagement. Let’s talk about why that’s unproductive and unethical.
Taleb has been kicking up the dust lately on Facebook and Twitter, encouraging his readers to not even listen to people who disagree with his beliefs about GMOs. I caught an edge of it when I saw his contemptuous remarks about a scientist I follow, Kevin Folta:
Actually, when I saw this, my first thought was to investigate whether it was true; apparently, it is. Or, perhaps, Taleb is embarking on some sort of new experiment. So I looked for some other sources:
If you think the headline of this blog is unnecessarily inflammatory, you are right. It’s an ad hominem way to deal with public discourse, and it’s unfair to Nassim Taleb, the New York University statistician and risk analyst. I’m using it to make a point–because it’s Taleb himself who regularly invokes such ugly characterizations of others.
Taleb rocketed to seer and cult celebrity status after his 2007 book on extreme risk, The Black Swan, was followed serendipitously by the 2008 global market crash and Great Recession.
Taleb has recently become the darling of GMO opponents. He and four colleagues–Yaneer Bar-Yam, Rupert Read, Raphael Douady and Joseph Norman–wrote a paper, The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms, released last May and updated last month, in which they claim to bring risk theory and the Precautionary Principle to the issue of whether GMOS might introduce “systemic risk” into the environment. Taleb portrays GMOs as a ‘castrophe in waiting’–and has taken to personally lashing out at those who challenge his conclusions–and yes, calling them “imbeciles” or paid shills.
Watching Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books, engage on twitter, is like being ringside at a verbal boxing match with the intellectual equivalent of Clubber Lang, the snarling, contemptuous boxer played by Mr. T in Rocky 3. In the movie, Clubber Lang was so mean and nasty the performance was almost a parody.
When you see Taleb go ballistic on Twitter, as he often does, you wonder similarly if the guy is truly an angry asshole of the highest order, or if it’s just some performance schtick by an egghead scholar trying to liven up his day. Then again, he can’t seem to help himself: The guy did get into it one time with a parody Twitter account. As one observer noted:
Taleb has a propensity for being quite combative on Twitter, on topics ranging from bonds to GMOs, and Taleb will fight with just about anybody.
Yeah, you could say that again. Some people, such as the economist Noah Smith, make allowances for Taleb’s bad behavior:QuoteNassim Taleb is a vulgar bombastic windbag, and I like him a lot.
But Taleb is more than just a venomous, preening, brawler. It’s not enough for him to slug it out with real and imagined adversaries (including journalists). He has to smear their reputations with innuendo. I learned this myself when I engaged with Taleb some months ago. I saw that he was circulating a paper on GMOs and I asked to interview him. He declined and then asked:Quote!! RT @nntaleb: @keithkloor BTW do you get (indirect) funding from GMO corporations? Can you state this here (which is on the record)?
— keith kloor (@keithkloor) August 13, 2014
What the hell, Taleb? Is he trying to coattail on Dawkins' enormous success at being a complete asspipe?