Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Idiot Intellectuals

Plato called them the guardian class, group of philosophers whose knowledge of the eternal Forms made them wiser than everyone else. Someone who knows Ideas also knows how you should conduct your life. Don't you think?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls them Intellectuals Yet Idiots, the IYI. I would have preferred Idiot Intellectuals, but that is a quibble. You surely know that Taleb authored a book called The Black Swan, a great book that one happily recommends wholeheartedly.

Given that the “people,” such as they are, have been rejecting the counsel and the influence of the IYI, Taleb has written a superb satire that exposes their pretensions and their limitations. (via Maggie’s Farm.)

First, he lays down the predicate:

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

Of course, they have hitched their tenured professorships to the authority of science. They do not know enough to know that many scientific results are seriously flawed:

With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.

Pretending that an idea is science in order to shut down conversation and discussion is called scientism. Taleb does not mention it, but he might have been referring to the current mania over what is called climate science.

He continues:

They can’t tell science from scientismin fact in their eyes scientism looks more scientific than real science. (For instance it is trivial to show the following: much of what the Cass-Sunstein-Richard Thaler typesthose who want to nudge us into some behaviormuch of what they would classify as rational or irrational (or some such categories indicating deviation from a desired or prescribed protocol) comes from their misunderstanding of probability theory and cosmetic use of first-order models.)

For the IYI it’s all dogmatic truth. For those who read the right magazines and listen to the IYI, it’s perfectly reasonable, even when it isn’t.

Taleb writes:

Beware the semi-erudite who thinks he is an erudite. He fails to naturally detect sophistry.

Which sophistries is he talking about?

Taleb answers:

More socially, the IYI subscribes to The New Yorker. He never curses on twitter. He speaks of “equality of races” and “economic equality” but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver (again, no real skin in the game as the concept is foreign to the IYI). Those in the U.K. have been taken for a ride by Tony Blair. The modern IYI has attended more than one TEDx talks in person or watched more than two TED talks on Youtube. Not only will he vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable and some such circular reasoning, but holds that anyone who doesn’t do so is mentally ill.

As for his track record, these idiot intellectuals have been wrong about nearly everything that matters and nearly anything that can be verified:

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.



Ares Olympus said...

I agree Taleb's opinions are generally worth listening to, although without naming names, with such a broad brush, in this case he seems to come across more as a grumpy old man than an honest and helpful critic. Ideally advice ought to have a way to separate the pretenders from the real thing, and also give examples of people who he sees are not idiots.

Taleb might have as talked of the "intellectual deplorables", at least he might admit grossly generalizations are largely useless except for the pleasure from self-righteous contempt.

You can see here a funny humility that sees his own advice in the past would have been wrong.
I hesitate to give advice because every major single piece of advice I was given turned out to be wrong and I am glad I didn’t follow them. I was told to focus and I never did. I was told to never procrastinate and I waited 20 years for the Black Swan and it sold 3 million copies. I was told to not insult the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the more I insulted them the nicer they were to me and solicit Op-Eds.

If I had to relive my life I would be even more stubborn and uncompromising than I have been. One should never do anything without skin in the game. If you give advice, you need to be exposed to losses from it.

In regards to his IYI we might consider the fact that all the people of this imaginary or real class have "skin in the game", and at least for economists there's a problem that they have created a system that is so "stable" that now central banks have made themselves slaves to the wealthholders, so no one can risk a falling market that will threaten the baby boomer retirement pensions, so they have to keep on pretending more and more debt will solve everything, always assuming future growth will pay for current consumption, and that the future will always be larger than the present.

James Howard Kunstler, incidentally an urban planner critic, and another grumpy old man perhaps offers his own analysis, including this week, about how things fail. And he sees the view that economic growth is largely over, that it has depended upon the low hanging fruit of easily extracted one-time resources, and expanding markets, and now we're hitting a diminishing return from those, while making up for the difference on new debt, so now growing debt is required for a growing GDP, and when this stops, all the debt has to unroll in a very chaotic way that no one can control or manage.
...But there is a clear synergy between the mismanagement of our money and the mismanagement of our politics. They have the ability to amplify each other’s disorders. The awful vibe from this depraved election might be enough to bring down markets and banks. The markets and banks are unstable enough to affect the election.

Predicting spectacular failure is easy, and not a great risk, although the timing is the real open question.

And I can have sympathy for the Intellectual idiots in the sense of Sinclair's quote "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Taleb's other recent book was antifragile, and that's where his "skin in the game" principle was expressed. Antifragility is an interesting property, and at least you can see "skin in the game" really has the same meaning as "necessity is the mother of invention", and that means we've got a whole lot of crises ahead, and don't know how to solve any of them, but when they hit, decisions will be made that keeps the necessities going at any cost.

Free Markets for example may be antifragile, but in the "Social Darwinism" sense, and so far we've avoided this predicament by spending down our one-time geological capital where all boats can temporarily rise.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Pretending that an idea is science in order to shut down conversation and discussion is called scientism. Taleb does not mention it, but he might have been referring to the current mania over what is called climate science.

Curious about this unmentionable, does Taleb have an opinion over the mania called climate science. And here's a statement and conclusion "We have *only one* planet and need to learn to live with imperfection of models."
THE POLICY DEBATE with respect to anthropogenic climate-change typically revolves around the accuracy of models. Those who contend that models make accurate predictions argue for specific policies to stem the foreseen damaging effects; those who doubt their accuracy cite a lack of reliable evidence of harm to warrant policy action.

These two alternatives are not exhaustive. One can sidestep the “skepticism” of those who question existing climate-models, by framing risk in the most straightforward possible terms, at the global scale. That is, we should ask “what would the correct policy be if we had no reliable models?”

We have only one planet. This fact radically constrains the kinds of risks that are appropriate to take at a large scale. Even a risk with a very low probability becomes unacceptable when it affects all of us – there is no reversing mistakes of that magnitude.

Without any precise models, we can still reason that polluting or altering our environment significantly could put us in uncharted territory, with no statistical track- record and potentially large consequences. It is at the core of both scientific decision making and ancestral wisdom to take seriously absence of evidence when the consequences of an action can be large. And it is standard textbook decision theory that a policy should depend at least as much on uncertainty concerning the adverse consequences as it does on the known effects.

Further, it has been shown that in any system fraught with opacity, harm is in the dose rather than in the nature of the offending substance: it increases nonlinearly to the quantities at stake. Everything fragile has such property. While some amount of pollution is inevitable, high quantities of any pollutant put us at a rapidly increasing risk of destabilizing the climate, a system that is integral to the biosphere. Ergo, we should build down CO2 emissions, even regardless of what climate-models tell us.

This leads to the following asymmetry in climate policy. The scale of the effect must be demonstrated to be large enough to have impact. Once this is shown, and it has been, the burden of proof of absence of harm is on those who would deny it.

It is the degree of opacity and uncertainty in a system, as well as asymmetry in effect, rather than specific model predictions, that should drive the precautionary measures. Push a complex system too far and it will not come back. The popular belief that uncertainty undermines the case for taking seriously the ’climate crisis’ that scientists tell us we face is the opposite of the truth. Properly understood, as driving the case for precaution, uncertainty radically underscores that case, and may even constitute it.

Here's Climatologist Judith Curry's reaction as well,
I really like Taleb’s writings on risk (e.g. black swans, anti-fragile, fooled by randomness). However, when he applies these ideas to complex issues such as climate change and GMOs, in my opinion his arguments fall way short.

So apparently the great Taleb isn't the perfect opinionator for all right-wingers.

Leo G said...

Good essay, but heartily disagree with him on GMO's.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"Idiot Intellectuals" is redundant in our society.

Experience trumps theory. If your theory works, then it's a model. All Leftism is vacant theory that makes every fairytale seem reasonable... government as Santa Claus.

Ares Olympus' belief in climate theory is proof positive. Climate models are not models, they're theories. And these doomsday theories have not come to pass. The earth is cooling, and has been for almost two decades. Get with the program, lest ye be an idiot, an intellectual, or both.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Here's a case in point with the intellectual chattering classes:

Financial Times: "The Trumpian Threat to the Global Order"

First subtitle/headline: "The liberal rules-based system established after 1945 is under unprecedented strain."

Unprecedented strain? Really? How about OPEC? How about socialist nationalization of industries in the wake of independence of former colonies? How about Soviet evangelization of the virtues of totalitarian communism?

Do these people actually think before they write these kinds of things?

To my ear, Trump is not suggesting that we abandon a rules-based system of global trade. He is suggesting that trade must work for both sides, which is an assertion of sovereignty. There have been lots of state actors with protected industries that have abrogated the "rules-based system," and still do. Japan, China, South Korea, et al. This is today's Financial Times? They've go their head in the sand. If Trump was looking to abandon a rules-based system, I would oppose it, because it would lead to economic chaos. What Trump is proposing is that we negotiate better deals based on our national interest. That's NATIONAL interest -- not Boeing's interest. We cannot be giving our manufacturing capacity to the world. It's insane. Sure, it makes sense for the globalization theoreticians, and the giants of industry who benefit. But does it make sense for the economic interest of the American nation? I think not.

A lot of intellectuals, writers and "thought leaders" are living in a theoretical universe. What is the practical impact of these policies? If we don't act like a nation, we will cease to be a nation, and have no one else to blame but ourselves. Globalization -- as currently practiced -- is national and cultural suicide. George Soros' vision for the future is a global elite making all decisions for everyone based on an idea that borders, culture, sovereignty and local power are ancient abstractions. I hope we can turn the tide against this senselessness.