2001, Books, Non-Fiction

Fooled by Randomness (2001) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is an important, valuable book. It’s basically a must-read. It would go on my list of essential non-fiction only I have a few reservations (all of them stylistic). Still, very, very important stuff.

First, the good: Taleb presents counter-intuitive information about probability in a mostly easy to understand way. Anything else you read about probability will likely be written for an audience with a math background or who has already taken some kind of probability class. Taleb is writing for anyone. He highlights numerous problems with approaching investments and life in a non-probabilistic way, and shows how we misunderstand luck in just about every aspect out of our life. Taleb is also up on evolutionary psychology (and more traditional cognitive psychology) and he provides a good summary of the biases that cause us to completely fail to understand probability (even those of us who think we understand it, especially us).

For me personally, it is a very strong critique of consequentialism, a morality that I’ve always wanted to like but struggled to fully embrace. (It’s also a morality that is pretty fully embraced by our justice system.) Basically, acknowledging the role of luck in the world completely destroys consequentialism. Though it may be appealing, consequentialism is so divorced from reality as to actually be a huge problem for society. How many people are we blaming/punishing for things that had little to know control over? Don’t think about that too much as you’re likely to get depressed.

The problem with this book is Taleb himself. I appreciate that he has his own style – authors should only ever write in their own style – and most of the time I find his style awkward, kind of arrogant but still intelligible. But Taleb does a number of things that are huge problems for most readers (myself included):

  • he argues with people he disagrees with (authors, commentators), usually without properly introducing their arguments – this is completely a “first time author” mistake that I myself did throughout my first book, but it’s super annoying;
  • he sometimes fails to fully explain something he completely understands that the audience does not;
  • he didn’t organize the book very well.

All of these things could have been corrected by an editor (there are also a few typos) but he refused to do so. (He admits this is the second edition.) That’s annoying. He could have maintained his personal style while fixing these mistakes. It’s also not surprising: Taleb strikes me as someone who does not suffer fools, or anyone he thinks is remotely foolish, despite his protests of humility throughout this book. I follow him on social media and he’s an arrogant asshole.

But being an idiosyncratic, arrogant asshole does not make him wrong. I find little to disagree with in terms of substance here and, were the book better organized and written, I’d add it to my short list of the most essential non-fiction I’ve ever read.

Worth your time. Put up with the stylistic quirks.


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