People may shrug when boomer musicians launch cancel culture publicity stunts against Joe Rogan, but longtime readers of Nassim Taleb’s books might be surprised to find him joining the crusade, tweeting “save lives, cancel Spotify.”
For those unfamiliar with Taleb’s career, he is something of a Donald Trump of his own domain. Taleb is independently loaded, bombastic, narcissistic, holds serious grudges, eviscerates the “expert” class the way Trump destroyed the fake news media, and, perhaps most like Trump, you love him or hate him. There are few lukewarm opinions about Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Taleb’s 800,000 Twitter following may not compete with Rogan’s 8 million followers, but Taleb’s readers are people who affect our daily lives. They’re influencers in finance, business, members of Congress, government officials, and the cocktail crowd on Capitol Hill.
Taleb surprised many of his fans by revealing he has become a Covid Karen, because he has volumes filled with arguments against the very kind of authoritarian policies that fail to adapt with a weakening virus. Here are but a few top leftist arguments about Covid that according to his own work’s logic are literally killing people.
Humans are flawed and complicated (the tragic versus the utopian nature of man), Taleb writes in his 2004 book, “Fooled By Randomness,” and we thus naturally have flawed thinking. Taleb’s work focuses on how we think and perceive information in order to see past randomness and noise to find a true signal.
Taleb dives into the “expert problem” in “The Black Swan,” the basic idea being that risk and harm can occur when people blindly follow “experts” who are often empty suits with atrocious track records. He provides clear differentiation between genuine and false experts: “Things that move, and therefore require knowledge, do not usually have experts, while things that don’t move seem to have some experts,” he writes in “Black Swan.”
Pandemics are no static thing. While our trust in public health figures was generous in the early stages of the pandemic, Taleb’s readers haven’t needed to wait nearly two years to develop “skeptical empiricism” of their own towards mandates.
Show us the measurable impact of expert-driven policies. The problem is, there isn’t a massive, measurable difference in policies and outcomes. Nitpick data or accuse Republican governors of being guided by “neanderthal thinking” all day long, there just isn’t a significant difference in Covid outcomes by red states run by Republicans or blue states run by Democrats.
Blue states have slightly more deaths, and red states have slightly more deaths per million (see Covid data aggregated by RealClearPolitics of 50 states and DC). The difference in deaths per million is less than half of the margin of error for the data set—it is fractional and does not empirically show a significant benefit to authoritarian policies.
Taleb calls anyone who doesn’t agree with his Covid stance a sociopath, and critics will correctly point to the fact that the fractional difference in policy represents people. What we’re not even considering, however, are unintended, hidden and long-term consequences or the harm caused by the demanded solution.
Taleb’s criticism of experts extends into the world of medicine, where he explores the concept of harm done by healers (iatrogenics). As he noted in his 2012 bestseller “Antifragile,” until penicillin, “going to the doctor increased your chance of death.” A prime example of this harm: the more than 10,000 recorded vaccine deaths in the United States.
His most salient point in “Antifragile” is as follows: “We have to worry about the incitation to overtreatment on the part of pharmaceutical companies, lobbies, and special interest groups and the production of harm that is not immediately salient and not accounted for as an ‘error.’ Pharma plays the game of concealed and distributed iatrogenics, and it has been growing… But when you medicate a child for imagined or invented psychiatric disease, say, ADHD or depression, instead of letting him out of the cage, the long-term harm is largely unaccounted for” (emphasis added).
One can imagine a parent reading this paragraph at a school board meeting in protest against a requirement to expose his healthy son to this risk of vaccine harm. Bean counters can sit there and pretend to predict which has better odds, but children aren’t beans.
In his work, Taleb continues to develop this concept of harm by the healer by bringing up the “agency problem.” He explains: “one party (the agent) has personal interests that are divorced from those of the one using his services (the principal). An agency problem, for instance, is present with the stockbroker and medical doctor, whose ultimate interest is their own checking account, not your financial and medical health, respectively, and who give you advice that is geared to benefit themselves. Or with politicians working on their careers.”
Is he starting to sound like a dangerous conspiracy theorist yet? Might he be sowing seeds of doubts that perhaps politicians are forcing exposure to harm done by “healers” on our children? After all, politicians just know what’s best for us, right?
Probably the most persuasive Taleb argument against himself on Covid is a brilliant argument made in his 2010 “Skin in the Game”: “Don’t tell me what you ‘think,’ just tell me what’s in your portfolio.” Rephrased for Covid: Why do so many mask Karen politicians refrain from wearing masks?
Here are but a few examples: The media removing masks once Trump White House press briefings ended; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi going maskless to her hair appointment; Gov. Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry fiasco; Newsom’s most recent maskless photos with celebrity football fans; and former President Barack Obama’s maskless birthday party.
The political class wants to tell you they know what’s best for you, yet they don’t follow the same rules. These same politicians want to force a young family that has natural immunity to still take the vaccine. Applying Taleb’s own arguments to this, we don’t really know long-term risks of the vaccine, but we do know that the naturally immune don’t need this added exposure to risk of harm done by the cure.
Taleb’s arguments are not without caveats. Indeed, in “Antifragile” he warns against non-intervention including in emergencies, and his Twitter feed is full of his exceptions for anyone who wants to find them.
One rule Taleb regularly falls back on is the classical bioethical concept of prima non nocere: First, do no harm. Taleb ridicules “conspiracy theorists” for suspecting the potential that some information is being hidden about vaccine risk, ignoring his own arguments about the expert problem, harm from healers, the agency problem, and so many more reasons to be skeptical of dominant Covid narratives.
Save lives, ignore Nassim Taleb’s Twitter feed.