The Intellectual Yet Idiot, by Nassim Taleb

Wayne,

I received a link and a query from my young, independent-minded friend.

I thought his question was worthy of thought and discussion, so I posted his note and my reply for your comments too.

Bernard,

You seem to trust those whom you see as “smart people” – experts, so to speak. Have you heard of Nassim Taleb? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nassim_Nicholas_Taleb

He seems like a smart guy, judging by all his degrees and scholarly work.

He also published an article recently called “The Intellectual Yet Idiot.” I think it’s a fascinating commentary on the relationship (or lack thereof) between American politicians, mediamen, and the general public.

Here’s the article: https://medium.com/@nntaleb/the-intellectual-yet-idiot-13211e2d0577#.yqun5yyf4

 I can’t vouch for Taleb’s credibility or anything like that, having only discovered him today.

Dear young friend,

When I arrived in Tampa, Santa delivered a copy of Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan, which I read and enjoyed. I think Taleb is an energetic and smart guy, who talks fast. He’s knowledgeable, and he’s thinking about important, big-picture things, but he simplifies matters until he’s not really correct, in my opinion. He tends to exaggerate the significance of his genuine insights. But he’s a colorful writer, and I enjoy reading witty insults of gas bags, snobs, and hypocrites as much as the next person.

I read the excerpt from his new book, which you referenced, and he displays all of those traits in that essay.

Anti-intellectualism has a long history in American life and thought, and even some intellectuals amuse themselves by playing anti-intellectual, which is what Taleb does in his essay.

He paints with a broad brush, and any given expert or knowledgeable person may or may not see herself in Taleb’s stereotyping of experts. The experts he’s talking about are not “American politicians” or the mainstream media. We can tell this from the few people he explicitly names: Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler, Steven Pinker, Ben Bernanke, and Tony Blair. He’s referring, however, to many controversies within the world of intellectuals and public thought leaders, but these five are the ones he chose to name.

You might like to Google them. Here’s the Wikipedia page about Sunstein: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cass_Sunstein . Here’s the page about Thaler: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Thaler . With Richard Kahneman, Thaler has made important contributions to behavioral economics, which is a school of economic research that combines the insights of modern psychology with economic thought, undermining the economists’ favorite, the rational actor. Taleb’s criticisms are unfair about him and Sunstein, in my opinion.

I’ve read all of Steven Pinker’s books, and I discussed his most recent, The Better Angels of our Nature, with my wife. It is important, deeply researched, cogent, and relevant today when one of our major party’s candidate proclaims that we are all in danger due to the collapse of our social order and attacks by criminals.

Ben Bernanke, as you know, was the Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, the US central bank, tasked by Congress to maintain price stability and to minimize unemployment. He was a Princeton economics professor and Chair of George W Bush’s Council of Economic advisors before Bush appointed him as Chair of the Fed. I am only an amateur in economics, although I consider myself well-informed as an amateur. The economists whose blogs and columns I read would not agree with Taleb’s views about Bernanke or with lumping him into the category of expert, snobbish, idiots.

Tony Blair, of course, is a British politician, so he wouldn’t claim to be an expert or a member of the intelligentsia. He was a popular Labor politician, and served as Prime Minister for 13 years. I don’t know much about British politics, but Tony Blair had been out of office for quite a while and had nothing to do with the Brexit campaign, which was proposed by the Conservative Party, now in office. I have my criticisms of Blair, for his teaming up with George W Bush and his incoherent and dishonest campaign to take us to war in Iraq, but I really don’t see him as fitting in any of the categories that Taleb describes.

No doubt, intellectuals and experts are as subject to human frailties and errors of thought as are everyone else. It is the case, however, that intellectuals and experts are right much more often than they are wrong, and definitely right much more than the common man on the matters that the experts study. Taleb wants you to believe that because experts are sometimes wrong or change their minds, nothing they say is trustworthy, but if that is our criteria, then the common man is even less trustworthy.

Taleb uses the term scientism to describe one of the errors to which he asserts experts fall into. This is a term that arose in the disputes between theologians and other apologists for religion and scientists and their defenders. Also, between philosophers and scientists. Roughly speaking, theologians (who I will use to refer to all those on that side of that debate) assert that religion and science are just different “ways of knowing.” They accuse the rationalists and empiricists of scientism, which is, in their usage, the idea that not only is science the only way of knowing, but that science already explains everything. I consider this a straw man. No one I know advocates scientism as the theologians have it in mind. Of course, no scientist believes that we already know everything. We tend to believe that the empirical method is the most trustworthy and reliable method yet discovered for finding out about nature. We would say that as opposed to reason, authority and revelation have proven unreliable. Of course, scientists would like to understand more than we do about nature, but we don’t feel the need to invent explanations in those realms that remain dark to us. The theologians, however, would say that in the realms of morality, human meaning, consciousness and similar places the scientists cannot yet speak knowledgeably, but religion does and has been doing for centuries. Of course, I agree that religious thinkers have been declaiming in those and other important arenas. In other regions of thought now subject to empirical investigation, however, we have found the religious pronouncements unreliable or wrong. Thus I don’t attach much credence to their claims where we cannot yet check them.

Bernard

I didn’t think about it at the time, but when I next communicate with him about this I’ll ask him whether he visits a doctor or his next door neighbor when he is sick, or an auto mechanic or the next common sense guy he meets on the street when his Prius rattles and wheezes. I say that even if doctors sometimes make mistakes and auto mechanics too, there are good reasons that we see them for certain problems.

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