Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Taleb on the Financial Crisis

I'm instinctively drawn to unorthodox thinkers. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one such individual and was the first person I thought to look up in light of the past few days of capital carnage. By his own words, he is
interested in how to live in a world we don’t understand very well –in other words, while most human thought (particularly since the enlightenment) has focused us on how to turn knowledge into decisions, I am interested in how to turn lack of information, lack of understanding, and lack of “knowledge” into decisions...

His background is both a PhD and work experience in the world of high finance that is at the core of this crisis. His recent book on this stuff is called The Black Swan. He is not kind to economists and bell curves.

In a nutshell, Taleb attacks the idea that we can predict outcomes with any certainty in complex dynamic environments because these environments are by nature extremely difficult or impossible to fully conceptualise or understand. There are simply too many variables, too many things happening, much of which is invisible to us, to make any sort of predictive or prescriptive judgement. Imagine you're a pilot on approach to a busy place like Heathrow with only your eyes to guide you, no access to air traffic control, with a sky full of other planes to negotiate, most of which you are unaware of. Contrast that to say landing a crop duster on some rural airstrip in Saskatchewan, and you'll get a good idea of what Taleb is on about when he speaks of uncertainty and poor understanding in severely complicated environments like the global market and complex derivatives trading- whatever that is.

I hope then that this link to Taleb's piece in Edge will help you understand the crisis from a slightly different perspective.

Also see the Resilience Blog for more (h/t for the Taleb link). I suspect it'll be a site to watch as things unfold.

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