Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Reflecting on Nicholas Nassim Taleb's Antifragile and applying it to living, running and medicine

I enjoyed Taleb's Black Swan, about which I wrote here. I learned more from Antifragile, which was more technical and diverse in its scope, though I found much more to disagree with than I did while reading The Black Swan. Antifragility is defined by Taleb as the direct opposite of fragile, which is something that breaks down under stress. Given that the exact opposite of something is not its absence, Taleb distinguishes between fragility, robustness and antifragility. Fragility means to break down under stress, robustness is to remain unchanged by stress, and antfragility, therefore, is to thrive under stress.

Anyone who has experienced both sleeping for 12 hours and then wanting to do nothing, as well as working out in the morning before work and having a tremendous amount of energy all day, will understand that humans are antifragile. We thrive under stress, which is, of course, not the stress of pressure, anxiety or discomfort, the "stressed out" stress, but the sort of stress where we do something, such as use our muscles, go eight hours without food or endure less than optimal temperatures for a few hours.

Taleb applies antifragility and fragility to countless situations throughout the book. The book, which is reasonably well-organized, is so laden with so many different kinds of examples that it can seem, in a way, to be a 400-page book that simply gives one or two examples of things that are antifragile or fragile on every single page. Many of the lessons are instructive, such as the idea that large, centralized polities are fragile while smaller, decentralized ones are antifragile. Still, after reading this post or even the book, if you don't immediately get how all these things are connected to the idea that some things are improved by stress while others are destroyed by it, you've noticed the fact that this book is very far-reaching.

He points out Switzerland as a country that is a great example of being antifragile, minimizing risk by decentralizing power towards its cantons. A good example of the opposite is the area that today makes up Lebanon and Syria, which for centuries had been left in a state of messy uncertainty, which suited the area just fine. European attempts to turn the region into two centralized modern states has ruined the long-standing prosperity of the region.

Problems with the book, though, are the fact that although Taleb has two master's degrees and a PhD and is an academic, he constantly and repeatedly takes potshots at economists and academics throughout the book. Instead, he frequently points to intuitive, less intellectual ways of solving problems. There is value in this. Running is a classic example of a something where results have improved marginally, especially in the West (where it can be argued that it has instead gone backwards), even as academics have rushed to study the most minute aspects of the sport. Athletes backed by years of science are routinely demolished by novices.

Taleb probably takes it too far. An instructive example is that of a game theory expert who tried teaching a Middle Eastern vendor how to bargain, to which the vendor reportedly replied "we have done this for generations", what makes you think you can improve on this? The expert was embarrassed by the response and gave up. I don't know what that is supposed to prove. Taleb repeatedly extols the wisdom of the ancients, but often, is the case here, appears to be doing so to mock his peers.

In doing so, Taleb writes a very feel-good book, often making it a feel-good book for himself where he gets to describe how wealthy, cultured, smart and privileged he is. At one point, Taleb informs the reader that he is writing using a "seasoned fountain pen" and immediately declares that "I do not fuss over the state of my pens. Many of them are old enough to cross decades...Nor do I obsess over small variations in paper. I prefer to use Clairefontaine paper." I enjoy Taleb's work, but that was a remarkably pompous sentence for someone who makes a living out of demolishing pompous thinking.

In the last quarter or so of the book, Taleb outlines his beliefs on food and health, declaring that he doesn't drink anything that hasn't existed for a thousand years and has not therefore passed the test of time (what if Coca Cola makes it another 900 years?), nor does he eat fruits that didn't exist in his ancestral homeland. These heuristics make a point, but they also help to create a pretentious image. Someone who doesn't eat a particular food for reasons such as these gets to feel superior to others, just as someone who doesn't own a TV or use Facebook will not be shy about letting you know (I am guilty of the former).

Still, there is a great deal to learn in this book and apply in many domains. First, the idea of redundancy, common in nature, perhaps the most common example of this is the fact that we have two kidneys but can live with one, is a great way to live. However, Taleb writes, "human design tends to be spare and inversely redundant", having savings is redundancy but having debt is fragility. Redundancy is not just defensive or "wussy", but can have tremendous benefits. If you view an increase in fitness as "the additional capacity to withstand an extra stressor" at some point in the future, fitness is basically redundancy or insurance.

Second, the applications of antifragility to running are obvious, though Taleb's views on fitness are to lift as much as possible in a short amount of time and mix in long, slow walks. That stress and rest leads to fitness is commonly understood in running, but if life is seen as an analogy for running, the concept becomes clearer. Taleb makes it clear that stress, such as being scared senseless, needs to be followed by an appropriate period of rest, such as relaxing while listening to soothing music. The constant mid-level stress experienced by someone with a boring job requiring long hours and a long commute are not conducive to antifragility, but it leads to fragility. Similarly, running hard all the time without rest, be it running hard in easy runs or running too many races, isn't going to lead to optimal outcomes.

The final application, which Taleb touches on constantly, is to medicine. Taleb cites research showing that all the medical advances of the post-war era have had less of an impact than a decline in smoking. Going to the doctor is about as useful as punting in football, it seems. Between diseases acquired from being at a hospital, malpractice and needless procedures undertaken because no one feels important or helpful by telling someone to do nothing, medicine is incredibly harmful.

The heuristic Taleb proposes for medicine is that medical intervention should only be resorted to when the benefit is large and exceeds the potential harm. While I can agree with Taleb about the potential harm done by simply being in a hospital and receiving unnecessary treatment, his argument for viewing medicine in economic terms ("decision making based on payoffs, not knowledge"), combined with his endless disdain for economics and economists, makes medical decision-making based on payoffs a choice I wouldn't want to make.

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