Why is Nassim Taleb So Venomous on Twitter?

By Keith Kloor | November 1, 2014 10:48 am

Watching Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books, engage on twitter, is like being ringside at a verbal boxing match with the intellectual equivalent of Clubber Lang, the snarling, contemptuous boxer played by Mr. T in Rocky 3. In the movie, Clubber Lang was so mean and nasty the performance was almost a parody.

When you see Taleb go ballistic on Twitter, as he often does, you wonder similarly if the guy is truly an angry asshole of the highest order, or if it’s just some performance schtick by an egghead scholar trying to liven up his day. Then again, he can’t seem to help himself: The guy did get into it one time with a parody Twitter account. As one observer noted:

Taleb has a propensity for being quite combative on Twitter, on topics ranging from bonds to GMOs, and Taleb will fight with just about anybody.

Yeah, you could say that again. Some people, such as the economist Noah Smith, make allowances for Taleb’s bad behavior:

Nassim Taleb is a vulgar bombastic windbag, and I like him a lot.

But Taleb is more than just a venomous, preening, brawler. It’s not enough for him to slug it out with real and imagined adversaries (including journalists). He has to smear their reputations with innuendo. I learned this myself when I engaged with Taleb some months ago. I saw that he was circulating a paper on GMOs and I asked to interview him. He declined and then asked:

Now I see that he has just lobbed a similar spitball at David Ropeik. Apparently it was prompted by Ropeik’s response to this tweet:

Ropeik chimed in with a dim view of the paper:

Which elicited this response from Taleb:

Can someone do a background check on Taleb’s fragile ego to see what makes him so averse to criticism?

UPDATE: This review of Taleb’s work by another economist is really interesting and worth reading. And so is this recent analysis of the GMO paper he’s been circulating the past few months.

UPDATE 2: It’s worth noting that Taleb also willfully shuts out views he can’t abide:

UPDATE 3: At Medium, David Ropeik has written a thorough deconstruction of Taleb’s GMO paper.

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  • mem_somerville

    Well, you guys are in good company. He called the “EU chief scientist a dangerous imbecile, says risk expert”.

  • JH

    Taleb is full of strong rational arguments mixed up with complete BS and an extreme blowhard propensity.

    • Loren Eaton

      Yes, JH, but what is the worth of strong rational arguments on the back of weak irrational premises?

      • JH

        Nothing, if the strong rational arguments are on the back of weak arguments. OTOH, if they’re independent of the weak arguments, which some of his are, they stand on their own.

  • Killy Slatre

    None of his personal accusations have borne out in truth. Taleb’s “Can someone do a background check” is just the dog whistle of a thug calling his gang. It’s perfectly predictable coming from a rich kid who grew up surrounded by servants. It’s amusing to see that his profoundly muddled “Antifragile” has turned out to be a manifesto vigorously embraced terrorists and drug dealers.

    • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

      You’ve hit it on the head. His minions are far more troublesome than the man himself. And they cover the whole spectrum from rampant homeopaths to shady paramilitary types.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Mexican grass teosinte usefully produces edible collectible seed. If seed is stored in a copper/brass/bronze vessel and things get moist, leached copper ions catalyze oxidatve scission of teosinte germinal DNA. The resulting genetically modified organism is CORN.

    Does Msr. Taleb have a problem with GMO crops? If so, tell Archer-Daniels-Midland to take 2014 harvest 14.7 billion bushels of shelled corn, 411 million tons, and shove burn it. The immediate result will be planetary famine. Burning 40% of US corn as fuel ethanol made the whole of suddenly hungry Arabia murderous, destabilized Mexico, and did a pretty on sub-Saharan Africa.

    • Buddy199

      Is this going to be on the test?

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        It’s been in the world for at least 1000 years.

  • http://cendax.wordpress.com/ Norbrook

    It’s an old tactic, one of the ad hominem logical fallacies, called “poisoning the well.” It serves as a way to avoid substantively rebutting any criticisms, and rather forces that person into defending themselves. Of course, it also means that the person making the assault “ain’t got nothing.”

  • Benjamin Edge

    Not just averse to criticism, but the anticipation of criticism. Paranoid much? I agree with Norbrook. Taleb knows his argument is weak, so he starts off on the offensive (in more ways than one). He is not used to people challenging his wall of theoretical doublespeak and reacts to the threat with abuse, condescension, and innuendo.

  • JH

    NEWS FLASH: IPCC seeks to ensure Republican Victory in US Senate.

    • JH

      NPR is back-paging the IPCC news…what gives? A de-emphasis of environmental issues or do they think the same thing I do? :)

  • James Knauer

    Bullies are boring and easily tuned out on twitter and other forums as they have only the power given them, in the form of negative attention that is “better” than no attention at all.

  • David Skurnick

    I cannot answer the question of why someone of such achievements and fame is so thin-skinned on Twitter. However, I disagree with the linked review. I think Taleb’s book “Fooled by Randomness” is an
    important work. My background is as a casualty actuary specializing in reinsurance. It was my job to estimate the likelihood and cost of extreme events. Reinsurance actuarial work must reflect the possibility of something unforeseen or something worse than we’ve experienced.
    Duiring my career, there were several events that would qualify as Black Swans: The Asbestos liability suits, Pollution liability suits, the 9/11 attack, and the breakdown of Lloyd’s come to mind.
    I would add that although the reviewer correctly says that Taleb wasn’t the first to discuss unexpected catastrophic events, the fact is that such events are often ignored or under-estimated by insurance people and by investors. Thus Taleb’s focus on Black Swans had value, even if he wasn’t the first to think of the idea.

    • Loren Eaton

      “I cannot answer the question of why someone of such achievements and fame is so thin-skinned on Twitter.” I think it is the old adage concerning ‘believing one’s own propaganda.” People of such achievements aren’t used to having their conclusions questioned after all this time of being praised. And yet, I am unmoved;-)

    • http://cendax.wordpress.com/ Norbrook

      It’s also a bad case of “I’m an expert in a field, so my opinion on this other unrelated field is more valid than anyone else’s!” AKA the fallacious “appeal to authority.”

      • Loren Eaton

        I really like boats!! I support our Navy, too!! Can I design the next nuclear submarine? After all, I DO have a Master’s in Cell Biology.

      • https://twitter.com/rskurat Ron Skurat

        There’s definitely a tendency in science & engineering to assume that expertise is transferable. This gives us programmers who think they’re management gurus, mathematicians who think they’re molecular biologists, and neuroscientists who think they’re immunologists. Doesn’t work that way.

        • http://cendax.wordpress.com/ Norbrook

          It tends to cross many fields, hence Taleb’s arrogance in thinking that his expertise, such as it is, in financial risk management is applicable in any other risk management. It isn’t, and the risk management experts in those fields are often the “idiots” who tell him that.

        • Cassandra Biophilia

          Yes! I still feel scientists are more aware of their limitations than the general public is of theirs, but the tendency you pointed out is so dangerous! Readers who understand neither the subject at hand nor the general principles of science will just glom onto the claims that appeal to them the most, if they see any scientist making those claims.

  • Loren Eaton

    a…”background check on David Ropeik”. I should think a guy with the obvious brilliance of Dr. Taleb (just ask him) could do better than engage in the Pharma Shill Gambit. Tsk. Tsk.

  • Loren Eaton

    I read this guy’s paper. The entire rant and all predictions of a global apocalypse are based on a premise made at the beginning that he is NOT qualified to make. To paraphrase, “GM is so obviously different than other kinds of breeding, a collapse is inevitable.”

    • mem_somerville

      Yeah, this is what confuses me. People keep talking about his math and his models. But the entire premise is wrong. Who cares about what kind of graphs he makes out of it.

      We might as well be talking about the Time Cube.

      • Loren Eaton

        ‘It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.” Richard Feynman
        And one more this guy should chew on..”Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”

    • JH

      Yeah, funny about Taleb, the black swan model makes fine sense with respect to financial markets but it has no meaning with respect to GM or climate or any other physical feature of the universe. It’s bizarre that he thinks his black swan idea is relevant to anything physical.

      • https://twitter.com/rskurat Ron Skurat

        An asteroid strike or bubonic plague would fall into Black Swan territory, but his assertion that GM is fundamentally different to traditional breeding is just plain wrong. The worst that could happen is glyosphate resistance crossing over into weed species, which probably will happen eventually – and monsanto has to start over, big whoop.

  • JH

    Falkenblog:

    A classic case of two “theories” / ideas / methods (Taleb vs Falkenblog), neither of which works as billed by its proponents but both of which have useful components.

    I don’t think anyone has much faith in Falkenblog’s standard industry “risk management” tools at this point, so Falkenblog’s defense of them and his irritation with Taleb for attacking them is painful reading. OTOH – as Falkenblog points out – Taleb’s “long the crash” strategy doesn’t work either.

    What’s funny is that it hasn’t occurred to either of them that a person or institution could employ a qualitative “buy the crash” long strategy, which has made Buffett (10s of?) billions on several occasions.

    If Buffet had gone long Wells Fargo for $1B on the day Falkenblog’s post went up (march 13, 2009) – when WFC was already >50% above its lowest price during the crash – he’d have earned a whopping $3.0B (including dividends) as of today. That’s a compound annual return rate of 28.7%.

    The obvious superiority of the “buy the crash” method, which Buffet employed successfully in ‘87, ’99, and ’09 – it’s not like Falkenblog or Taleb don’t know about it! – leaves one wondering why so few people/orgs used it during the crash. It suggests that most “market
    experts” have more pressing incentives than long-term gains.

    • Tony

      Falken is a perfect loser… Nassim has 80 million in the bank and Falken is a computer programmer. Just consider that.

  • Tom C

    Maybe he’s related to Mike Mann. They look alike.

  • Sienna Rosachi

    Perhaps he learned it from you Keith. You attack people on twitter all the time. I
    And I can’t even believe you have the gall to say “It’s not enough for him to slug it out with real and imagined adversaries (including journalists). He has to smear their reputations with innuendo” You go out of your way to ruin the reputation of many and you are just a journalist with no real science background.
    You try to be significant, but you are not. Sad

    • http://dev.blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Could you point to some examples where I “attack” people on Twitter? It should be easy to find since you say I do it “all the time.”

  • Tony

    Falkenblog: Falken is a perfect loser who has been after Nassim. He is still some type of computer programmer and Nassim has 80 mill in the bank.
    Also Nassim is distinguished prof with tons of peer-reviewed work so all this is BS smear campaign of the idiot.

  • Karl Haro von Mogel

    Nassim Taleb has also accused Biology Fortified of being industry-funded, which is wrong, so I think he’s just coming up with reasons to dismiss criticisms rather than address them head-on.
    I also read his paper, and his grasp of the underlying biology and the assumptions that he makes are appalling. It would be permissible if he was exploring the issue and admitting his ignorance, but the claims that he is making about how he knows the answer and everyone else is wrong strikes me as extremely arrogant – and ironic.
    Getting past the assumptions, the arbitrary classifications of techniques as ‘top-down’ vs ‘bottom-up’, and all that, his argument essentially boils down to the claim that as the use of the technology in agriculture, the chance of an all-encompassing disaster or ecocide approaches 1, or 100%. However, he is forgetting an essential part of risk assessment – what is the risk of harm from NOT acting? Given the many ecological challenges and problems in the world, and given that many GMO traits are being developed to help solve some of those problems, he is leaving out the counter-calculation. As the use of technology in agriculture increases, the chance of PREVENTING ecocide is also increased. His analysis is one-sided and wrong.
    Moreover, if another country uses genetic engineering aggressively and foolishly, causing harm, then in all likelihood it will be what we learn from our experience using the technology that will allow us to solve and mitigate the problems caused by its mis-use. So deciding not to use it in one country may also lead to vulnerabilities.
    Unless he can accurately account for the multi-faceted risks and benefits of using and not using the technology, and learn the underlying biology, then all Nassim Taleb is doing is throwing out arbitrary numbers and being un-collegiate to his critics.

  • Alex Reynolds

    Because Monsanto deserves to be singled out with its sordid past history. Take Monsanto out of the biotech business and you get rid of the black eye, plain and simple. And tell them to take Agent Orange with them.

    Even pro GMO people admit the Monsanto Monopoly needs to go.

    But less than 20 years later, over a dozen weeds have developed resistance to glyphosate, meaning that farmers have to use more of it, as well as other more hazardous chemicals such as 2,4-D, a powerful herbicide linked to reproductive problems and birth defects, says Chuck Benbrook, PhD, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. On the basis of 16 years of pesticide data, collected since GMOs were introduced, Benbrook predicts that use of 2,4-D will increase more than fourfold in the next decade, spurred by new GMO crops. “Twenty years from now we will look back and deeply regret the misuse and mismanagement of current-generation GMO technology,” he says.

    This is Agent Orange, the same carcinogen that Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, et. al, poisoned Vietnam and our soldiers with. Now they are trying to patent it as their new pesticide- this is the part everyone should be paying attention to

  • JonFrum

    Sounds just like a climate alarmist – the oil companies and the Koch brothers finance enemy propaganda. Of course, Kloor can’t see the similarity between his own position and Nassim’s.

  • Tom Hayden

    “It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” – Oscar Wilde

    I generally agree with a lot of the things Taleb says and writes but his bluster makes him look like a clown. I think he’s smarter than that, though, and knows that every article about him only brings more attention to his twitter, his books, and the stuff he writes. Loud iconoclasts ship books, quiet academics usually don’t.

  • Doug Huffman

    Why should he suffer fools – of any sort?

  • http://al-terity.blogspot.com/ Alterity

    ~Can someone do a background check on Taleb’s fragile ego to see what makes him so averse to criticism?

    The guy is a fraud – that’s why. He’s an average thinker but pompous and arrogant. Fat tails are interesting but he makes his career from dissing everyone who doesn’t agree with him. Pathetic really.

  • JSM

    Maybe he is just done with stupid people who have gained power by towing the party line.
    I get being done with it… in a world where anti-intellectualism can create presidential material, you can lose it.
    In the country of the blind, the one eyed man is frustrated… he is very very frustrated.

  • endmathabusenow

    I initially wondered if he was a clown or just incredibly thin skinned. I have decided on the latter based on my recent twitter interaction with him.

    He told me to fuckoff and blocked his tweets from me because 1) I pointed out that I could not see how he shows a real way of making predictions in his mathematical attacks on Nate Silver, 2) pointed out that his vague predictions of a Trump victory were much in line with Nate Silver, and 3) in response to a tweet by Steve Hanke touting how Trump’s victory vindicates Taleb’s bashing of pseudo-intellectuals I pointed out that Taleb was part of the elite and his frequent usage of the F-word and calling people idiots does not remove him from that club.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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