“Imbeciles” on Twitter Continue to Distract Nassim Taleb

By Keith Kloor | November 26, 2014 12:15 pm

Those of you familiar with Black Swan author Nassim Taleb know he has a formidable mind and an abrasive public persona. It is necessary to separate the two when analyzing his logic, which is what economist/writer Noah Smith does admirably in his Bloomberg column on Taleb’s controversial GMO paper. (More on Smith’s take in a minute.)

To quickly review, Taleb and his coauthors argue that the ecological and public health risks of GMOs are not adequately known, and because of the unique nature of these concerns they cumulatively pose a “risk of global harm.” Here is Taleb et al’s definition of the precautionary principle, and why they think it should apply to GMOs:

We believe that the PP should be evoked only in extreme situations: when the potential harm is systemic (rather than localized) and the consequences can involve total irreversible ruin, such as the extinction of human beings or all life on the planet.”

Taleb and his coauthors argue that GMOs “fall squarely under the precautionary principle because of their systemic risk.”

Smith takes a hard look at the case laid out in the paper and identifies its fatal flaw:

The key question is whether GMOs, whatever their advantages, really have the potential to cause truly ruinous harm. This question has nothing to do with probability or decision theory, and everything to do with biology. Taleb et al. don’t spin a convincing story for how GMOs might destroy us.

If anything, as David Ropeik discussed recently in this analysis posted on Medium,

the whole case that GMOs could cause catastrophic ruin is based largely on speculation, mixed with a handful of mostly suspect studies from known GMO opponents. None of those studies, by the way, portends the “ruin” or “irreversible termination of life at some scale” that Taleb and colleagues establish as their criteria for warranting a strict PP for GMOs.

Don’t expect Taleb to engage  seriously with the Smith and Ropeik evaluations of his paper. But it is revealing how he responds to such critiques. For example, check out the recent thread that followed a tweet (directed at no one in particular) from Canadian journalist Dan Gardner:

 

 

That prompted Taleb to pipe in:

 

To which Gardner responded:

 

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  • JH

    “This question has nothing to do with probability or decision theory, and everything to do with biology.”
    Exactly what I ‘been sayin’.

    • First Officer

      Apparently nobody ever accused him of being a physicist either: https://mobile.twitter.com/nntaleb/status/535610049935474688.

      v1+v1 2v1 with velocities. See relativity.

      • JH

        That’s hilarious!

        Taleb: there’s never been any proof that 1+1=2! It’s a mathematical truth! Only fools look for evidence!

        ha ha! I can’t believe he said that! Well, there you go. If you ever needed a reason to ignore NNT, there it is.

  • mem_somerville

    I was just thinking of this drama again yesterday when Ed Yong offered yet another example of species stealing genes from other species, which they then use to protect themselves from assaults. http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/11/25/raiding-the-oldest-arsenal/

    At least 6 different times organisms purloined these sequences from bacteria. Good thing nobody was shouting about the PP during evolution. Or imbecile organisms.

  • iFred

    Today science is like the school yard; the person who shoutest the hardest winds the argument….

  • iFred

    Those of you familiar with Black Swan author Nassim Taleb know he has a formidable mind and an abrasive public persona.

    Jekill and Hyde?

  • David Skurnick

    One
    problem with the Precautionary Principle (PP) is that it’s not possible to deal with all the conceivable dooms. E.g., in Pascal’s example, one cannot avoid Hell bybelieving in God, because one doesn’t know which God to believe in. Presumably believing in the wrong God could be just as bad as believing in no God.

    In today’s world, there are many unknown unknowns that, for all we know, could cause disaster. E.g., suppose the earth is hit by a very large meteorite. This already happened at least once. The
    result was catastrophic to dinosaurs and other species alive at the time. So, the PP would argue that all possible funding should be moved to developing methods to detect and destroy large meteorites coming toward earth.

    Consider the global warming risk. If climate sensitivity is really 6° C, as some claim ispossible, then we should be taking extreme action to reduce CO2 emissions. The necessary action would go far beyond anything currently contemplated. It might result in the deaths if billions of people, but the PP says we would have to do it.

    How about ISIS? It’s conceivable that they could conquer a large part of the Middle East, which would be an ongoing disaster for hundreds of millions of people. So, PP says we should devote all our resources to defeating ISIS.
    A nuclear Iran might use its nuclear weapons. Or, it might give these weapons to terrorist groups. So, PP says we must use our full gamut of armaments to destroy Iran’s nuclear efforts, even if that means full-fledged war with Iran.
    in short, I don’t believe that PP can be a practical guide.

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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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