Taleb’s Antifragility

Nassim Nicholas Taleb Antifragility: Things that can Gain from Disorder Penguin 2012.

Fragile things suffer from disorder. ‘Antifragility’ is a term that Taleb has coined for its opposite, that is beyond mere robustness. He notes that things in nature will have been subject to disorder in the long run, so whatever has survived will tend to be antifragile, artificial constructs less so. On the big picture, Taleb seems very sound. He covers a huge ground, notably in governance and medicine, in looking for examples. He seeks to convince the reader that the issues are of widespread importance, without wishing to be taken too seriously over some of the details. He offers a general method for distinguishing between fragile and antifragile systems. Briefly, you take a probabilistic model for the system and vary the characteristic probabilistic functions. If this tends to destabilise the system, it is fragile. If it makes little difference, it is robust. If it tends to stabilize, it is antifragile. This seems reasonable, as far as it goes.

The work has in part been motivated by the financial crisis of 2007/8. If I think about this probabilistically then it seems to me that prior to 2007 the economy depended on factors that only came to be recognized as the crisis hit, or in some cases not until afterward, and perhaps not even now. Further, it seems to me that the main dominant models were antifragile: it was thought by Greenspan that the self-interest of financiers would lead to learning and avoidance of instability. But this turned out not to be the case.

Broadly, whereas one can often say that certain systems are definitely fragile, one can only say that they are robust or antifragile relative to some range of threats that has been identified. Moreover, it seems to me that nature only produces antifragility in this weakened sense, with the inheritance mechanism being perhaps the sole exception.

So, as is often the case, I agree with much of Taleb’s critique of much ‘pragmatic’ thinking, and consider his proposed remedies to be useful, but not the whole story.

Dave Marsay  



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