In The Chronicle of Higher Education,Tom Bartlett writes about his meeting with Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness and his latest book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.
Taleb is known for his gruffness. That turns off a lot of folks. Not me. I’ve always had a penchant for substance over style and I think Taleb offers substantive observations on how the world works.
I believe a key observation from his latest book is to avoid having a single point of failure. Why? Because things fail and they fail more often than not. What thing have you seen that never fails? A single point of failure is dumb.
Engineers design their electrical and mechanical systems with redundancies to try to avoid single points of failure. Electric utility companies, for example, usually have more than one way to get power to your service drop. If one path fails, they can switch to the backup path while they’re fixing the main path. That’s one reason most folks usually don’t experience more than a few hours of electrical outages in a given year.
However, for your home, your service drop is a single point of failure. If it fails, you will be out of service until you get an electrician to fix it. Unless, of course, you’ve invested in a backup generator.
But, we rarely consider single points of failure in our social systems. Central planning is a single point of failure, yet many folks tend to support moving things in that direction whether the topic is health care, education or charity.
For example, I often hear folks advocate a single, national K-12 education standard. What if that standard fails? The answer they give is easier said than done, fix it. How do we fix something that has no competing models to learn from?
Below are a couple of my favorite passages from Bartlett’s piece on Taleb.
It would be for the greater good if more of us shared Taleb’s view on economists. Bartlett describes it as such:
He saves his iciest hate for economists. Taleb has no use for the “charlatanic” field, comparing economic research to medieval medicine. Economists are, in his estimation, weak, ignorant, fearful, and generally pathetic.
This is a good observation. Entrepreneurs and innovators have generated the wealth that’s made our standard of living so much better than our ancestors, not economists.
Here’s another interesting passage:
Taleb is a professor of risk engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Despite his wall of degrees (he has an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a doctorate from the University of Paris), he believes that universities propagate “touristification,” another term he coined, a phenomenon that occurs when what should be an exciting exploration turns into a programmatic exercise. It’s better to be an adventurer than a tourist. Education isn’t the only result of this modern sin; gym machines and “the electronic calendar” fall short as well.