Taleb’s Black Swan Glossary

The brilliant Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a glossary to accompany his critical thinking masterpieces The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness. Here are some samples:

Academic libertarian: someone (like myself) who considers that knowledge is subjected to strict rules, but not institutional authority as the interests of organized knowledge is self-perpetuation, not necessarily truth (as with governments). Some academic circles can suffer from an acute expert problem (q.v.) producing cosmetic but fake knowledge, particularly in narrative disciplines (q.v.), an can be a main source of Black Swans.

Bildungsphilister: a philistine with cosmetic, non-genuine culture, prone to be an imitator –Nietzsche meant the dogma-prone newspaper reader and opera lover with cosmetic exposure to culture and shallow depth. I extend it to the buzzword-using researcher in non-experimental fields, who lacks in imagination, curiosity, erudition and culture and is closely-centered on his ideas, on his “discipline”, not questioning the cultural map around him. This prevents him from seeing the conflicts between his ideas and the texture of the world.

Confirmation error –or Platonic confirmation: you look for instances that confirm your beliefs, your construction (or model) –and find them.

Empty suit problem (or “expert problem”): some members of professions have no differential abilities from the rest of the population, but, for some reason, and against their empirical record, are believed to be experts: clinical psychologists, academic economists, risk “experts”, statisticians, political analysts, financial “experts”, military analysts, CEOs. etc. They dress up their expertise in beautiful language, jargon, mathematics, and often wear expensive suits.

Epilogism: a theory free method of looking at history with minimal generalization and with consciousness of the side effect of making causal claims. The idea is not to go too much outside the observations, minimize claims about the unseen.

Epistemic arrogance: take a measure of the difference between what someone actually knows and how much he thinks he knows. An excess will imply arrogance, a deficit humility. An epistemocrat is someone of epistemic humility, one who holds his own knowledge in greatest suspicion.

Epistemic opacity: randomness is the result of incomplete information at some level. It is functionally indistinguishable from “true” or “physical” randomness.

Fallacy of silent evidence: looking at history, we do not see the full story, only the rosier parts of the process.

Fooled by Randomness: general confusion between luck and determinism, leading to a variety of superstitions, with practical consequences such as the belief that earnings in some profession are generated by skills when there is a significant component of luck in them.

Future blindness: our natural inability to take into account the properties of the future –like autism which prevents one from taking into account the existence of the minds of others.

Locke’s madman: someone who makes impeccable and rigorous reasoning from faulty premises –Samuelson, Robert Merton the minor,Gerard Debreu –thus producing phony models of uncertainty that make us vulnerable to Black Swans.

Mediocristan: province dominated by the mediocre, with few extreme successes or failures. No single observation can meaningfully affect the aggregate. The bell curve is grounded in Mediocristan. There is a qualitative difference between Gaussians and scalable laws, much like gas and water.

Narrative fallacy: our need to fit a story or pattern to a series of connected or disconnected facts. The statistical application is data mining.

Randomness as incomplete information: Is random, simply what I cannot guess because my knowledge about the causes is incomplete, not necessarily because the process has truly unpredictable properties.

Reverse Engineering Problem: It is easier to predict how an ince cube would melt into a puddle than, looking at a puddle, to guess the shape of the ice cube that may have caused it. This makes narrative disciplines and accounts (such as histories) suspicious.

Scandal of prediction: the poor prediction record in some forecasting entities (particularly narrative disciplines) mixed with verbose commentary and lack of awareness of their own dire past record.


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