True public intellectuals are a rare breed. The talking heads that regularly command millions of eyeballs on 24-hour news channels may have the capacity to make nuanced arguments and use complex reasoning, but their chosen venue seems to actively discourage both activities. Meanwhile, those with thoughts that do not break down into easily digestible sound bites often struggle to give their ideas enough pizzazz to interest anyone outside the ivy-covered walls of a university campus.
By contrast, Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a convincing 21st-century public intellectual. Not that Taleb would embrace such an identity; he prefers the term skeptical empiricist. Still, the Lebanese-born writer has all the tools to get his ideas into wide circulation. He is erudite, humorous, iconoclastic and fierce in the defense of his beliefs. At the same time, he is not afraid to challenge his audience with difficult concepts, possibly because his pedigree as a former Wall Street quant and derivatives trader gives him the kind of credentials that make people want to listen.
But while Taleb often draws on his experience in finance to get his points across, his books are about much more than banking and trading. His latest effort, “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder,” is no exception. In the book, Taleb claims that many things actually benefit from stress, volatility and a healthy dose of disarray. He uses a metaphor from human physiology to make his point, noting that people who stress their muscles to the breaking point get stronger precisely because of the stress. He deems things that react this way as anti-fragile, and he delights in how anti-fragility can allow people to thrive in a world where random and unpredictable stressors lurk around every corner. The trick, he claims, is not to avoid random shocks, but rather to create a system that actually improves by experiencing such unexpected jolts.
Starting from this premise, Taleb is off to the races, not only sharing copious examples of things that benefit from a healthy dose of trauma, but also offering harsh critiques of the people and institutions that fight to smooth life’s many wrinkles. Taleb certainly has enough scorn to go around, but he is especially tough on strategic planners, social engineers and institutions such as the Federal Reserve that “attempt to suck randomness out of life.”
Perhaps the greatest irony in “Antifragile” is that Taleb is striking at the foundations of contemporary intellectualism. So much modern brainpower is dedicated to formulating a theoretical framework to make predictions about the future, but the author claims the thought and research that go into making these predictions is largely wasted effort. Instead, he firmly believes in the maxim that the best-laid plans often go awry, and we should be positioning ourselves to benefit from the random events that so often ruin our plans. In short, Taleb calls for less theorizing and more empiricizing, making him one of the most intriguing anti-intellectual public intellectuals around.