Antifragile – Beyond the Hoax

antifragile deconstructed


“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud”

Antifragile: Clever/Clever-Clever;  Unaffected/Pretentious; Mature/Adolescent; Foolish/Wise; Enlightenment/Benightedness; Practical/Theoretical; Sophisticated/Naive; Admirable/Contemptible; Expert/Dilettante; Postdictor/Predictor; Affluent/Impoverished; Binary Opposition/Deconstruction; Puerile/Sensible; Structuralist/Poststructualists; Deterministic/Uncertain; Cautious/Arrogant; Scientific/Unscientific; Rigorous/Sloppy; Complex/Simple; Linear/Non-Linear; Chaos/Order; Solvable/Koan; Paradox/Paradox;  Guru/Charlatan; Probity/Hoax; Suckers/Us; Fraud?

Antifragile: Hoax, Fraud, Nonsense, or Brilliant?

Taleb follows a long list of authors that have succumbed to their ego to use “science” as a device to deceive the layperson into believing some broad based philosophical ideology held by the author.  The sucker is the person that believes he/she understands the theory without questioning what’s purported to be fact and lacks critical thinking skills to determine, on their own, if the theory is well supported and novel.  Instead, the sucker reads and regurgitates the author’s words based on their lack of understanding and religious conviction in the author’s reputation, or that the author’s beliefs fit within their own ideology, and thus, elevates and supports their preconceived ideas, which then become more like fact than belief.  The other problem that arises from ignorance is when the author claims his/her ideas are novel even though they aren’t – typically they draw on areas outside of the layperson’s knowledge base and rephrase the concepts with a new word like “Antifragile”: this makes them the inventor of the concept.

Alan Sokal addressed obfuscation and esoteric language used in academia to deceive the reader into believing they were too ignorant to question the author, and therefore, should just take the author’s word, or pet phrase, as truth.  This doesn’t mean the author is wrong, it just means they didn’t provide rigor into their argument to support their ideas.  I believe that when Taleb is inventive, he’s wrong; and when Taleb is right, he’s not creative.  Taleb would like you to believe that he’s invented the concept, named it, and it’s right because he says so.  After all, he’s made a fortune.

The Sokal Affair:  In1996, a physicist, Alan Sokal, submitted and published a nonsensical article in an academic journal, Social Text. The question for Sokal at the time was, “Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?”

According to Sokal, he used a pompous title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, that was “brimming with absurdities dressed up in fancy scientific and pseudo-scientific jargon.”  Sokal further claims that since he was unknown in cultural-studies circles, “he gave his article “respectability” by peppering it with quotations from eminent French and American intellectuals concerning the alleged philosophical and social implications of mathematics and physics.” Sokal claims,  “The quotes are, in reality, absurd or meaningless, but they are unfortunately authentic.” The famous philosophers involved in the Sokal debates that ensued later were heavy weights: Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard, and other philosophers of equal notoriety.

Sokal Comments:  Most scientific fields are too technical for laypeople to follow, and he states the following: “By contrast, charlatans, priests and shamans have for millennia used magic formulae, unknown languages and cabalistic incantations to intimidate their audiences and conceal the irrationality of their discourses. Might similar phenomena take place in contemporary academia? And how can one know?”

“A friend of ours once gushed, after a famous visiting professor’slecture: “X was absolutely brilliant. Of course, I didn’t understand a word of what he said.” Sound familiar? To us it does. As for what’s going on, there appear to be three possibilities. One is that our friend is an idiot or, more kindly, that he doesn’t have the background needed to follow the lecture. Another is that the famous professor is a poor pedagogue. But a third possibility is that the talk was muddle-headed nonsense — or trite platitudes — cleverly disguised in abstruse jargon. How can one tell which is which?” Since there are no criteria to distinguish between sense and nonsense, Sokal created an experiment, his Hoax. It wasn’t intended to discredit their theories but to prove that some of their work was intellectually dishonest or grossly incompetent.

Sokal points out that some individuals purposely obscure their text: “These texts are confused at best, meaningless at worst. But, above all, the authors give no indication that they are trying honestly to communicate ideas to their readers. One suspects, rather, that they are seeking to impress their readers with superficial erudition and incomprehensible jargon.” The consequence is that “the reader is being asked to undergo an experience similar to a revelation in order to understand them. One cannot help being reminded of the emperor’s new clothes.”

Ultimately, ideas accepted on the basis of dogma or fashion are sensitive to exposure, which can lead to undermining its overall credibility; “if these writers have become international stars primarily for sociological rather than intellectual reasons, and in part because they are masters of language and can impress their audience with a clever abuse of sophisticated terminology — non-scientific as well as scientific,” then there can be repercussions.

At that time, Sokal was concerned that anti-intellectualism was being taught in the universities by the “academic left”. He quotes George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”, where the “main advantage of writing clearly is that your mistakes will be immediately apparent to everyone, including to yourself. “By contrast, obfuscation poisons intellectual life and strengthens the facile anti-intellectualism that is already all too widespread in the general public” (Sokal).

Antifragile is prose of broad based generalizations and opinions written like an endless koan.  After reading Antifragile, you’ll think it’s either nonsense or that you’ve been enlightened; there is no middle ground.  You could argue that Taleb wrote Antrifragile as a hoax to further the experiments of Sokal – in the end everyone would be a sucker even those that claim Antifragile is bunk would have been fooled by not realizing it was a hoax. Of course, that would be brilliant, and we’ll probably never know.

Taleb is not a fraud – there is absence of evidence at this point, not evidence of absence.




Sokal – NYU.EDU, Sokal Affair, Fashionable Nonsense, Beyond the Hoax





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