JARON LANIER
Computer Scientist and Musician; Columnist, Discover Magazine

This is a superb piece and I hope it is widely read and taken to heart in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Washington. All these centers of power and creativity are drowning in illusions brought about by thunderous misuses of statistics that have become implacably seductive only with the recent availability of vast, connected computer resources.

Edge.org has become the most dramatic point of contact between the critics and supporters of the fallacies Taleb elucidates.

An astute reader of edge.org will notice a connection with "Digital Maoism," the Edge original essay I wrote a couple of years ago. In that essay I proposed that the "Wisdom of the Crowds" could only work when an answer the crowd was asked to give was no more complicated than a single number or value, when the crowd was not able to formulate its own questions, and so on. My criteria were not nearly as well developed or presented as Taleb's, but I think it is reasonable to claim a kinship between my characterization of bad uses of the crowd and Taleb's Fourth Quadrant.

In Digital Maoism, I reported that some of the organizations I consulted to were in the grips of "Crowd Wisdom" and as result had come to expect less work and accountability from me and the other consultants. Taleb similarly points out that he had observed warning signs in recent years from financial Goliaths that have since collapsed. Without betraying any confidences, I will say that the lists of companies we are each talking about share a huge overlap.

Taleb addresses finance, but similar madness has appeared in connection with:

• Science, where it has been proposed that statistics in the computing cloud can and should replace the process of understanding within a scientist's brain

• Arts, where it has been proposed that "big n" business models should replace taste, artistic voice, or the idea of "artist" as profession

• Education, where it has been proposed that wikis can do better than textbooks and teachers

• Journalism, where many believe blogs, Twitter streams, wikis, and so on can do better than reporters in the mold of Woodward and Bernstein

• Technology, where it has been proposed that an uncannily smooth historical determinism is in charge, propelling us to the Singularity.

There are many other examples. What is discouraging is that the complete failures of all these claims have only bolstered the faith of the seduced believers.


GEORGE DYSON
Science Historian; Author, Project Orion

Nassim Taleb's explanation of the current financial predicament, and how to better avoid the next one, is a refreshing antidote to claims that we are suffering a statistical anomaly that, because it was unpredictable, could not have been foreseen.

In 1777, during the American Revolution, Georges-Louis Leclerc comte de Buffon published his Essai d'arithmétique morale, in which he laid the foundations for behavioral economics, evolutionary game theory, and Monte Carlo statistical sampling, among other things.

Buffon opened his treatise by considering a simple question: why will a human being purchase a lottery ticket when the chances of them dying in the next 24 hours are greater than the chances that they will win?

Disasters and miracles follow similar rules. Charles Babbage, in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise of 1837, considered the nature of miracles (which, as a computer scientist, he viewed as pre-determined but rarely-called subroutines) and urged us "to look upon miracles not as deviations from the laws assigned by the Almighty for the government of matter and of mind; but as the exact fulfilment of much more extensive laws than those we suppose to exist." It's that question of characteristic scale.

What to do now? I'd prefer less Paulson, and more Newton. In the 17th century, English coinage had become widely debased, much as our system of financial instruments has become debased today. In 1696, Sir Isaac Newton was appointed Warden of the Mint, with authority to prosecute counterfeiters, who were not only hung, but drawn and quartered. This, accompanied by a systematic recoinage, worked.


Return to THE FOURTH QUADRANT: A MAP OF THE LIMITS OF STATISTICS By Nassim Nicholas Taleb


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