​​​​​Taleb and the art of bad aphorism

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is, in my opinion, one of the most overrated “public intellectuals” today. Exhibit A is his awful book The bed of Procrustes: philosophical and practical aphorisms (Random House, 2010).

Here are some examples, with my brief comments:

Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases.

What a cheap shot at those evil pharmaceutical companies! Could Taleb point to some real cases in which existing drugs were re-assigned to cure new diseases that were “invented” by profiteering drug companiesand with this whole scheme being approved by scientists, medical associations and government agencies? Color me skeptical.

To bankrupt a fool, give him information.

If this worked, it would be very easy to make a lot of money: simply find a fool, give her information and then just do the opposite of what she did!

I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating, and nonhuman in thinking with too much clarity.

Yeah, right. Ancient Athens was a golden age for philosophy that gave us Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, presumably because the city’s policy was: “If you think too clearly, you’ll have to drink the hemlock”.

Hatred is much harder to fake than love. You hear of fake love; never of fake hate.

Indeed, why do we hear more often of fake love? Is it because it’s much easier to fake love than hate? No, it’s simply because faking love often pays off by securing benefits in a way that faking hate usually cannot.

Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.

I got it: employees are in reality slaves but they don’t realize it because they are mentally manipulated by wicked capitalists.

I suspect that IQ, SAT, and school grades are tests designed by nerds so they can get high scores in order to call each other intelligent.

This is excellent evidence that Taleb knows nothing about the history of IQ testing.

The only objective definition of aging is when a person starts to talk about aging.

Taleb just discovered the elixir of youth! Don’t ever start to talk about aging, and this way you will never become old (objectively).

If you need to listen to music while walking, don’t walk; and please don’t listen to music.

What next? Will we no longer be allowed even to chew gum while walking?

The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds.

Oh dear. Is the point here that we need more books written by bird(-brained) authors?

To be a philosopher is to know through long walks, by reasoning, and reasoning only, a priori, what others can only potentially learn from their mistakes, crises, accidents, and bankruptcies—that is, a posteriori.

This is a very outdated and largely abandoned conception of philosophy. Taleb is poorly informed about what is going on in the field.

Although the subtitle of Taleb’s book is “Philosophical and practical aphorisms”, it does not contain a single aphorism that is philosophically relevant or at least mildly entertaining.

3 thoughts on “​​​​​Taleb and the art of bad aphorism

  1. What a shame that the luminary Marx and his followers just couldn’t convince the workers themselves that they were indeed slaves, so they had to murder so many of them when they refused to assume their pivotal role in the revolution. You’d think that slaves would be more cognizant of their own enslavement. The only plausible conclusion, of course, is that the capitalists are just tremendously adroit at washing people’s brains.


  2. Hi,

    thanks very much for your criticism of these lukewarm aphorisms! However, this criticism is not sufficient in order to justify your statement at the beginning: “Nassim Nicholas Taleb is, in my opinion, one of the most overrated “public intellectuals” today.”

    I don’t want to object to your evaluation, but simply ask: What do you think of Taleb’s substantial contributions in his ambitious books, for instance in “Skin in the game”? Do they fare better than his aphorisms?


    1. Hi, and thanks for commenting.

      I haven’t read “Skin in the game”. My judgment is based on his books “Fooled by randomness” and “Black swan”. After that I lost interest in reading his work.


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