Thoughts on Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile”

Atypical Neutoric writes:

This will not be a book review in the classic sense, i.e. I will not pick nits or ride a hobby horse. Nor will I deliberately misunderstand the author’s position, all the easier to replace it with a straw man that I proceed to denounce out of smug superiority.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, the most recent book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a self-described flâneur, quondam options trader and author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, is a book that bears re-reading. I finished my first read-though last weekend and am certain to return to it some time soon. What I would like to comment on here is how some of NNT’s observations can be applied in areas other than one’s portfolio of financial investments. I was pleased to discover that even before I read the book, I was, in many ways, on my way to becoming an antifragilista, if not flâneur, in my own right, especially in the areas of health, diet and exercise.

Indeed, NNT would be the first agree that a person’s most tangible assets (life, health and sense of well-being) are more important and more at risk by what he calls fragility in modern life than his stock portfolio. An object or system (either living or inert) is fragile if it is harmed by volatility (shocks, bad surprises, stressors, sudden changes in routines, etc.), is robust if is not and is antifragile if shocks, bad surprises, stressors, sudden changes in routines not only do not harm it, but actually make it stronger, better, healthier and so forth. NNT’s point is that robustness is not enough.

In the area of health, increasing one’s own antifragility entails applying the via negativa (knowing what not to do) and avoiding iatrogenics, harm done by the healer, including especially side effects. While NNT uses iatrogenics by extension for harm caused by policy makers in the attempt to “do something”, literal, as opposed to metaphorical, iatrogenics touches everyone, especially those who don’t mind being called “health care consumers”. But doctors aren’t necessarily evil; they simply suffer from the same cognitive biases that their patients do, namely a preference for doing something as opposed to doing nothing (and letting nature take its course) and for adding a substance rather than removing one.

In my own life, applying the via negativa and avoiding iatrogenics have involved simplifying my diet by reducing it to simple heuristics (rules of thumb that are useful, but like fire, can be dangerous too if overapplied): a preference for foodstuffs that have been consumed without harm for millennia (meat, eggs, animal fats, wine) and avoidance of novelties (industrial vegetable oils, unfermented sugary drinks, including orange juice). But, in my view, the dietary novelty that has the greatest impact on health is the sheer ubiquity of food, rather than whether a particular item was eaten by hunter gatherers or not. To mitigate the risk of overeating that this abundance poses, I simply do not eat breakfast. Or rather, I eat breakfast at lunchtime, when I am less likely to be offered something sickeningly sweet in the cafeteria at work. This is much simpler than, say, counting calories or macronutrient blocks, and far less stressful to apply. This is what makes it robust. What makes my no-breakfast heuristic antifragile is that applying it guarantees that I do not eat the same amount each day, and that I am hungry until noon (hunger is a beneficial stressor), yet manage to eat enough on average. I am also free from dependence on the factuality of accompanying narratives (such as whether Gary Taubes is totally or just partially right about Why We Get Fat) or other attempts to turn heuristics into isms.

About Atypical Neurotic

An Illinois-born refugee from academia who in late middle-age finds himself a civil servant in Norway. An unashamed city-dweller, he walks 30 minutes every day to a job where he is not paid to be an economist (lawyer or accountant), only to sound like one.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Food and health and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Thoughts on Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile”

  1. Koanic says:

    Not eating breakfast will tend to make you wake up later each day, depending on what time at night you stop eating.


  2. dearieme says:

    “meat, eggs, animal fats, wine”: dear God, man, fish. Eat fish: Jeeves is sound on that as on so much else.


  3. Toddy Cat says:

    Taleb is an irritating egomaniac (is that what “flaneur” means?) but he is basically right when it comes to advice about fragility and robustness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s