Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: the prophet of boom and doom

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: the prophet of boom and doom

When this man said the world’s economy was heading for disaster, he was scorned. Now traders, economists, even Nasa, are clamouring to hear him speak.

"He was born in 1960 in Lebanon, though he casts doubt on both these “facts”. The year is “close enough” – he doesn’t like to give out his birth date because of identity theft and he doesn’t believe in national character. He has, however, a regional identity; he calls himself a Levantine, a member of the indecipherably complex eastern Mediterranean civilisation. “My body and soul are Mediterranean.”

Both maternal and paternal antecedents are grand, privileged and politically prominent. They are also Christian – Greek Orthodox. Startlingly, this great sceptic, this non-guru who believes in nothing, is still a practising Christian. He regards with some contempt the militant atheism movement led by Richard Dawkins.

“Scientists don’t know what they are talking about when they talk about religion. Religion has nothing to do with belief, and I don’t believe it has any negative impact on people’s lives outside of intolerance. Why do I go to church? It’s like asking, why did you marry that woman? You make up reasons, but it’s probably just smell. I love the smell of candles. It’s an aesthetic thing.”

Take away religion, he says, and people start believing in nationalism, which has killed far more people. Religion is also a good way of handling uncertainty. It lowers blood pressure. He’s convinced that religious people take fewer financial risks.

He was educated at a French school. Three traditions formed him: Greek Orthodox, French Catholic and Arab. They also taught him to disbelieve conventional wisdom. Each tradition had a different history of the crusades, utterly different. This led him to disbelieve historians almost as much as he does bankers.

But, crucially, he also learnt from a very early age that grown-ups have a dodgy grasp of probability. It was in the midst of the Lebanese civil war and, hiding from the guns and bombs, he heard adults repeatedly say the war would soon be over. It lasted 15 years. He became obsessed with probability and, after a degree in management from the Wharton business school at Pennsylvania University, he focused on probability for his PhD at the University of Paris. "

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