15 March 2008

Nassim Taleb's "Fooled by Probability"

On a recent plane flight, I saw a copy of Nassim Taleb's "Fooled by Probability" and picked it up. Taleb is the author of the excellent "The Black Swan", a book about extremely rare events with a large effect on the world, and is a New-York-based trader who has managed to pull his living out of making slightly better probabilistic bets than others.

"Fooled by Probability" is a book about the general confusion that results in the human brain when confronted with matter relating to probability. This isn't a new theme -- there's some great material on the same subject in Richard Dawkins' seminal "The Selfish Gene" -- but Taleb definitely brings interesting and relevant anecdotes, and a little bit of research, to the topic.

He talks repeatedly about how we 'prefer the narrative' -- that is, we will search for a causal narrative in any series of events -- and the everyday manifestation of this in such inane headlines as "Dow down 3 points on inflation rumors". Yet, he's not foolishly prescriptive: he recognizes that the preference for the narrative is not something we can choose to discard, it's wired into us just as is the fact we remember emotions more readily associated with smells than sights.

And that's exactly the problem with the book: this book is a collection of observations and insights about humans dealing with probability, not a book that's actually about something. In that sense, it's clearly an earlier book than The Black Swan: by the time he wrote the second book, he had progressed as an author to the point where he could put together many of these same observations and insights into a more coherent book which is about something.

Thus, if you've already read "The Black Swan", reading "Fooled by Probability" is more about visualizing the progression of Taleb as an author than about new material on probability. It's interesting enough to read that I wouldn't recommend against it for that reason; but, if you haven't read either one yet, pick up "The Black Swan" rather than this one (and if you haven't read "The Selfish Gene" yet, that's your first stop!).

1 comment:

Dan Lyke said...

Thanks for the comparison to "Black Swan". I read "Fooled by Probability", enjoyed it on two levels, both for its content and for the meta "wow, look how egotistical that guy is!" experience, but haven't been falling over myself to read "Black Swan" because I kind of figured if I'd read one of his books, I'd got most of the sense of it.

Mostly because of the same anecdote without conclusion structure you note.