Skin in the Game, Survival & Religion
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I mentioned in the past couple of posts that I was working my way through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest Skin in the Game. Well I just finished it. As long time readers of this blog might guess it would be difficult to overstate the impact of Taleb’s ideas on my thinking, and knowing that, you might be surprised it took me this long to finish his new book. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it the second it came out, certainly I had a copy of it on it’s release date, but I guess I already had a queue, and it got placed at the end. But perhaps more importantly, I had read a review of it in the Economist which began by claiming that there were two Taleb’s one who was “idiosyncratic and spiky, but with plenty of original things to say” and one who “indulg[es] in bad-tempered spats with other thinkers”. Going on to say that:
A list of the feuds and hobbyhorses [Taleb] pursues in “Skin in the Game” would fill the rest of this review. (His targets include Steven Pinker, subject of the lead review.) The reader’s experience is rather like being trapped in a cab with a cantankerous and over-opinionated driver.
Thus part of my delay was that after reading this, I was a little bit nervous, and of course the question is: Was the Economist correct? Was it “like being trapped in a cab with a cantankerous and over- opinionated driver”? I would say no, at least not for me. For me it was like sitting down to dinner with an old friend who was getting increasingly fed up with the world, but fed up about things we both were dismayed by. Did he seem more cantankerous than usual? Probably, but I’m feeling pretty cantankerous about the world myself, and Taleb seemed appropriately cantankerous, if not maybe a little bit restrained.
That said, if I’m being honest, Skin in the Game didn’t feel quite as tight, or quite as full of “original things” as his previous books, but then again he’s covered a lot of ground already and the original things he has said are some of the most original things I’ve ever read (and also ironically some of the most traditional.) Would I recommend Skin in the Game? Absolutely. If you’ve never read any Taleb should you start with Skin in the Game, absolutely not.
(If you’re going to only read one of his books it’s a toss up between The Black Swan and Antifragile, if you think you might eventually read all his books, then just start at the beginning with Fooled by Randomness,)
I would argue that nearly all of the problems people have with Taleb is that it’s so rare these days to see someone that actually has unshakeable principles. I think for most people principles are vague things they don’t think about very much and which in practice do very little to guide their actions. (Assuming they haven’t abandoned principles entirely as something quaint and outdated which might restrict their ability to have unlimited sex.) But for Taleb his principles really do guide his actions and one of his core principles, his motto in fact, is, "If you see fraud and don't shout fraud, you are a fraud". And let’s be honest, there is a lot of fraud out there right now, accordingly Taleb shouts, a lot.
The Economist review mentions Steven Pinker as one of Taleb’s many feuds. Given that Pinker wrote the last book I reviewed in this space (though I’m not sure if you can call what I do a review), the same book the Economist mentioned, Enlightenment Now, you might reasonably expect that I would be able to comment on the feud and whether Pinker is a fraud. Well, if you read that review or my review of one of his other books, Better Angels of our Nature, you know I have a lot of problems with Pinker. Whether he’s a fraud is a level beyond saying that he’s wrong about things, and as far as I can tell it largely comes about because Taleb thinks Pinker’s math is crap while Pinker thinks Taleb’s math is crap, and my math, while okay, is not so good that I can tell at a glance which one is correct. In fact, I think it would take hours and hours for me to approach knowing who’s math is better, and at the end it might still not know. Rather I’ve decided to take a different approach, one I feel that I borrowed from Taleb to begin with. What if Pinker is right and Taleb is wrong?
Well, then as I said when I reviewed Enlightenment Now, there’s not much for me to do, except defend enlightenment values, which if you’ve read my posts on free speech and freedom of religion I already do. However if Taleb is right and Pinker is wrong, then we don’t merely need to avoid breaking the current system, we have a system which is already horribly broken and nearly everything anyone is doing is making it worse. All of which is to say, as I have so many times, if Taleb is wrong, no big deal, but if Pinker is wrong it’s a very big deal, thus I take any claims that Pinker is wrong much more seriously.
But that doesn’t exactly answer the question of whether I think Pinker is a fraud. Though insofar as that question hinges on completely understanding the math, I would argue that I’m unqualified to say. Beyond that I guess I would not say that Pinker is a fraud, I would say that he is less objective than he thinks and blinded by a very specific and hard to see set of biases. These include having a bias against religion and a blindness for black swans. They also include, the intellectual echo chamber he inhabits as a member of a particular elite group. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it includes the point I made a couple of posts ago, that he prioritizes happiness over survival. I suppose all of those together might make him a fraud, but I think “fraud” implies a level of hypocrisy I haven’t really seen, though, as I said if he’s calling Taleb’s math bad and it’s his own math that’s bad, then that would probably count.
In any case back to Taleb and the book. Taleb is cantankerous, and my guess is that self-important people who are used to be treated as barely less than divine find him to be nearly intolerable, but from everything I’ve heard he’s very nice to average people, doormen, cab-drivers, etc. My one interaction with him, which somehow I have never mentioned in this space (at least that’s what a search says…) consisted of me sending him a short email asking if I could write a book on the subject of antifragility (guess I still need to do that) and his reply was: “Of course it is an open topic I am flattered.” I understand that’s a single data point, but it’s a good one, also I have no reason to doubt any of the above. And, in the final analysis, it’s much more important from the standpoint of morality to be kind to the average person than it is to be kind to Steven Pinker, or Ben Bernanke, or, especially, Paul Krugman.
I already covered one of the key messages of Skin in the Game in a previous post: survival as a core value. Though I think it’s important enough to reiterate. Taleb (and to a much, much, lesser extent, myself) represents one of the many idealogic camps of the modern world, and you could do worse the defining this camp by that point, that much of the issues of modernity come from ignoring survival in favor of something else. From this there are three possibilities:
We have passed the point where we need to worry about survival. Our intelligence and technological prowess is such that we can focus on other things without worrying about how it will impact our chances of survival.
We may need to worry more about survival, we may be living on the accumulated “survival capital” of those who came before. And maybe certain things (like enlightenment values in Pinker’s case) need some buttressing, but a most there will be a small correction.
We need to worry a lot more about survival. Not only are we living on accumulated “survival capital”, but by the time it’s run out we will have gone so long without focusing on survival that we will have forgotten how to, leading to the possibility of a very large correction.
My impression is that people like Pinker are strongly in camp 1, with a toe in camp 2 (as I pointed out). While Taleb is pretty solidly in camp 3, or at least in the camp of, we should definitely worry about 3, even if the chance is low because the consequences of it happening would be so great.
If we all should be in the third camp or at least worried about it, how does that play out? What is the rational thing to do? As it turns out that final word, “do” is the key. Taleb says over and over again, not only in this book, but in all his books, that talk is cheap, talking about something does not represent “skin in the game”, it’s easy to say nearly anything, where it counts are someone’s actual actions. Along these lines he asks us to consider the following three maxims:
Judging people by their beliefs is not scientific.
There is no such thing as the “rationality” of a belief, there is rationality of action.
The rationality of an action can be judged only in terms of evolutionary considerations.
That first maxim talks about revealed preferences. This is the idea that if you ask someone about something they may say one thing, but if you then observe what they actually do they may end up doing something entirely different. For some reason an example that always comes to my mind when I think about this phenomenon is the story of Al Jazeera America. I don’t know if you remember this but Al Jazeera the Qatari based news station decided to try and break into the American market. Before doing so they decided to conduct some market research and based on that research they determined that Americans were starving for sober, “unbiased” hard news coverage. Think the opposite of CNN. So that’s what they did and then, as might have been predicted by someone who had met an actual American, they promptly went out of business. This is because, when you ask people what kind of things they like, they imagine the person they want to be, which is someone who watches a three hour in depth documentary on the situation in the Gaza Strip, but when they actually get home from a long day at work, what they really want is an update on the Kardashians. Which is why Kim Kardashian has a net worth of $175 million and Al Jazeera America is out of business.
The second maxim is a point I’ve made on several occasions, though perhaps in a slightly different form. The best example was my post on religion as a framework as part of my review of Rationality: AI to Zombies. In that post I explained that it doesn’t matter if your philosophy has considered all possibilities, if it’s completely rational, and basically the best thing since sliced bread. If no one can understand it, let alone act in the matter it recommends, then it’s not going to, in the end, accomplish much good. I pointed out that this was a particular problem with modern rationality. Religion says things like love one another, if you screw up, you can repent, etc. Things anyone can understand. Rationality says things like, you need to win and the best example of that is to one-box the Newcomb problem, or that the second virtue is relinquishment.
Taleb instead approaches this same issue from the idea of revealed preferences. In other words, when looking at people who claim to be rational it’s far more important to look at what they do, than what they say. This is particularly the case if rationality is tied to survival. To return to my recent post on anti-natalism, David Benatar may think that once you’ve decided that there is zero utility to future happiness then it’s rational to wish for the instantaneous extinction of all human life, but for anyone who ties rationality to survival, or as Taleb puts it, to “evolutionary considerations”, would say that’s the least rational thing ever, and interestingly enough, the vast majority of people even with no training in rationality, would agree.
Which takes us to the third maxim, that rationality should be judged in terms of “evolutionary considerations”. I have thus far been using survival and “evolutionary considerations” almost interchangeably, though there are obviously some differences, for example the continued survival of someone who’s past the point where they can reproduce has a different value than the continued survival of someone who is still reproducing if you’re just considering things from an evolutionary perspective, which is to say not all survival is equal. (Taleb has an entire hierarchy in the book, which I don’t have time to get into.) But I don’t think these small differences change the argument to any great extent.
The only possible argument against rationality being judged based on a standard of evolutionary considerations is if evolutionary considerations no longer apply. This can only the case if:
We decide it’s better to not exist at all (antinatalism).
We decide that evolution no longer has any bearing on our continued existence, That we are post-evolutionary, for example.
I think I have talked about the problems of antinatalism enough. (At a minimum I can’t imagine further discussion would change anybody's mind on the subject.) Which just leaves possibility number two. As I do so often, let’s for the moment assume that it’s true. That evolutionary pressure no longer applies to humans. This is a pretty bold claim to make, particularly given the fact that at its most basic evolution is basically tautological. But even if we ignore that, being post evolution would carry all manner of second order effects, most of which would be difficult to predict, and many of which would be very bad. But just look at it from a high level view, life has been engaged in the “game” of evolution for billions of years. If we assume that this game no longer applies to us at the macro level, then we’re saying that the game has changed, or possibly gone away entirely. Meaning that we have this entire bundle of skills, attitudes, biases, and compulsions which have suddenly become entirely pointless. I can’t imagine this being anything other than catastrophic.
As an analogy imagine the NBA finals, which started this week. Now imagine that the Cavaliers and the Warriors showed up to the Oracle Arena on Thursday to find out that instead of playing basketball, they were playing water polo. Not only would it be a ridiculous spectacle, but it’s not inconceivable that someone would die. (Are there any NBA players who don’t know how to swim?) But even if there weren’t any fatalities you would certainly expect lots of very strange and unexpected things to happen. I would imagine that post evolution humanity would be in very similar position. As a species we are highly trained in one sort of game, and switching that around would lead to lots of flailing around at a minimum, and it just might result in death. So far I think we’ve avoided an increase in deaths, but I can’t help but notice a lot of flailing around currently. I certainly hope that I’m wrong about the cause, that we have not already moved into some world in which the rules of evolution changed, because if we have, I think we’ve got a pretty rough transition ahead of us.
I hope the rules of the game have not changed, that we’ve just gotten really good at playing it. That survival is important, but we’re just so smart that it we don’t have to pay attention to it anymore, or to extend the metaphor, we may have a bad season or two, but once we start re-emphasizing the fundamentals we’ll be right back on top. If, on the other hand, technological progress has led us to a completely different game than certain of the most basic qualities will transfer (overall fitness for example), but many things are going to have to be learned from scratch, particularly if we don’t know how to swim.
Of course there is the option that the game has ended, not changed. But I’m not sure that’s any better. Returning to our metaphor, can you imagine the reaction of all the players and fans if they showed up at the arena to find out that there were going to be no finals, or worse yet that basketball was no longer a game anyone played? Of course that may be stretching the metaphor too much, the key point is that if evolution is still happening than survival is still important, and if it’s not still happening we may have bigger problems.
After all of this we are left with four possibilities:
Survival isn’t important at all. We should be devoting all of our attention to some other value, like happiness.
Survival is important, but technology has taken us past the point where it needs to be the most important value, i.e. we have conquered the old challenges to survival and no new ones have arisen to take their place.
Survival continues to be just as important as it always has but technology has caused the rules to change (global warming and nukes vs. famine and disease).
Survival is and always has been the most important value, and to the extent that we’ve started to minimize things that have traditionally helped us survive, that’s bad.
Number one is the example of the game being entirely over, and I don’t think it’s as good a thing as people might imagine, and to this add all of the other problems I’ve mentioned with an exclusive focus on just happiness.
Number two is where Pinker and similar individuals are. Personally, I disagree strongly that no new challenges have arisen. And will once again reiterate that deprioritizing survival is not something we can afford to be wrong about.
Number three is the example of basketball being replaced by water polo, and I worry that if this is what’s happening that no one is paying any attention to it. That those in the best position to do something, all feel like we’re actually in situation number two.
As far as number four, It would be nice if this were the case, that it’s the same game it’s always been we just need to reemphasize the fundamentals. Unfortunately there seems to be even less attention being paid to this than to possibility number three. Of course I’m talking about religion, and this takes us to the final topic from Skin in the Game I want to cover.
Taleb says this about religion:
It is therefore my opinion that religion exists to enforce tail risk management across generations as its binary and unconditional rules are easy to teach and enforce. We have survived in spite of tail risks; our survival cannot be that random.
We’re out of space to argue over whether this is actually how religion works, and in any case I’ve made the argument many times before. This quote is important for several reasons beyond that:
1- It was obvious that this argument followed from all of Taleb’s previous books, but I don’t think he ever made the point as clearly as he did in Skin in the Game.
2- The point about “easy to teach and enforce”, is huge, and something that 99% of people miss when they talk about standards for human behavior.
3- As he points out the alternative to viewing religion as a tool of survival is to view survival and religion as totally random, which doesn’t make any sense at all. And, of course, some people go even farther towards viewing religion as actively harmful which makes even less sense.
In conclusion, if you haven’t you should definitely read Taleb, if you have read some Taleb, you should definitely read this book. And if you take nothing else away, remember that survival is important and having skin in the game is necessary because it assists with survival.
It may be that many of the things that helped us to survive up until this point, like skin in the game and religion are no longer valid, because the rules have changed, but I suspect there’s some overlap. I suspect that being entirely in shape to play basketball, makes water polo easier. And that assuming we can let ourselves get fat and out of shape (i.e. abandon religion) because the game is changing or ending, is actually the worst possible strategy of all.
Donating to this blog is a very minor example of skin in the game, and we just heard that having skin in the game is good, therefore donating to this blog is good. Check and Mate!