Wednesday, August 19, 2009

So has Taleb gone nuts?

Last evening, I caught a rather bemused-seeming Nassim Nicholas Taleb appearing at the end of Newsnight, apparently following some kind of meeting with David Cameron. When he could get a few words in between Kirsty Wark and some chap from the Times talking about Cameron's intellectual credentials (such as they are), Taleb was making his usual points about risk in the economy and other areas. Here's something he said:
"We have to be more conservative with some classes of risk, like the climate - we have to be more worried about the climate than people traditionally have."

So it's slightly puzzling to read this morning's papers and see Taleb presented as a climate change denier (see the Scotsman, for instance - although it is strangely satisfying to see even the Sun portraying denialism as the hallmark of a crank).

The implication is that Taleb (and by extension, Cameron, who shared a platform with him at the RSA event) has joined that weird lobby of evidence-denying dishonest do-nothings. From what I've read of his work, that seems rather unlikely.

For example, there's this from an essay on the Edge:
Correspondents keep asking me if the climate worriers are basing their claims on shoddy science and whether, owing to nonlinearities, their forecasts are marred with such a possible error that we should ignore them. Now, even if I agreed that it was shoddy science; even if I agreed with the statement that the climate folks were most probably wrong, I would still opt for the most ecologically conservative stance. Leave Planet Earth the way we found it. Consider the consequences of the very remote possibility that they may be right—or, worse, the even more remote possibility that they may be extremely right.

Here's what he reportedly said at the RSA, as per the London Evening Standard:
"I'm a hyper-conservative ecologically. I don't want to mess with Mother Nature. I don't believe that carbon thing is necessarily anthropogenic"

[EDIT, 20/8: Having now listened to the recording of the meeting, available from the RSA page linked above, it's clear that what Taleb actually says is "Even if I don't believe that carbon thing is necessarily anthropogenic, I just don't want to mess with Mother Nature." Which is obviously quite different. Shame on the Standard.]

It's grossly unfair to paint Taleb as part of the denial lobby, when his message is that even if you don't accept the evidence, we should be doing all we can to reduce greenhouse emissions because the potential cost of not doing so will be devastating. That's a long way from the do-nowt bleating of the fossil fuel industry shills and the genuine fruitloop fringe.

I strongly suspect Labour party briefings are behind this morning's stories. That not only seems deeply unfair on Taleb (but then, if you lie down with dogs, etc), but also rather unnecessary, as you really don't need this kind of spin to suggest that Cameron's a bit of a twat.

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Blogger Tim Chapman said...

Some clarification from Taleb -

I had my first taste of UK politics on August 18, 2009, when in a discussion with David Cameron head of the Tories I said:
“I'm a hyper-conservative ecologically. I don't want to mess with Mother Nature. I don't believe that carbon thing is necessarily anthropogenic (derived from human activities)."

By the “not necessarily” I meant that I don’t need expert models and proof hat we are harming it to STOP POLLUTING the planet. This is part of my idea that one does not need rationalization to the edict: DO NOT DISTURB A COMPLEX SYSTEM since we do not know the consequences of our actions owing to complicated causal webs. I also said “leave the planet the way we got it”. So my “super Green” position or hyperecologist was somehow lost in translation: they probably thought “conservative” meant loves to pollute or something like that.

Reaction: the “not necessarily anthropogenic” became a headline and from hyper-ecologist I became a “climate change denier”.

The Scotsman: The contentious remarks were seized on by Mr Cameron's opponents. Liberal Democrat MP Willie Rennie said: "David Cameron can get pulled around by huskies all he wants, but by cosying up to climate change deniers, he shows his true colours."

Another statement made backwards concerns my position on “robustness”. I said that free markets generate fads, crashes, massive movements. Attempts to control the cycle proved futile –what we need is citizens to become ROBUST to them, to be immune to their impact. My point is that we cannot predict Black Swans, but we KNOW their impact and can be prepared for them. Again taken backwards: “Taleb loves crashes”.

This is incompetent journalism in its most insidious form.

Culprits: Guardian, Scotsman, even the FT.

3:03 pm, August 19, 2009  
Blogger Tim Chapman said...

And using the Guardian's right-of-reply Response column:
First, you say I believe that "Climate change may not be man-made"; and Lucy Mangan describes me as a "climate-change denier". In fact, ecologically I am hyper-conservative (meaning super-Green), and I am one of the authors of the King of Sweden's recent Bönhamn declaration on attitudes to climate change. My position on the climate is to avoid releasing pollutants into the atmosphere, regardless of current expert opinion. Climate experts, like banking risk managers, have failed us in the past in foreseeing long-term damage. This is an extension of my general belief: "Do not disturb a complex system." We do not know the consequences of our actions (this idea also makes me anti-war), and I have explicitly stated the need to leave the planet the way we got it.

10:09 am, August 27, 2009  

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