September 21, 2017

Nassim Nicholas Taleb vs. Historians

When I was a grad student in history, I was trained to burrow into tiny corners of the past and "unpack" everything I found there. In essence, history was a hoarder's attic, and my job was to clean out a tiny part of it. But now that I'm teaching history professionally, I have a different view of the social function of historians.

Our job isn't just to pursue a hyper-specific research project until we keel over or retire. It's to serve as the hiccocampus for the entire species. All humans have memories and personal histories, of course. But historians are the specialists who are trained to consolidate and preserve these individual stories, in all their dizzying complexity. Without history, the human species is not so different from Guy Pearce in Memento. I think it's a hugely important job. But it's a job that we academic historians frequently fail at, because we don't do enough to engage people who aren't our students and colleagues.

That's why I write Res Obscura, and it's why I'm taking some time tonight to tear Nassim Nicholas Taleb's interpretation of history to shreds.

That's what I'll endeavor to do, at least. I leave it for you to decide whether or not I succeed. And I should say at the outset that I have no particular bone to pick with Taleb, a derivatives trader and fund manager turned NYU professor who is most famous for his bestselling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007). He's clearly an intelligent and successful person. But it seems to me that he has fallen into the pit that always threatens to swallow intelligent and successful people: vanity and blind self-regard.

Now, lest I be accused of resorting to an ad hominem argument, let me get to my substantive critique of what Taleb has to say about history and historians. Namely, I'm referring to a section from his as-yet-unpublished book Skin in the Game: The Underlying Matrix of Daily Life, which appears to have a February, 2018 publication date but which Taleb has been previewing on his Twitter feed.

I'll take what Taleb has to say about academic historians piece by piece because I find his critique to be both interesting and bizarrely wrong-headed. Here's the first bit:

Taleb seems here to be taking a page from Stephen Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, which argued that the recent past (the last two centuries, say) have actually been more peaceful and less catastrophic than preceding centuries, despite the presence of two World Wars and other horrors. Pinker argues that the rise of mass communication has made it appear as if catastrophic events are on the rise, when in reality they were just less widely reported in the past, and were largely taken for granted. I think Pinker relies on some shaky evidence at times, but also makes a fairly compelling argument on the basis of well-attested phenomena like the decline in murder rates and the decline of capital punishment. Taleb, however, does none of this. He simply asserts that historians focus on warfare rather than peace in all times and places, and that they do so because the "salient is mistaken for the statistical."

By who, one wants to ask? For an avowed empiricist, Taleb's data are strangely elusive.

It's hard to guess what historical accounts Taleb has in mind here, since history hasn't been a simple record of battles and diplomacy since Caesar wrote De Bello Gallico, if it even was at that timeGranted, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians took a decidedly top-down view, and the impression we get from historians like Gibbon and Jacob Burckhardt is of a series of princes, geniuses, and villains who march through time like glorious suns, outshining the ordinary mortals around them. But since at least the early twentieth century, historians have pushed off in the opposite direction, focusing on such things as "history from below," "histories of daily life," "microhistory," "social history," and the like. As an example, the books that win prizes and praise in my subfield of Atlantic history are about fisherman, wine merchants, and "an eighteenth-century couple's spiritual journey," not wars.

So I truly am at a loss as to who Taleb has in mind when he writes that "we are fed a steady diet of histories of wars." The producers of the History Channel?


Oof. In my experience, people who resort to denigrating the intelligence of those they argue with typically end up on the losing side of the argument. But leaving that off to the side, Taleb sets up a straw man called "historians" here. These unnamed historians, we're told, are "motivated by stories of conflict." They don't care about people like "merchants, barbers, doctors, money changers, plumbers, prostitutes." (Damn it, we love those people!) And they've all ignored the French Annales school, which "failed to change much." 

Where to begin? It was at this point in reading Taleb's argument that it began to dawn on me: in attempting to write what he thinks is a contrarian takedown of academic history, he has actually produced an argument that virtually all of the academic historians I know (including me) will agree with. He just managed to do it in a remarkably uncharitable way. 

First of all, the French Annales school is among the most important historical movements of the twentieth century and is hugely influential among contemporary academic historians. Fernand Braudel, one of the leaders of the Annales School, was the historian who came up most frequently in my graduate seminars (he's also my personal favorite historian - I recommend jumping right into his masterpiece The Structures of Everyday Life if you have any interest in early modern history). 

In fact, all of the historians who Taleb singles out in a footnote to this passage as oppositional to "conventional history books" (Georges Duby, Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch, Phillipe Ariès) are among the paragons of conventional academic history. He is basically listing the contents of a graduate history course syllabus, and using those works to mount an attack on what he believes academic history to be. As one of my favorite professors in grad school, the brilliantly curmudgeonly A.G. Hopkins liked to say, Taleb is "pushing on an open door."

I haven't met any mafia debt-collectors, but I have met a few finance people. I would be willing to bet that historians have far more interesting lives than your average commodity speculator. We're not just nerds paging through tomes in "the Yale Library." Historian friends of mine have done things like getting access to the Pan Am archives to look through the letters preserved in a 1950s Brazilian plane crash, or sitting alone in the dark with an Inca mummy in Peru, or recreating an alchemical lab in the Columbia University chemistry department, or interviewing people in Cairo and Algeria during the height of the Arab Spring. 

Hell, I'm far more boring than the examples I just listed, but even I just got back from a month in Iran, and as part of my historical research have spent time in a bad part of Rio filming illegal hot air balloon launches, have paged through letters written by Isaac Newton and George Washington, and have reconstructed forgotten drugs. Is that boring stuff fit only for "academic temperaments"? I don't know. I think it's pretty interesting (but then, I would). At any rate, I think the definition of "adventurers and doers" and "having skin in the game" is hugely subjective here. Again, where's the empiricism?

Onwards to the end:

This is where Taleb really loses me. His killer example of how historians fall prey to overfitting is, itself, based on a misguided view of how statistics should work in history. Taleb argues that, because "six hundred thousand Italians died in the Great War," the post-reunification era of supposed stability in Italy was actually far more violent than the era of warfare that, Taleb tells us, historians believe to have characterized early modern Italy. Now, I'll just take this claim at face value and note in passing that Taleb again doesn't identify who these historians are who believe that warfare was the dominant characteristic of Renaissance Italy.

Taleb wants the reader to believe that there was in fact an order of magnitude more death in the Italy of the post-unification period than in the early modern period. He wants this point to do the work of demonstrating that historians tend to overstate the bad and the violent in the past, and that we confuse frequency for intensity. Fine. But he manages to ignore a glaringly obvious fact: you need to compare proportions, not raw numbers, across time periods. Roughly 40 million Italians were alive in 1921. Roughly 11 million were alive in 1500. It's simply dishonest to make comparisons of total numbers of deaths in battle between these two time periods without noting this. 

But again, leaving these points aside - Taleb is arguing with a nonexistent group of people here. He has somehow convinced himself that academic historians are a bunch of nerds sitting in library stacks, getting angry at current events, and channeling their frustration about the world into a vision of the past that sees everything as conflict, and ignores all the fun collaborations between barbers, prostitutes, and merchants. This is precisely the opposite of the vision of academic history that I got from grad school, and the vision that I teach in my classes at UC Santa Cruz. Now, keep in mind that I'm arguing from my own experiences here and those of my most outspoken friends, and hence I assume that Taleb, if he reads this, will accuse me of "overfitting" as well. But I have to wonder - what is he basing his expertise on? A public spat with Mary Beard and perhaps a few bad encounters in NYU hallways, squared against Taleb's newfound love for Bloch, Braudel, and A History of Private Life. 

Well Nassim, I like that stuff too. So do all the other historians I know. 

Let's be friends.

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