Nassim Taleb’s new book, Skin in the Game, happened to be reviewed by The Economist (anonymously, as ever) in the same issue (February 24) as Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Pinker got the lead review with 23 column inches; Taleb got a measly 10, which will annoy him greatly. Moreover, speaking of Pinker’s quantitatively based case that human life has improved and is improving, the reviewer says: “The result is magnificent, uplifting and makes you want to rush to your laptop and close your Twitter account.”
(The predicate of that sentence, incidentally, is ungrammatical. Intended as a multiple coordination A, B and C using no serial comma, it fails because A and B are adjectives but C is a tensed verb phrase and doesn’t fit with is. But never mind. Today I’m reading for sense, not form.)
In sharp contrast, the review of Taleb warns us: “The reader’s experience is rather like being trapped in a cab with a cantankerous and over-opinionated driver.”
The two comments naturally led me to browse both books at a local bookstore. And I must say that Taleb’s reviewer, if anything, understates it. Stop the cab and let me out.
Taleb is unable to contain his hostility to other public intellectuals. He levels particularly barbed remarks at Pinker half a dozen times, alleging charlatanry while offering no substantive justification. Pinker and Dawkins are merely “aggressive journalistic minds” (Taleb hates the new atheists); Pinker is a “science journalist” or “journalistic professor” who “doesn’t understand his own numbers.”
On the latter point, Taleb does give a very brief footnote reference to a critique of the statistics in Pinker’s earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature; Pinker has a devastating response to that called “Fooled by Belligerence,” which Taleb also cites. The bottom line is that Taleb’s ire is aimed at people who think the numbers show that war is over and will never return; Pinker’s argument in Angels is that an exponential decline in per capita risk of violent death has been going on since the Stone Age, despite the spikes in the graph caused by the 20th century’s wars. The two theses pass each other like ships in the night, a mile in between.
Taleb doesn’t just resent having to breathe the same air as Pinker; he actually hints at wanting him dead. In one jaw-dropping footnote on what could be worse than one’s own death, Taleb says that his own death would not be as bad as for him to die and Pinker to live on. (He calls this a joke, but one wonders.)
Taleb also calls Pinker a psycholophaster. (The neologism, incidentally, is an inexpert portmanteau based on philosophaster, a word derived from postclassical Latin and meaning “pseudo-philosopher” or “person engaging in shallow or pretentious philosophizing.” The idea is to replace philosoph- by psycholog-, but of course that would yield psychologaster. Taleb’s -ph- is etymologically spurious. But never mind. Today I’m reading for sense, not form.)
I don’t know how Taleb thinks anyone could establish the right to be called a serious psychologist rather than a pseudo-psychologist. You might think it would suffice to earn a Harvard Ph.D. in the subject and then achieve distinction through four decades of teaching and research in psychology at Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. But not for Taleb. Pinker is just faking, apparently.
The unexplicated over-the-shoulder insult is Taleb’s stylistic modus operandi. It didn’t take me long to find I wanted to stop the taxi ride. Returning Skin in the Game to the display table, I took Enlightenment Now to the cashier’s counter.
One more note, because I’m almost certain I know what some of you are thinking. You’re going to ask me this: Did I not once, right here in The Chronicle of Higher Education itself, speak harshly, almost Talebesquely, of a certain inoffensive little Cornell professor of English and his revered posthumous reviser? Am I not, on occasion, a bit of an irascible Uber driver myself when the subject of their little book comes up?
Well, no, so don’t try to pull any of your shallow tu quoque arguments on me. First, my targets were already dead. Second, I never impugned their competence in their day jobs as college professor and novelist/essayist. Third, I gave detailed factual argumentation in a journal article, I didn’t just dismiss them offhandedly as fakers.
Admittedly, I did once describe them as a pair of shameless, pontificating, ignorant, hypocritical, incompetent, authoritarian old weasels. But on that occasion they deserved it. Anyway, two wrongs don’t make a right.