Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nassim Nicholas Taleb Fires Back

The Nassim Nicholas Taleb controversy won't stop and is being picked up by more and more news outlets. The latest news in the controversy is a response from Taleb that he attempted to correct the error about billions in profit, and charging his "enemies" as being "very, very stupid."

He posts an amplified yellow "sticky note" on the GQ story he features at his site, it now reads:

Note that NUMBERS are wrong. This is not a business/finance, but a philosophy article written by Will Self. So read the article for its ideas. Janet Tavakoli used the errors as a platform for her (failed) smear campaign.

I have very, very stupid enemies. The correspondence with GQ reporting errors was (before publication) was send (sic) to Felix Salmon.

The emails
he refers to are reproduced below:

From: nassim nicholas taleb
Date: December 17, 2008 7:40:55 AM EST
To: Will Self
Subject:Re: From Will Self
Hello there (from Los Angeles airport). Thanks a million. I cannot interfere with the content, only to correct some minor facts.There are some potential problems with the numbers like the 20 billion, half a billion, etc. that may lead to confusion.
Also I am trying to add my middle name whenever possible to avoid confusing the byline.
I will read again on plane and send clarifications about the numbers.
BTW it was great seeing you.

From:nassim nicholas taleb
Date: December 17, 2008 6:13:44 PM EST
To:Will Self
Re: From Will Self
Here is what I found.

1- “when they went to the wall we made $20 billion for our clients, half a billion for the Black Swan fund.
“when they went to the wall we made almost half a billion for the Black Swan funds.”

2- “Mean variants” “mean-variance”

I will give it a second reading.
Thanks again.

It is interesting to note that Taleb also requested that his middle name, Nicholas, be used in the article by GQ and that was not corrected either.

Here's what appears to have gone down. As you can note, Taleb's first email to Will Self is very cautious, and almost leaglistic. It is a sign of someone who does not want to get in trouble with legal authorities, by the second email it is clear he is attempting to correct errors that Self has in the article.

Self obviously didn't correct anything. An article done is done, I guess.

Tavakoli reads the article and the uncorrected $20 billion in profits number jumps out at her. As I have pointed out before, she is a numbers person. She publicly highlights the problem, when she doesn't receive a response from Taleb. What else is she supposed to do?

Why wouldn't Taleb respond to an inquiry from Tavakoli, a professional finance person and writer? Who knows? Perhaps Taleb will explain at some point.

In any case, Taleb's lack of response did look suspicious. In truth, it turns out that Taleb was probably protecting Will Self, who did write a passable profile of Taleb (Failed billion dollar errors excepted!). This would also explain Taleb's early nebulous defense of how the $20 billion remained in the story. Finally, the heat got too intense for Taleb and he threw Will Self under the bus.

There is no "smear campaign", Tavakoli followed a decent lead and Taleb was playing cat and mouse so that he wouldn't hurt the man who said so many nice things about him.

Bottom line. Taleb acted as though he is very needy, needs people to say very nice things about him, and very, very stupidly attempted to protect the man who said a few passable nice things about him.

There is a lesson here about dealing with Janet Tavakoli, also. Don't be very,very stupid and not answer her questions when she contacts you about numbers. She will eventually smoke the truth out of you. Just ask Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

UPDATE: In reviewing Tavakoli's columns on Taleb, I note that Taleb did respond to her email. She wrote:

I checked with Nassim Taleb regarding the $20 billion in gains and asked if he were misquoted. He responded via email: "The quote is inaccurate. THe [sic] 20 billion might correspond to the face value of positions." This response is both vague and different in character from the mythical $20 billion in gains inaccurately quoted in GQ’s article.
The point remains that the response as Tavakoli states is vague, as though it is a bother for Taleb to have to respond to Tavakoli. Taleb could have nipped the entire controversy in the bud, by simply writing, "I noticed the error in a draft copy that was sent to me by Will Self and emailed him a correction. Why it wasn't corrected is not clear to me." Again, the only explanation for the cat and mouse game seems to be to protect Will Self.


  1. "Taleb acted as though he is very needy, needs people to say very nice things about him..."

    That sort of neediness combined with a very thin skin is characteristic of a narcissistic personality. I recall marveling at his unbridled narcissism when I read The Black Swan.

  2. The real problem with Nassim Nicholas Taleb is not that he is narcissistic but that his theory of risk is both facile and wrong. A 'black swan' is an unexpected exogenous financial or economic shock. Sometimes these occur, but I don't know of any case that was really significant. The problem with financial risk management is with the failure to foresee predictable and systematic endogenous shocks. Mr. Taleb has contributed almost nothing to our understanding of risk.

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