Fooled by Randomness or Bad Science?


Having just finished reading Fooled by Randomness and having only read 2 chapters so far of Bad Science, there is really no contest. One is a ridiculous collection of buzzwords and ego, and the other is an evidence based consideration of how the world actually works.


First: Fooled by Randonmess  Avoid this like the plague. I foolishly bought it because I’d seen it mentioned several times in the press as somehow revealing something interesting about the current financial crisis and how the author Taleb had some kind of insight into the world of stock markets and beyond.


However, I think that most of the excitable reviews surroundng Fooled by Randomness have actually been Fooled by Hype. After all I realise that’s why I bought it…


For those who haven’t been initiated into the Cult of Taleb, he claims to have privileged information into the way the world really works in the same way other peddlars of reheated buzzwords like to claim. (See Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point for another one, although that’s a much more enjoyable read.) So instead of a reasoned and logical argument we get a stream of bitty chapters summarising his musings on randomness, stock markets, and, you know, life its-very-self.


The central thesis seems to be (brace yourself for this revelation): ‘you can’t predict the future’. Whilst technically correct, I’m not really sure we need 300 pages going on and on about it. I think most of the world realises you can’t predict the future of the stock markets – or indeed anything much, if you want to be literal about it.


If you really want to muse about the unpredictablilty of stock markets, then watch Aronofsy’s, ‘Pi’, which is in a totally different class – given that’s it’s a quite a good film.


The other big problem with the book is that he’s got the world’s largest, most irritating, overblown self regard for his own intelligence. His other main theme is: ‘if you disagree with me, you’re an idiot and I will ignore and laugh at you.’ Great. What a charmer.


I think the words I’m searching for here are: ‘he’s pompous prick who made a few million on the stock market and – contrary to his own ‘thesis’ – seems to think that fact alone justifies his own inflated opinion of himself.


So, forget him, and read Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’. It’s everything Fooled isn’t: considered, rational and backed up with those things that scientists like to call ‘facts’. Facts are a bit unfashionable at the moment, but they do a rather good job of explaining how the world works and making it easier to tell the difference between something that works (eg, medicine) and stuff that’s based on patent nonsense (eg, alternative therapies)


Goldacre is the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist who delights in debunking psuedoscience and showing how the media so often misunderstands and misrepresents scientific research to the public, who don’t generally have a scientific background to know the difference.


Bad Science is witty and funny, and yet deadly serious at the same time as it exposes how people are fooled not by randomness, but by the media’s often and infuriatingly irresponsible attitude to science reporting (see the MMR hoax). He also discusses (and despairs at) the deliberate misappropriation of sciencey sounding theories and words by everyone from homeopaths to nutritionists in order to peddle silly sugar pills or faddy ineffective diets.


If you really want a considered insight into how things are, go for Bad Science!  

Bad Science

Fooled by Randomness


4 Responses to Fooled by Randomness or Bad Science?

  1. Tom says:

    Haha! I absolutely adore Fooled by Randomness and it quite literally changed my life. It has an effect on pretty much everything I write, but then I do write about finance.

    Maybe you didn’t like it because you don’t work in finance, and so can’t see how many of the things he argues against are assumed to be true, and how important the things he says are. Basically, finance has a bias towards certainty and people constantly need to be told that things are very, very uncertain indeed.

    Here’s another of my favourite writers talking Taleb:

  2. Tom says:

    Also, I don’t think people are simply fooled by the media (is that really what you think?) – Taleb details (as do many others) the biases built into our minds that throw up obstacles to objection decision-making. Confirmation bias being one of the most severe (and is what much of Fooled by Randomness is really about).

  3. olifreke says:

    Yo T, thanks for your thoughts!

    I don’t disagree with his main actual points: survivor bias, not appreciating the role of randomness and how one can overlook it’s effects and so forth – in that sense I’m not saying he’s wrong at all.

    It’s just that there’s way too much egocetnric waffle around those basic ideas for my liking, and to be honest, I’ve read a lot about various probability theories and statistics over the years in various guises so it wasn’t really a ‘revelation’ in that sense, though it’s always good to be reminded of these things.

    I would have enjoyed the stats chat a lot more if he’s backed it up with proper research (enough with the Monte Carlo method and Russian Roullette already!) and dropped a lot of the vague ramblings against philosophers and people he happens not to like. It just weakens his arguments and annoys people!

    I think it’s quite telling that he rates Malcolm Gladwell very highly, too!

  4. Tom says:

    Some of what Taleb is saying is original and he’s not only applied his theories to real life but also set it predictive tests (see the second-most recent blog entry on Cash & Burn – In doing so, he has entirely altered the base mindset of many market practictioners, and even leading-edge academics like John Kay. While some of these things have been said by various people in various forms, Taleb has tied it all together, added rigour to the theories, given them historical context, presented real life applications and put it to the test.

    By doing so, it shows he is not a follower like Gladwell, who’s a talented stylist, packager and cool-chaser but nothing more. Indeed, Taleb may well be one of the leading thinkers of our time, which may explain his ‘vague ramblings against philosophers’. He certainly conforms to a certain model of an irrascible academic. Midway through the credit crunch his ideas are impossible to ignore, whatever you think of him personally.

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