Nassim Taleb on the Errors of Richard Dawkins and of Intervening in Syria.

Image credit: Bloomberg

You would think that these two things are completely unrelated. On top of that, you may also be wondering what does this have to do with being Catholic. Aside from enjoying using our brains you mean?

Keep in mind that the Catholic Church teaches that faith and reason are compatible, capice? Need a starting point to see where this idea was explored? Go straight to the Apologies of St. Justin Martyr. Besides, Nassim Taleb is a Greek Orthodox Christian, so he’s family as far as I’m concerned.

Who is Nassim Taleb? He is the author of Fooled by Randomness:The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and most recently a book titled Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. I mentioned the second of these books in a post before, and Taleb a few times in passing. But it’s a Sunday, and the birthday of Our Lady so I’ll just cut to the chase and let Taleb do most of the talking regarding the two topics at hand: Richard Dawkins and the proposed military action in Syria.

A few weeks back, see, Richard Dawkins caused a bit of controversy when he claimed that Trinity College has produced more Nobel Laureates than the entire Muslim world has been able to muster. As it turns out, Trinity College has also produced more Nobel winners than all of femininity combined, or of all of China as well. The problem isn’t the numbers, but the inference that Dawkins makes from it, which was something along the lines of when it comes to intelligence, the entire Muslim world is backward. Taleb addresses this in the video below as being flawed in terms of the probabilities of there being more smart folks living in the West than there are in the rest of the world.

Basically, he argues that you can’t make inferences from things that take place in the tails of a Gaussian distribution curve, especially in that place we live that Taleb calls Extremistan, where the winners take a disproportionate amount of the gains in a society. Be advised, math alert!

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Towards the end there, Taleb explains that Dawkins’ method is flawed because he is being “fooled by randomness.” Taleb uses an example that if using Dawkin’s way of thinking (perhaps it was just rhetoric?), by noting that Ashkenazi Jews, who number 5 million of the world’s total population (approximately 7 billion), but whom have been awarded 50% of scientific Nobel Prizes, Dawkins would have been led to believe that Ashkenazis have IQs of 7000 times the average. As Taleb says, “Dawkins has courage but no science.”

Moving on to the Obama Administration (and hawks like Senator McCain) being fooled by foreign affairs randomness, in a recent spot on Bloomberg Surveillance, Taleb (in the first three-4 minutes or so) is asked about intervention in Syria. As a native (and sometime resident) of Lebanon, and an Orthodox Christian, he points out the problem of backing rebels who will become our next problem, because many of them are backed by, or have ties to, our enemy in the War on Terror: Al Qaeda.

Roll clip (fast forward to the 48 minute mark).

Beware places with artificial political stability, like Syria and Saudi Arabia. Got it. Also, how about those unintended consequences?

You can catch the entire segment here.

If you haven’t contacted your Congressional representatives yet to tell them you don’t support this mad rush to intervention in Syria, do so now.

Duffel Blog is a riot!

  • Steiner

    You and Nassim Taleb fundamentally misunderstand what Dawkins was implying by that tweet. It was not that he considered Muslims to be intellectually inferior to Westerners. Dawkins was implying that religion, Islam in this case, blocks scientific education and rational inquiry, thus ultimately limiting the number of scientific achievements and the Nobel prizes won by Muslims.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/yimcatholic/ Frank Weathers

      I think Taleb’s main concern here is that folks in the press didn’t recognize the statistical error. Again, if Dawkin’s meant to imply that Islam blocks rational inquiry (certainly he isn’t saying Catholicism does), then that would have been quite easy to say.

    • http://www.google.com/ jazz142857

      And re: China and women… Also communism and patriarchy. To extrapolate IQ from Dawkin’s statement as an extension of “his” logic is a pure strawman.

    • Thomas Leo

      Dawkins is fundamentally flawed, by assuming that religion (or islam) blocks any “scientific education and rational inquiry”. There are many philosophical schools of thought, that doesn’t require some artificial standard set by some commitee that gives out prizes. It’s actually more irrational to suggest achievements or prizes is a standard to acquire.

    • Eric

      His conclusion may be correct or not, but the method Richard Dawkins uses to prove his conclusion is flawed.

  • Name

    I think, for all his aversion to sensationalism, Prof. Taleb is quite a showman himself.

  • Yusuf Hussain

    Dawkins premise that religion curbs scientific advance is flawed. In the Muslim world, it was the in fact the advent of Quran and Islam that spurred great scientific advance and learning. Yes retrogressive religion certainly curbs scientific advance such as in the case of Galileo vs the Catholic Church, but in the case of the Muslim world, for significant though not all times during its 1000 year zenith, urgings of the Quran to observe Gods creation and the rise and fall of civilisations and to employ reason, spurred the quest for knowledge.

    I would not call Taleb sensationalist. I would call him anti-tongue in cheek who therefore scandalises the “middle brow”


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