Book Review: Fooled by Randomness

The book “Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was published in 2001. On Amazon, the book has a rating of 4.3, rated by 1,124 people, with 62% of reviewers giving 5 stars. On Goodreads, it has a rating of 4.07 from 1,968 reviews. “The book was selected by Fortune as one of the 75 ‘Smartest Books of All Time.’”, notes Wikipedia. So this should be a great book. I forgot who wrote this, and I forgot the exact words, but I remember reading on twitter that Taleb is something like a modern genius because in his books he develops a worldview based on fundamental insights on randomness, and derives important conclusions including a system of ethics from that. Now that sounds promising! This worldview is developed in Taleb’s Incerto series of five books. In the description of the German publisher you can read that the order in which you read the books does not matter, but then it seemed like a good idea to start with the first one nonetheless (“The Black Swan” surely is the better-known title and has 2,083 reviews).

The book seems to have been a revelation to many, judging by the enthusiastic reviews. In a five-star Amazon review, reviewer Alex Bush writes (November 3, 2015) that the book “revolutionized how I view the world. In multiple ways. It’s hard to overstate how rarely a book changes your ideas about how the world works once, let alone multiple times”. He thinks that Taleb “has managed to weave a fantastically engaging and entertaining book out of what could very easily be a dry and technical topic”, that FbR is “the most general and therefore most widely applicable” book by Taleb, and suggests that it teaches people “the survivorship and hindsight biases, as well as the difference between conditional and unconditional probability”. Indeed, these are things you may learn from the book in a non-technical way. You may also learn that people find causality where there is mere randomness; that the past of a time series can lead you to a false feeling of certainty if rare events are relevant; that it is often disregarded that the expected value of a random distribution may differ from the median, when in fact it would be critical to keep it in mind if possible rare events would have strongly negative effects. These things come together when people attribute a financial trader’s performance to his ability in selecting the right stocks, their value increases over a long time, but he disregards that a crash of the stockmarket may ruin him. So the fact that I did not find the book so eye-opening may be related to the fact that I already knew some things about statistics, probability, econometrics and behavioral economics, that I had read Thinking Fast and Slow, blogposts on Lesswrong, and some other things Taleb writes about. To be fair, the book is from 2001, and maybe many concepts described in the book were very innovative back then.

However, amazon reviewer Alex Bush also writes that “it’s often hard to determine whether the heart of the book is the ideas … or the author. I can’t stress how much I learned from this book that has nothing to do with probability or statistics, just random asides from an erudite and meandering mind.” This may make you a bit skeptical.

And indeed, the author does meander. A common criticism in reviews is that the book is way too long; suggestions are somewhere between a paragraph (which is a bit mean), a New Yorker article and 50 pages. More importantly, the book lacks structure. In the preface, Taleb writes that he “hates books that can be easily guessed from the table of contents (not many people read textbooks for pleasure)”. And so it is a bit obscure what kind of book Taleb wants this to be. It seems he aims at being illuminating and, at the same time, entertaining. The book contains many stories and anecdotes, usually using a story about some person exemplifying a certain kind of behavior, but it is sometimes unclear how representative these stories are.

If nothing else, you will certainly know a lot about Nassim Nicholas Taleb when you have finished reading the book. He likes to go to the gym. He does not want to be a janitor. He is intelligent and cultured, and people around him are ignorant and shallow—people in the financial industry and in the media in particular—and they usually do not appreciate his insights when he explains them. As a cultured, intelligent person he also admits some emotional weaknesses. You will also know the names of some people whom Taleb likes and several people whom he dislikes. Maybe you read somewhere that Taleb is arrogant and likes to start fights, but that he has profound insights. (I had read something like that somewhere.) Well, I don’t mind arrogance per se, if it is just some topping on the cake of insight. What I find a bit annoying, however, is that some people (or at least some reviewers) seem to understand the style of the book as a signal for the insight.

And indeed, Taleb’s self-descriptions seem to aim at signaling some kind of insight. This can be a bit lengthy. When Taleb writes that he had a lucky career choice, he notes that “one of the attractive aspects of my profession as a quantitative option trader is that I have close to 95% of my day free to think, read and research”. As this does not seem to be clear enough, he also adds: “(or ‘reflect’ in the gym, on ski slopes, or, more effectively, on a park bench)”, and then: “I also had the privilege of frequently ‘working’ from my well-equipped attic.” Over the book, the self-descriptions of Taleb, his descriptions of people around him, and many other digressions add up. In a book whose topic is the problem that we often confuse noise with signal and should be mindful of distinguishing them, this is a bit disturbing. Of course—reading about an author’s life can be interesting, and anecdotes can be illuminating; Daniel Kahneman’s writing is a good example of that. But the entertainment highly depends on an author’s style, and writing anecdotes in an illuminating way seemingly is not easy.

(Just to add one example: At some point, Taleb says that he sat in many meetings where traders had to offer their interpretations of what was currently moving the markets. He says he found these meetings to be a waste of time. And he adds that he himself talked a lot in them, to make them less boring, though he did not listen to what other people had to say: “I have to confess that my optimal strategy (to soothe my boredom and allergy to confident platitudes) was to speak as much as I could, while totally avoiding listening to other people’s replies by trying to solve equations in my head. Speaking too much would help me clarify my mind, and, with a little bit of luck, I would not be ‘invited’ back (i.e, forced to attend) the following week.” It is up to every reader to decide what the confident platitudes are at this point; but it is a little weird that it does not seem to occur to Taleb that the other participants of these meetings may have the same justification for their “platitudes” and the same view of themselves and the others.)

I stopped reading the book after chapter 9 (that is, after 202 paes of the German epub edition, which is 302 pages long, excluding some back matter parts). At this point, the book had improved, the last two chapters had been more readable and more interesting, which might have made me continue reading. But then again, what had these last chapters been about? Chapter 9 nicely illustrates the problem of regression to the mean, and this served as a reminder to lower expectations. The expected value of the rest of the book did not seem high enough.

Summing up

You may like the book if you need a story-based introduction to some biases in understanding random events, and if you find a certain joy in an author classifying others as idiots.

(At several points, I think things that Taleb writes are wrong or misleading, but I will not put time and effort into arguing about these points.)

What did I like about the book?

There are nice illustrations about regression to the mean and survivor bias. Also, the mentions of several financial-market crises of the last decades served as a nice reminder to put things into perspective.

What did I learn from the book?

The most interesting thing that the book emphasized to me was that it is often hard to rate the quality of books using a single “quality” dimension. For a fair judgement, it seems necessary to know the background of the typical reader, to know what the author wants, and to understand the intellectual environment in which he wrote the book. Fooled by Randomness may be a good book for someone to whom the survivorship bias is news, it may transport Taleb’s message, and it may have been revolutionary 19 years ago.

What should you read if you like the topic?

Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow”