The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

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Creative Resilience

Michael Shermer sifts through a study of the science of randomness and our responses to it.

A review of Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This review ran in Nature magazine on November 22, 2012.

Unexpected events have brought down civilizations, economies, markets and corporations. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who fleshed out such rare, random ‘black swan’ effects theoretically in Fooled by Randomness (Texere, 2001) and The Black Swan (Allan Lane, 2007), offers a solution to the challenge they pose in Antifragile.

In more than 400 pages of stream-of-consciousness- style writing, Taleb aims to tell us how to live in a world that is unpredictable and chaotic — how to become ‘antifragile’. Antifragility, Taleb stresses, is not the same as robustness, which relates to how well a system can resist change. To be antifragile is to have the capacity to prosper from randomness, uncertainty and disorder, and to benefit from a variety of shocks, especially blackswan events. It is a kind of creative resiliency that Taleb discusses in relation to evolution, politics, business innovation, medicine, economics, ethics and epistemology.

So what are the attributes of antifragility? Take size. You might think that being big — as a nation or corporation — would serve as a buffer to black-swan events. Business schools teach the virtues of “economies of scale”, but Taleb warns that “size hurts you at times of stress”. Large entities cannot respond as quickly to rapid change as smaller one, which tend to be freer to shift strategies. Taleb notes that mergers of major corporations can fail to foster efficiency. Mergers typically show “at best, no gain from such increase in size”. The AOL–Time Warner merger of 2000 and the subsequent split in 2009 is a case in point. Taleb conjectures, too, that big species such as mammoths have become extinct fairly rapidly. (continue reading…)

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