Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Rationality, Risk, and Skin in the Game | EconTalk | Library of Economics and Liberty

Russ Roberts: I want to ask you a question about—well, first, let’s talk about religion. Now, a lot of people—it’s very fashionable—that’s a disrespectful word. I’m going to rephrase that. A lot of smart people are very critical of religion these days. And, one of the things that you hear is that religion is irrational: There’s no evidence for it; it’s a superstition that was comforting to people before we had the enlightenment. And you argue in the book that religion—that’s not the right way to think about the rationality of religion. And the fact that certain religions have survived for a long time shows that they are "rational." And your definition of rationality in that context is the same as you’ve been using in this gambling context, which is: It leads to survival. It promotes survival. So, talk about religion. Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Yeah. What comment I would make is that it’s not the religion that survives. It’s people who have it that survive. So, whatever beliefs these people have that allow them to survive cannot be discounted. By looking at their cosmetic expression. So, let me, so, religion. A few things that I talk about: Let’s make sure that we don’t equate all religions, because some religions are religious[?] and other religions are not. Some are more literal; others are more, let’s say, semi-literal or definitely metaphorical. But, one thing about belief, okay? And [?] support of rationale. If you—and this came to me from meeting, finally, Ken Binmore, who really probably did more fundamental work, foundational work, on rationality than anyone else. And Ken Binmore effectively says that all these attacks—or, you know, on economics, economic decision-making, based on, you know, by arguing about irrationality aristophy[are at risk defining?] irrationality. You see? For example, the conventional economics don’t define you as a—the economic gains as accounting. That’s just a vocabulary. There are other things. So, if you for example give your money to the poor, there’s nothing irrational about it. You see? So, there’s some restriction incoherence. So, I thought about what he was saying and how people define rationality, and that went back to how people express what they call rational. And I notice is that usually, ex ante, hence non-empirical definition of rationality. Ex ante means that I define an action as being irrational. You know: it means that you know everything that is going to go on around that action. In other words, that your model represents the world. And we’ve known since Simon [Herbert Simon], other rationality, that effectively you will never be able to build a model that can understand the world. So, when I say an action is irrational, ex ante, beforehand, I’d better have a track record of that action, because we need to see if it’s maybe because there are things that are not included in that model. So, for example, if I say that it is irrational to prefer A to B, B to C, but not C to A, I’d better have a good model that this holds in the real world. That’s called the transitivity condition. And I have argued in Antifragile that if you expand the model to saying that for an individual it may make sense to be coherent but collectively we cannot operate what’s coherent individual because you deplete resources—for example, if you always tuna to steaks, you would deplete the tuna supply. And so, therefore, you need to cycle. And nature makes you randomly change preferences. And that’s a great way for things to survive. So, for example, these are the modifications to the narrowly defined, what I call baby models that you encounter in behavioral economics, and then in decision-making—and all these so-called decision sciences, what I call decision pseudo-sciences—is really [?] and I find[?] that they are irrational[?]. Or, for example, if in intertemporal preferences if someone offers you an apple today versus two apples tomorrow—well, in an ecological framework, you may say, ‘Well, what if he’s a person who is full of baloney? Okay. I’ll take the apple now. I’m not taking it now because I prefer to eat an apple now. I’m taking it now because he may disappear[?]’— Russ Roberts: He may not come back tomorrow. Nassim Nicholas Taleb: He may not come back. He may die tomorrow. If you include these models, then a lot of these hyperbolic discounting—well, all of these models become much more coherent. So, let me say something now about religion. So, if I judge religion without its track record, I’m going to get into a lot of theoretical—I’m not just saying empirical—theoretical mistakes, because if you think of what was, what would have happened if we didn’t have these religions, I think a lot of people wouldn’t haven’t had the right decisions. And so religion allows you sort of intergenerationally to convey some kind of behavior. Okay? Now, if you have to give the story with a religion to justify that behavior, well, that’s it. Who cares? And the example I use in the beginning is, even in science we don’t have a perception when I look at Greek columns, you see, there is a distortion, for instance [?]. Religion may be a distorted view or way for us to view the world that has allowed us to survive. So, I give a lot of example of how to judge religion—you should judge it ex post, not ex ante. And I take, for example, something that seems for non-religious Jews, not, you know, not rational, which is to have 500-and-some dietary laws and two sinks in your kitchen. Now, when you think about it, it’s the wrong way to just judge that on the basis of rationality. The way you’ve got to look at, see it, is as follows. What if Jews didn’t have these dietary laws? What would have happened? Well, you know that those who eat together diet[?] together. So, they would have been more dispersed; therefore much more vulnerable. And so they owe their survival to their dietary laws. So— Russ Roberts: If you take that view—a variant on that is that eating pork or shellfish is bad for your health in times when there’s not good refrigeration, etc.—if you take that anthropological perspective, there certainly isn’t a case, rather than, say, a holy or divine one, there’s no case for people to keep kosher today, if that’s your view, right? Nassim Nicholas Taleb: No, I really don’t—we don’t quite—[?] we don’t fully understand the world. And a rule[?] that has survived a long time may have [?] that we haven’t detected yet. You see? The idea that, you’d say, not eating shrimp is because they are impure, may be because they are impure or may be because it’s good to have dietary laws. Maybe it disciplines you elsewhere. I don’t buy the idea of pork being insalubrious, therefore Semitic religions except for Christianity refuse pork. The idea, to me, is probably deeper, because the Greeks also living in the same environment, the Cypriots and the Egyptians initially[?] didn’t have these dietary laws. The North Africans also didn’t[?] have these dietary laws and came later. So, I don’t believe that we should give a lot of reasons for these—that we should go back and say it affected the [?] thing as necessarily the reason. It’s a possible one, but you can never test it. We know that these religions have helped in survival, and whatever is related to survival is essential, because there’s a path dependence. To do science, you must first survive.