Thriving under uncertainty?

Towards a ‘Talebian’ IR.

The ideas of derivatives-trader-cum-philosopher-cum-university-professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb have created a storm. His popular books have been runaway successes – selling millions of copies in 33 languages. His success and fame is certainly in part due to his personal style. His manner is acerbic sometimes bombastic and always cutting, especially towards his pet vexations – economists, bankers and social scientists. Taleb, as evidenced by just a few pages of his books, is someone unafraid to pick an (intellectual) fight.

However, despite the bombast, Taleb’s ideas constitute much more than a set of flash-in-the-pan business-book banalities. His trio of popular titles (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan and Anti-fragile) represents a series of intelligent and highly insightful discussions on uncertainty, systems, knowledge and risk-taking. Indeed, given the centrality of these themes to IR and the fact that many in IR seek to provide policy-makers (operating under conditions of uncertainty) with knowledge about the risks they should and should not take in the international system, Taleb’s ideas offer considerable potential for IR theory and practice.

How to live in a world we don’t understand?[1]

The central theme of Taleb’s work is an effort to understand how actors should operate under uncertainty. As the likes of Giddens, Beck and Taleb himself assert, the world is ‘complex’ and becoming more so (more ‘entropic?’), with a higher concentration of ‘wicked’ problems, feedback loops and interdependencies complicating both policy-making and the analysis of political, economic and social issues. Taleb shares with post-modernists and risk-society advocates a scepticism regarding our ability to control these processes and a pessimism regarding the analytical tools we use to understand them. In Black Swan his core argument is that the world is too complex and non-linear to be predicted. Taleb takes particular issue with positivist ‘Gaussian’ interpretations of risk management and their reliance on inductive extrapolations from previously witnessed events. Indeed, he contends that the major pivots of world history are ‘fat tail’ or ‘Black Swan’ events –happenings that, while having major impact, are very rare and thus often missed by evidentiary, positivist models of (statistical) induction. A quick scan over recent world history would seem to prove he has a point. Very few in the IR community predicted the collapse of the USSR, the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis or the Arab Revolutions. Nonetheless, these events shaped the politics of the last few decades more than any others.

In addition, Taleb contends that the theories that academics employ can often make this situation worse as, rather than elucidate what will happen, they can make us over-confident, blinding us to risks, changes and unexpected ‘Black Swan’ events that are looming under the surface. In a sense, Taleb is offering a critique of the inductive-theorisation-followed-by-hypothetico-deductive application that is the mainstream in much IR (and much social science beyond). Witness for example, Neo-realism, a theory born inductively of the Cold War balance of power system that was unable to foresee the collapse of that system in the late 1980s-90s. Likewise, consider the almost total failure of IR scholars to predict with any certainty the momentous developments of the ‘Arab Spring’.

Given the perceived failure of this inductive-deductive core, a major, central point for Taleb is to shift attention from the nature of a phenomenon, especially with regard to the causal prediction of outcomes, to the exposure one has to that phenomenon. This, from his point of view, is a ‘practitioner’s perspective’ – concerned more with exposure to risks than understanding the causes of those risks. An oil company, for example, cannot realistically compute when a revolution or expropriation will take place, until perhaps very close to it occurring (when it is too late). However, a CEO should be able to understand long in advance how such an event will affect his or her company – i.e. how exposed they are. The point is not to be able to predict revolutions (which Taleb holds is impossible), but rather to be able to assess exposure and corresponding impact and thus take mitigating (ideally anti-fragilising – see below) action.

The antidote? A dose of anti-fragility

If we don’t understand the world accurately, are lulled into a false sense of confidence by induction, blinkered by deduction and thus unable to make corresponding predictions about what is likely to happen – what should we do?

The answer, for Taleb at least, lies in increasing anti-fragility and reducing fragility. He argues that systems, policies, people, ideas etc. can be described according to their fragility/anti-fragility, defined as the extent to which they are harmed by or benefit from volatility and stressors. Fragile objects, for example, are damaged by stresses and shocks (such as wine glass dropped from a height). What then is the opposite of fragile? The most common answer to this question is ‘robustness’ or ‘resilience’. However, resilience is the ability to withstand shocks – not to benefit from them. Indeed, the opposite of fragile from this point of view is not resilient, but rather ‘anti-fragile’, a term that Taleb uses to describe things that benefit from volatility and stress. The muscles of the human body, for example, grow when appropriately stressed. Consolidated democracies are generally strengthened by reactions to political scandals or terrorist attacks. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the human body or a democracy can withstand any level of shock. But unlike the fragile that breaks in the face of stress, or the robust that stays the same (until a certain level at which point it also breaks – indeed the robust is always ultimately fragile[!]), the anti-fragile gets stronger when faced with pressures.

In this sense the (somewhat faddish) focus in IR and Development Studies on the benefits of ‘resilience’ may be somewhat missing the point. Indeed, perhaps rather than seeking to improve the resilience of development recipients to shocks (that may mask underlying fragilities), one should be assessing how to anti-fragilise them by establishing systems more likely to learn, adapt and benefit from inevitable shocks. (Indeed, it is also worth noting that while we may know how to make other societies resilient, they may well know how to anti-fragilise themselves much better than we do!).

For Taleb, systems are either ‘ludic’ – meaning they correspond to fixed and knowable rules and odds (his example here is a casino) – or ‘organic’ where randomness, complexity and non-linarites make reliable predictions impossible. By his definition, the international system is definitely organic, but often it is reduced to a set of axioms as if it were ludic. Organic, localised and decentralised systems that are subject to constant pressures, adaptations and changes are inherently anti-fragile. However, Taleb suggests that organic systems are fragilised by attempts deny them the repeated stresses that make them anti-fragile. For example, for years the US supported authoritarian states in the Middle East against domestic and foreign threats so as to ensure their stability and resilience (with twin-objectives of ensuring continued oil supplies and balancing Iran). While this policy stabilised the region for a number of decades it increased the fragility of the region by limiting the possibility for incremental pressures and change and contributed significantly to violent revolutionary nature of the Arab Spring. Furthermore, while Taleb does not really discuss it, anti-fragility may also be relatively culture-specific (or at least historically contingent). Democracy has proven to be remarkably anti-fragile in the UK for example, where it has been tinkered with, modified and adapted over centuries. However, its imposition in Iraq served to exacerbate ethnic and sectarian tensions and significantly fragilised the state in the face of an ISIS threat that is itself both remarkably barbarous and remarkably anti-fragile in equal measure (as insurgencies often are).

Taleb is not a fan of the social sciences as often practiced. His work is stark, direct and sometimes difficult to swallow. Nonetheless, he offers a number of concepts that touch on issues of real significance in IR and presents a series of observations that both highlights difficult questions but portends considerable importance for IR meta-theory, conceptualisation, empirical analysis and praxis. How anti-fragile IR theory is to this pressure is yet to been seen.


Acknowledgements

Cover image: collage from an original by Lorenzo C. “11.11.011 Stochastic Resonance” (CC-BY-SA) www.stochastic-resonance.net


References


  1. This was the by-line of the first UK edition of Taleb’s book Anti-fragile. This was replaced in later editions by the by-line “Things that gain from disorder”. While this second does fit the thrust of Antifragile - it doesn’t quite capture core theme of Taleb’s work as well as the original. ↩︎