Communicating science to people who aren’t scientists is very hard to do well. Nassim Taleb should be very good at it, based on his enormous book sales and even more enormous opinion of his own skills. But we all have our demons, and Taleb has succumbed to his. Rather than encouraging a healthy discussion about science, he’s picked a side and declared all-out war on the people who disagree with him. Taleb even admits that his strategy is to prevent conversations from happening by abusing and insulting people who question him, and encouraging his followers to join in. What’s the point of that strategy? It doesn’t help communicate science, resolve legitimate questions about the facts, or even address the supposedly evil motives of his critics. All it really does is feel good. Nassim Taleb has chosen self-gratification over real engagement. Let’s talk about why that’s unproductive and unethical.
Taleb has been kicking up the dust lately on Facebook and Twitter, encouraging his readers to not even listen to people who disagree with his beliefs about GMOs. I caught an edge of it when I saw his contemptuous remarks about a scientist I follow, Kevin Folta:
“Disgusting” and “lowly” aren’t so bad; Taleb also likes to call his critics “retard.” Here’s a quick and important lesson in effective communication (and just generally being a decent human being): don’t call anyone a “retard.” It’s a particularly ugly way to conduct a debate, or even shut it down. It feels like an edgy, cool thing to say, which is why people like Taleb use it to preen, but that edginess just comes from being “deliberately juvenile.” The buzz they get from it comes at the expense of credibility. It’s Trump talk—exciting in the moment, but in the long run we only remember the ugliness and foolishness of it.
(If you don’t take anything else from this piece, at least make an effort to learn from Taleb’s terrible example. If you have something meaningful to say, then say something meaningful–purge pointless slurs like “retard” from your vocabulary. If the word doesn’t sound so bad to you, remember that slurs never offend the speaker. When you’re speaking, you’re affecting other people.)
Taleb loathes Folta because Folta, chair of the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida, used $25,000 of Monsanto’s money to fund outreach talking about his research. Note that Monsanto didn’t pay for any of his research, and overall the money was less than half a percent of his lab’s budget. The funds were publicly disclosed, not passed under the table in greasy paper bags. But to Taleb, using Monsanto money to fund outreach is a crime beyond all reason. (Just don’t ask him who funds his own travel budget.)
Now reasonable people could have a very interesting conversation about whether it’s a good idea to take Monsanto money to fund outreach. But Taleb didn’t leave any room for reasonable people or an interesting conversation: “retard,” “lowly person,” “fuckoff,” and “strawman” (in response to a good, relevant question) don’t do anything to explore the issue, or even defend one side of it. By itself that’s not such a big deal. There are a lot of jerks in the world, and even more on Twitter.
What caught my eye particularly was that Taleb’s crassness is part of an intentional strategy to destroy conversations about science. On his Facebook page, he posted a short recipe for arguing with “GMO Propagandists:”
He compares “shills” to the mafia and tobacco companies, and tells his readers not to engage with them. In my experience, if you talk about science online sooner or later someone will call you a shill. It doesn’t mean anything more than “someone who has an opinion I don’t like.” Taleb is unusually honest about this! Point two of his strategy identifies who the shills are to him: people who ask questions he thinks he’s already answered.
I can’t think of any way to comedically overstate how arrogant Taleb’s position is. If he thinks he’s answered your point already, you’re a “shill” for raising it. And don’t you think he believes that he’s answered all the good arguments already? It’s a powerful defense against having to seriously consider someone else’s perspective: if I haven’t addressed it, it’s a stupid argument. If I have addressed it, you’re a shill for not agreeing that I won that argument. It doesn’t leave any room for good-faith disagreement, because disagreeing with Taleb’s conclusions is prima facie evidence that you’re a shill. If you claim to have the science on your side? Shill. If you question his evidence? Shill. If you question his logical fallacies? Shill. If you deny that Monsanto influenced you? Shill. If you deny being a shill? Shill.
Taleb’s boorish attack on Folta shows how the defense mechanism works. Folta offered to sit down with Taleb personally to discuss the science of GMO safety, something Taleb has been posturing about. Doing that is risky for Taleb; he doesn’t have the expertise or data to go toe-to-toe with an actual biologist on the evidence. So rather than having to do so, isn’t it convenient that he can just define Folta as a shill, a “disgusting fellow,” and a “lowly individual?” It lets him play a fun, exciting game rather than doing the hard and risky work of putting his ideas to the test. That’s particularly tricky for Taleb because his thesis is essentially that biologists have the burden of showing that GMOs are safe (as opposed to GMO opponents showing that they aren’t). When they try, though–shut up, shill! And so Taleb builds a wall around his opinions.
Taleb’s tantrum is reprehensible, but at the end of the day it’s his own business whether he is willing to listen to actual experts. He does more harm by setting a bad example. He’s not just refusing to engage opposing opinions himself, he’s encouraging his readers and followers to do it too:
This isn’t just bad manners, it’s destructive. Taleb is intentionally tearing down the kind of back-and-forth conversations that are critical to helping laypeople (like himself) form educated opinions about the safety of GMOs and other scientific subjects. And he’s doing with ugly, personal insults that demonize the other side of the debate, just because it’s fun. It’s a terrible, foolish strategy.
I’ve written a few pieces here about how important it is to treat the other side in a public debate like decent, honest human beings, and what happens when you don’t. On one level, demonizing the other side prevents you from seriously considering their perspective. That’s true not only because it keeps you from really understanding the points they’re trying to make, but also because it builds a wall around your own beliefs. It’s very difficult to ever decide that you’ve been wrong about something if you’ve been spitting on the people who disagree with you; changing your own mind would mean admitting they might have been right all along. So the more contempt you have for the other side, the less likely it is you’ll ever reconsider your own beliefs. For example, Taleb probably feels secure ignoring scientists like Folta because he’s read some of the scientific literature on GMO safety. But if he hates scientists who disagree with him this much, is he likely to be objective about that research? He’s building his bias insult by insult.
On a larger scale, turning a conversation into a poisonous us-vs.-them battle signals to onlookers that there are sides to be picked. That’s especially dangerous in a very public discussion, such as a Twitter or Facebook thread, in which at least one party is famous and attracts a lot of those onlookers. Much of the time people who are recruited by these conversations pick the most sympathetic side, which may not be the one you want them to. But even when they agree with you, if you’ve turned the conversation into a battle you’re going to attract people who want to fight rather than think. Science communication should be about starting conversations and answering questions, not battlefield tactics for shutting down the opposition.
Aside from these serious consequences, behavior like Taleb’s is just plain crass and offensive. Calling someone a “retard” is an appalling breach of plain etiquette. Obviously many people don’t care about being polite, and obviously Taleb is one of them. So should he care? Of course! If he wants to persuade people, being a public jackass is a poor way of doing it. It has some benefits to his cause, such as encouraging his fans to be more aggressive attacking the people who question him. But in the long run it just eats away at his credibility.
So given all the problems with Taleb’s approach, why would he—or anyone else in his position—act this way? I can only guess, and my guess is that it feels good. It feels good to be the good guy. It feels good to know who the bad guys are. It feels especially good to triumph as the good guy, and put the bad guys in their place. Taleb is embarrassingly forthright about his own heroism: “Truth and Reason prevail and those who take the most risk for the sake of Truth will be the heroes.” Do you think he’s talking about anyone other than himself? He’s wrong, though. The thing about being a hero or a good guy is that they’re meaningless labels if you write them on your own nametag. Humans are too subjective and too biased to reliably tell whether we’re the good guys–which makes it especially foolish to abandon any pretense at objectivity. Taleb doesn’t know for sure whether he’s in the right, and he can’t seriously scrutinize his own position if doing so means admitting he was wrong to scream insults at the people he hates.
Taleb’s not going to take my advice on this. I criticized him, which makes me not worth listening to. But you can do something about it to protect science communication and just plain old civility. If you agree with Taleb’s overall position regarding GMOs, have a conversation about it. Don’t scream “shill!” to escape the conversation, really get into it. Discuss the evidence. You don’t need to agree or even understand it right away. If you can’t have that conversation, you aren’t in a position to make an informed decision about whether he’s right on the merits or not.
And if you don’t agree with Taleb’s position on GMO’s, have a conversation about it. His infantile behavior is dangerous because it poisons the well from which we all drink; don’t let it. Offer and participate in meaningful conversations all the same. People like Taleb won’t participate, and we can’t change that. But we don’t have to. In the long run, refusing to have a conversation is a self-limiting strategy. By trying to disqualify everyone who disagrees with him from civilized debate, Taleb and those who follow his tactics merely disqualify themselves.