The Bed of Procrustes, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Bed of Procrustes

The Bed of Procrustes is a book of aphorisms by the author of the well-known The Black Swan. (I read The Black Swan years ago and thought it had an interesting central insight, but I don’t recall being particularly impressed at how that insight was padded out to book length.) It was loaned to me; it’s not a book I likely would have chosen on my own.

Procrustes is a figure from Greek mythology who is said to have had a practice of inviting an overnight guest to his estate, treating him with great hospitality, and then if he wasn’t the exact right length for his assigned bed, Procrustes would chop off part of his legs or stretch his body until he was.

The main point of The Black Swan is that people are overconfident in predicting the future because they fail to take into account that fluke things happen. Indeed, when predictions fail due to a fluke, they are often excused precisely because flukes are unpredictable. (“After all, how could anyone have known…?”) However, that some fluke or other will happen so as to derail a prediction is actually pretty darn likely in a lot of cases, so there’s little reason to have confidence in most predictions.

The main point of The Bed of Procrustes is:

We humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp, commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences. Further, we seem unaware of this backward fitting, much like tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly fitting suit—but do so by surgically altering the limbs of their customers. For instance, few realize that we are changing the brains of schoolchildren through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse.

A promising idea—the last sentence contains a terrific example—but I’m not convinced all the aphorisms particularly fit this theme. Maybe if you really worked at it you could force them all to come under this idea in some very loose sense, but the book reads more as a collection of whatever happens to be on Taleb’s mind that he wants to share.

That is, I doubt he came up with 500 aphorisms and then picked just the 200 that fit this theme, and discarded the rest or saved them for another project. I suspect these are all his prized aphorisms, and their fit with the theme is a secondary consideration.

Anyway, as far as the quality of the observations, I think they’re very much a mixed bag. None of them hit home with me in a big way, but there are a few that I thought have some insight to them and manifest a sharp, unconventional way of looking at things.

On the other hand, there are at least as many that strike me as simplistic and almost certainly wrongheaded. And a greater number that maybe have some promise but need a fleshed out argument rather than some throwaway inscrutable remark.

I know in part that’s just the nature of the beast with aphorisms, so you could say the problem I have is with this literary genre rather than with his specific use of it. On the other hand, he’s the one who chose to use this method. He can’t very well say, “Oh, but I can’t argue for my positions, because then they wouldn’t be aphorisms,” because no one has a gun to his head saying he has to communicate solely in aphorisms.

Insofar as he addresses this matter in the Postface, his stance basically is that if you don’t understand his aphorisms and agree with them, then that just shows how dumb you are, and he shouldn’t be expected to have to explain or defend anything.

That’s indicative of his attitude throughout the book. Frankly the guy comes across as an arrogant prick. He doesn’t just look down on the masses, he looks down on intellectuals and elites at least as much, and indeed he looks down on modern life in general. He prefers to associate himself with the greatest folks of ancient Greece and Rome and such, though one suspects that if they were his contemporaries he’d find them also unworthy of him.

All his aphorisms about how great men (i.e., people like him of course) handle criticism and manifest magnanimousness toward their lessers and such, serve as an unintentional reminder that what great men probably don’t do is spend so much time patting themselves on the back and reminding everyone how great they are and how clueless everyone else is.

He seems like he’d be a miserable person to know, I guess unless you were the rare sort he recognized as a fellow genius (which you almost certainly aren’t if you haven’t been dead for centuries).

His disparagement of academia is tiresome and repetitive, about as hackneyed as reading conservatives harumphing about “the Hollywood Left.”

OK, we get it: “Those who can’t do, teach”—economists and other social scientists are just a bunch of boobs dealing in meaningless abstractions because they could never cut it in the “real world” where their livelihood depended on being right.

The thing is, there could be some merit to some of the criticisms, if they were narrowed and adequately argued for. But any criticism of merit like that is far more likely to come from within academia than from someone taking simplistic contemptuous potshots from outside.

There’s nothing stopping an economist, say, from writing a paper claiming that there’s something fundamentally flawed about how most people in the discipline are approaching their subject matter. It’s not like that can’t happen because you can’t see the flaws from the inside; people in academic disciplines criticize each other and suggest new approaches all the time. It’s just that they regard themselves as obligated to present cogent arguments for their suggestions.

But for a lot of his aphorisms, evidently I’m just not on his lofty level and thus not able to appreciate them. Take:

Those who think religion is about belief don’t understand “religion,” and don’t understand “belief.”

There’s a (small) chance there’s something to this, and a pretty darn good chance it’s meaningless drivel. If the Great One were willing to lower himself to actually explaining and defending his conceptions of “religion” and “belief,” and showing, with examples, how people have commonly misunderstood these concepts and thus made mistaken claims about the relation between them, I’d be happy to listen. (Yeah, I know—then it wouldn’t be an aphorism.) But that would take work, and leave him vulnerable. The more you clarify and explain something, the more visible any flaws become. But if you just make grand, vague pronouncements, people can read into them whatever they agree with, and appreciate your brilliant pithiness.

So for now I’ll go with “meaningless drivel” until proven otherwise.

There are a few, though, that strike me as worthwhile reminders to question conventional beliefs and values. For example:

For soldiers, we use the term “mercenary,” but we absolve employees of responsibility with “everybody needs to make a living.”

I think this gets at a very common, and execrable, attitude. It’s one that one comes across all the time in a contemporary capitalist society.

It’s the notion that something which would otherwise be objectionable becomes unobjectionable if you make money by doing it.

In this context I always think of an exchange I saw on a posting forum once where someone was being criticized for using spam e-mails. He explained how it made sense economically, how the amount it cost was less than the amount of money it made him in extra business. Everyone who disagreed brought up practical considerations about how in the long run you’ll offend so many people it’ll actually hurt your business, or you’ll hurt yourself by ruining your relationship with certain e-mail services, or you might run into certain legal trouble by marketing that way, etc.

Whereas my reaction reading all that is “How in the world is ‘I’ll make more money doing X’ a defense of doing X in the first place?” You’re choosing actions that make the world a little bit worse place; that you’re being paid to do so isn’t a justification. At least no more so than if someone were to defend his misdeeds in a communist state by pointing out that they were looked upon favorably by the Party and would help advance his career.

Taleb has several good ones like that about conventional employment and conventional business practices, highlighting how we’ve come to see things as somehow natural and even praiseworthy that are really perverse and destructive wastes of life.

So a few gems, but more that are anything but. (But then again, I’m not Marcus Aurelius, so I can’t be expected to appreciate such incomparable wisdom.)

Here’s my aphorism to sum up the book:

Don’t expect anything that would fit in a fortune cookie to be of more than minimal value.

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