The Pandemic, Power of Masks, Levels of Risk and More | Nassim Nicholas Taleb on EconTalk

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Key Takeaways

  •  When taking risks, avoid risks of ruin
    • In other words: Take all the risks you want today, but make sure you’re around for tomorrow
  • Collective risk doesn’t scale linearly from individual risk, if one person doesn’t wear a mask and they have COVID, they can put the lives of many others at risk
    • “It’s just like wearing a mask. I wear a mask not for myself, but because a person I’m going to infect will infect maybe 10 more” – Nassim Taleb
  • Wearing a mask is a small risk (uncomfortable and hot) but a big reward (stops the spread of COVID)
    • “You reduce the chances that you are asymptomatically spreading a deadly disease to, potentially, as you say, dozens of people” – Nassim Taleb
  • Pandemics rarely happen, but when they do they cause an existential risk so it’s important to stop them early on
    • “Pandemics are the fattest-tailed thing, and that you got to kill them in the egg” – Nassim Taleb
  • Nassim isn’t a fan of the World Health Organization: “It’s a bureaucratic organization that has been devastating for mankind because of its incompetence.” – Nassim Taleb
  • Science is not about evidence. Science is about properties.
    • E.g: There are no clinical data on whether it’s unsafe to jump from an airplane without a parachute at 35,000 feet, but since we understand gravity, we don’t need a clinical study
  • Averages and forecasting are a lot less useful in science than people think

Intro

Books Mentioned

Taking Risks

  • There’s a big a difference between medium-size variations at the individual level and systemic at the system level
    • E.g.: Jumping 1 meter 20 times will make you stronger but jumping 20 meters 1 time will likely kill you
  • When taking risks, avoid risks of ruin
    • In other words: Take all the risks you want today, but make sure you’re around for tomorrow
      • “Make sure you survive” – Nassim Taleb
  • Collective risk doesn’t scale linearly from individual risk, if one person doesn’t wear a mask and they have COVID, they can put the lives of many others at risk
    • “It’s just like wearing a mask. I wear a mask not for myself, but because a person I’m going to infect will infect maybe 10 more” – Nassim Taleb
      • “Wear a mask not just to protect yourself, but for the systemic effect”
  • Wearing a mask is a small risk (uncomfortable and hot) but a big reward (stops the spread of COVID)
    • “You reduce the chances that you are asymptomatically spreading a deadly disease to, potentially, as you say, dozens of people” – Nassim Taleb
  • Pandemics rarely happen, but when they do they cause an existential risk so it’s important to stop them early on
    • “Pandemics are the fattest-tailed thing, and that you got to kill them in the egg” – Nassim Taleb
  • Even if you survive COVID, there may be some lasting negative effects like damaged lungs
    • “Now they understand that there could be some autoimmune effects and reactions. So, you cannot rule out the effect on young people.” – Nassim Taleb
  • The pandemic has actually made people antifragile or stronger
    • People are now more prepared for the next big pandemic and have adapted to a digital world and working from home 

The Fall of the World Health Organization

  • Nassim isn’t a fan of the World Health Organization (WHO): “It’s a bureaucratic organization that has been devastating for mankind because of its incompetence.” – Nassim Taleb
    • The WHO lied to people about masks because they were worried about a shortage of masks
      • They didn’t realize that people could use other forms of protections like clothing as masks:
        • “They did not realize that there is a market, that the minute you tell people, ‘Hey, wear masks,’ that people would find stuff in their closets that would work perfectly as a barrier, and we wouldn’t be here.” 

Past Plagues

  • The Great Plague of Marseille happened because in 1720,  a ship was owned by the Mayor of Marseilles bypassed the quarantine rules. As a result, the plague spread and about half the population of Marseilles perished.
    • During the Black Death period, cities did not accept any foreigner or any outsider, and even the residents coming back had to go to lazarettos, or the equivalent of quarantine
      • The root word of quarantine means 40 days, which is how long-ship had to stay at bay before entering the city. Today, we know 2 weeks is enough time.

The Limitations of Science

  • Science is not about evidence. Science is about properties.
    • E.g: There are no clinical data on whether it’s unsafe to jump from an airplane without a parachute at 35,000 feet, but since we understand gravity, we don’t need a clinical study
  • Averages and forecasting are a lot less useful in science than people think
    • “It’s important to realize that you can’t work with averages, and you cannot work with forecasting.’ – Nassim Taleb
      • The top 1% of Americans own about 50% of the wealth but Jeff Bezos alone accounts for the main portion of that because he’s worth nearly $200 billion
      • A river that is on average 3 feet deep, can kill you because it can have sections where it’s 60 feet deep 
        • “That means you have a representation of reality, but it’s not describable by an average, nor can it be captured by testing people’s forecasting.’
  • Forecasting works best for thin-tailed distributions like flipping a coin, you’ll likely get in the ballpark of 50% heads and 50% tails
    • One reason forecasting works less well with diseases is that they can mutate
      • “It’s mostly, largely, because diseases, even COVID, which we think know something about it, we know nothing. Because it can mutate.” – Nassim Taleb
  • Nassim isn’t against modeling, he’s against naive modeling:
  • You can’t do linear regression with fat-tails
  • You can’t use correlation when you have non-linear effects

Additional Notes

  • Geronticide is the murder of the elderly
    • The Senate was a council of elders. Senatus is an old person.
      • The Golden Rule of societies: ‘Treat me the way you want to be treated when you’re older, and respect that.’
Econtalk : , , , ,
Notes By Alex Wiec

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