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Education Bookcast

Mar 30, 2020

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a former options trader who noticed that the financial markets were unstable ahead of the crash in 2008, and made a lot of money from shorting the market (betting that it would crash). Since then, he has written a quadrilogy of books on risk and decision-making under uncertainty which he calls the incerto. The books in the series are Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, Antifragile, and the one I cover in this episode, Skin in the Game. At least two of his books - The Black Swan and Antifragile - have now made it as concepts and vocabulary of popular parlance. 

Taleb is a very well-read and insightful author. He follows a philosophy of education in the extremes - a combination of long library visits and street fights, to paraphrase his own description. More accurately, he spent much of his teenage years reading stacks of books at home while bombs went off outside, as he was a civilian during the Lebanese Civil War. His writing has generated a following, and his erudition inspired me years ago to try to read as much as I could - something that ultimately influenced my decision to start this podcast.

Taleb's writing is fiery, to say the least, as he pulls no punches to those who he finds morally abhorrent, which seems to be a large section of the population. His favourite targets are economists and journalists, and in a way that is what Skin in the Game is all about - the moral peril of people who don't take risks.

The reason for covering this book on the podcast is quite self-reflective. If education commentators aren't teachers themselves, if they don't have to test their ideas by actually carrying them out and seeing them succeed or fail, if it doesn't hurt them when they are wrong, then what's to stop them blindly commentating with full confidence, even if they don't know what they're talking about? What's to stop them bullshitting their way to fame and fortune? What's to stop them polluting the idea space with worthless junk to make themselves sound good?

This is exactly the sort of trap that I feel that some commentators may have fallen into - and one that I am in danger of falling into myself. As I enter the first year in almost a decade when I am not teaching in any capacity, might I lose contact with reality? Might I not end up selling snake oil? The danger is real.

So, this episode is largely a moral discussion, as well as a personal reflection. I think we should be aware of the effect that risk profiles have on the incentives of people within a particular domain - in this case, education.

Enjoy the episode.