Book Review: The Bed Of Procrustes By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

by: The PolyCapitalist

'Most people write so they can remember things, I write to forget' - The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms

Nassim Taleb's latest book is a collection of miscellaneous memorable thoughts (aphorisms), many of which relate to Taleb's disagreement and frustration with the academic economics practiced and publicly promoted by many Nobel prize winning economists.

There are two aspects of the title which warrant further discussion.

First, the term 'aphorism' comes from the classical Greek writings of Hippocrates. Given the various ills in economics which Taleb would like to see fixed, the appeal of referencing the father of medicine is quite clear.

The second aspect of the title, the 'Procrustean Bed', is also borrowed from classical Greece. The mythological figure of Procrustes would cut or stretch people to make them fit into his iron bed. Taleb's view is that many leading economists basically do the economic equivalent by viewing the world in a way so that it fits with their quantitative models, rather than the other way around.

To cut to the chase of this book review, Taleb in person is much better than Taleb's writing in The Bed of Procrustes. I had the privilege of attending the author's book tour presentation at the London School of Economics. The author delighted the audience with comments about how European economists understand better than their American counterparts the difference between the real world and "the stuff you need to work on to get tenure". He speculated on the possible connection between Procrustean Bed-style economics and the prevalence of Asperger syndrome in the upper-echelons of the profession. Taleb also put up on the projector screen a single mathematical proof, and then with bravado sought out challenges from the audience. A handful of brave souls made entertaining efforts to engage in repartee with the sphinx-like professor.

The notion that the field of academic economics is very ill and that economists try to make the world fit their models are Taleb's two key overarching messages. The rest of the book, while often entertaining, is not as engaging or useful as his previous efforts. Many of the book's inner messages also have little or no connection to the author's title theme.

While the book contains a number of pearls, one almost gets the sense that Taleb responded to pressure from his publisher to quickly write a follow-up to the best-selling Black Swan by simply keeping a diary of his miscellaneous quips over the course of a year. If you're new to the writings of Taleb and interested in his wonderfully idiosyncratic mind, I would instead recommend either The Black Swan or Fooled by Randomness. Or even better yet, go see him in person.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.