Antifragile Quote 24 – Academia Does Not Help Wealth Creation

Nobody discusses the possibility of the birds’ not needing lectures—and nobody has any incentive to look at the number of birds that fly without such help from the great scientific establishment.

So the illusion grows and grows, with government funding, tax dollars, swelling (and self-feeding) bureaucracies in Washington all devoted to helping birds fly better.

The Soviet-Harvard illusion (lecturing birds on flying and believing that the lecture is the cause of these wonderful skills) belongs to a class of causal illusions called epiphenomena.

Whenever an economic crisis occurs, greed is pointed to as the cause, which leaves us with the impression that if we could go to the root of greed and extract it from life, crises would be eliminated. Further, we tend to believe that greed is new, since these wild economic crises are new. This is an epiphenomenon: greed is much older than systemic fragility.

one journalist (Anatole Kaletsky) saw the influence of Benoît Mandelbrot on my book Fooled by Randomness, published in 2001 when I did not know who Mandelbrot was.

Academia is well equipped to tell us what it did for us, not what it did not—hence how indispensable its methods are. This ranges across many things in life. Traders talk about their successes, so one is led to believe that they are intelligent—not looking at the hidden failures.

The real world relies on the intelligence of antifragility, but no university would swallow that—just as interventionists don’t accept that things can improve without their intervention.

It would seem a reasonable investment if one accepts the notion that university knowledge generates economic wealth. But this is a belief that comes more from superstition than empiricism.

That very same day I stopped reading economic reports. I felt nauseous for a while during this enterprise of “deintellectualization”—in fact I may not have recovered yet.

People with too much smoke and complicated tricks and methods in their brains start missing elementary, very elementary things. Persons in the real world can’t afford to miss these things; otherwise they crash the plane. Unlike researchers, they were selected for survival, not complications.

So I saw the less is more in action: the more studies, the less obvious elementary but fundamental things become; activity, on the other hand, strips things to their simplest possible model.

To our great excitement, we had proof after proof that traders had vastly, vastly more sophistication than the formula. And their sophistication preceded the formula by at least a century. It was of course picked up through natural selection, survivorship, apprenticeship to experienced practitioners, and one’s own experience.

Practitioners don’t write; they do. Birds fly and those who lecture them are the ones who write their story. So it is easy to see that history is truly written by losers with time on their hands and a protected academic position.

No, we don’t put theories into practice. We create theories out of practice. That was our story, and it is easy to infer from it—and from similar stories—that the confusion is generalized. The theory is the child of the cure, not the opposite—ex cura theoria nascitur.

And take a look at Vitruvius’ manual, De architectura, the bible of architects, written about three hundred years after Euclid’s Elements. There is little formal geometry in it, and, of course, no mention of Euclid, mostly heuristics, the kind of knowledge that comes out of a master guiding his apprentices. (Tellingly, the main mathematical result he mentions is Pythagoras’s theorem, amazed that the right angle could be formed “without the contrivances of the artisan.”) Mathematics had to have been limited to mental puzzles until the Renaissance.

Cooking schools are entirely apprenticeship based.


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