Nassim Nicholas Taleb, writer of Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Rules of Chance in Life and Markets and a contributor to What We believe But Cannot Prove, believes that most of what we are taught outside of the physical sciences is unreliable and offers us little by way of useful information.
Taleb writes, “We are good at fitting explanations to the past, all the while living in the illusion that we understand the dynamics of history.
“I believe there is a severe overestimation of knowledge in what I call the ‘ex-post’ historical disciplines, meaning almost all of social science (economics, sociology; political science) and the humanities – everything that depends on the nonexperimental analysis of past data. I am convinced that these disciplines do not provide much understanding of the world – or even of their own subject matter. Mostly, they fit a narrative that satisfies our desire (even need) for a story. The implications defy conventional wisdom: You do not gain much by reading the newspapers, history books, analyses, economic reports; all you get is misplaced confidence about what you know. The difference between a cab driver and a history professor is only one of degree; the latter is probably better at expressing himself . . .
. . . I am convinced, yet cannot prove quantitatively, that such overestimation of our knowledge can be generalized to any sort of narrative based on past information and lacking experimental verification. The economists got caught because we have data and means to check the quality of their knowledge; the historians, the news analysts, the biographers, the pundits can all hide a little longer. It is said that ‘The wise see things coming’. To me the wise are those who know they cannot see things coming”.
How would his conclusions sit with Christian faith? His rejection of a whole lot of conventional wisdom would seem worrying. Isn’t being a Christian about having a narrative, a story that explains things? It is. But we believe the story we tell through faith; if it could be tested by experiments, it would not be faith. Furthermore, the idea that the wise are those who cannot see things coming corresponds to both Old Testament prophecy and the teaching of Jesus.
The Old Testament prophet Malachi writes of God’s unpredictability, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. Malachi 3:1-2
Jesus dismisses the idea that the wise are those who can see things coming. In Saint Mark he tells his listeners, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!” Mark 13:31-34
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s conclusions may not be so radical after all.