There was a New Yorker cartoon someone gave to me: Mensa Does Improv. “We’ll need a suggestion of a place, an occupation, a family member, an extinct language, a Byzantine Despot, a transuranic element, and a word that contains every vowel.” Right up my alley, though I thought Bela III was Bela IV. So sue me. I can stand back and admire the ridiculousness of that knowledge, because I know almost nothing about the difficult ones. Just enough to make an answer. So when Taleb was criticizing that I nodded automatically. But going back and rereading what he wrote, in light of the (excellent) comments here, NNT is saying something a bit different. It is not so much superficial knowledge – which can, in fact, at least give you some structure – but that the purportedly deeper knowledge generally isn’t. The college professors and popular authors are going to be actively damaging, because they will teach you things that aren’t so. They will sound plausible, because plausibility is their stock-in-trade. But they won’t actually hold up under scrutiny. You will have to unleartn things in order to become wiser.
Consider: there are websites devoted to reporting cockamamie things that some academic is teaching or writing. Conservatives and curmudgeonly types love these stories and they pass them along for enjoyment. There are new idiocies every day, always a fresh supply. I have usually just shrugged and thought to myself “Well, that’s just one knucklehead at one college. Let’s not get carried away thinking that they all believe that.” Yet what other industry tolerates such an enormous amount of quackery, not removing these fools? Where is a med school that has even one professor who says that X-rays are racist? Where are the auto mechanics who insist on indigenous methods of repair, or house painters who insist Western methods are uniquely bad and always oppressive? Is there a burgeoning movement among administrative assistants to switch to other calendars and concepts of time? Lord knows all of these professions get things wrong – but not bizarrely wrong. Cf. Anthropology departments, History departments, where these threads run through many of the courses, and effloresce into the truly absurd at more than one spot. Who else does this?
While writing this, Bird Dog linked to a related section of Taleb’s Antifragile posted at Zero Hedge. I’ll just let Nicholas speak forhimself for a bit.