Taleb: "The Facts Are True, The News Is Fake"

Authored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb via Medium.com,

(Chapter from Skin in the Game)

How to Disagree with Yourself

In the summer of 2009, I partook of a an hour long discussion with David Cameron, who was in the running for, and later became, the U.K. Prime Minister. The discussion was about how to make society robust, even immune to Black Swans, what structure was needed for both decentralization and accountability, and how the system should be built, that sort of thing. It was an interesting fifty-nine minutes around the topics of the Incerto and I felt great communicating all the points in bulk for the first time.

The room in the elegant Royal Society for the Arts was full of journalists. I subsequently went to a Chinese restaurant in (London’s) Soho to celebrate with a few people when I received a phone call by a horrified friend. All London newspapers were calling me a “climate denier”, portraying me as someone part of a large anti-environment conspiracy.

The entire fifty-nine minutes were summarized by the press and reported from a tangential comment that lasted twenty seconds taken in reverse. Someone who didn’t attend the conference would have been under the impression that that was the whole conversation.

It turned out that I presented my version of the precautionary principle during the conversation, worth restating here. It asserted that one does not need complex models as a justification to avoid a certain action. If we don’t understand something and it has a systemic effect, just avoid it. Models are error prone, something I knew well with finance; most risks only appear in analyses after harm is done. The burden is on those who pollute –or introduce new substances in larger than usual quantities –to show their lack of risk. In fact the more uncertainty about the models, the more conservative one should be. Ironically the same newspapers had lauded The Black Swan in which this very point was fleshed out very clearly.

I managed to defend myself by making a lot of noise, and with explicit legal threats, forced every newspaper to publish my correction. Even then someone at The Guardian tried (unsuccessfully) to tone down my letter by showing that it was some type of disagreement with what I said, not a correction of their misrepresentation. In other words I was disagreeing with myself.

But if I eventually cleared my ideas, thanks to my bully pulpit, other can’t do the same. The London newspapers were actively misrepresenting something to their own public. Someone who read the paper was mistaking the journalist for an intermediary between himself or herself and the product, the piece of news.

[Note Jim Pickard from the FT]

So clearly there is an agency problem. There is no difference between a journalist at The Guardian and the restaurant owner in Milan, who, when you ask for a taxi, calls his cousin who does a tour of the city to inflate the meter before showing up. Or the doctor who willfully misdiagnoses you to sell you a drug in which he has a vested interest.

My Calabrese barber friends, a place to get all the gossip

Journalism isn’t Lindy compatible. Information transmits organically by word-of-mouth, which circulates in a two-way manner. In ancient Rome, people got information without a centralized filter. In the Ancient Mediterranean marketplaces, people talked; they were the receivers and the purveyors of news. Barbers offered comprehensive services; they doubled as surgeons, dispute resolution experts, and news reporters. If people were left to filter their own rumors; they were also part of the transmission. Same with pubs and London coffee houses. In the Eastern Mediterranean (currently Greece and the Levant), condolences were the source of gathering and transmission –and represented the bulk of social life. Dissemination of the news took place at these gathering. My social grandmother would have her “rounds” of visits of condolences some days in Beirut’s then significant Greek Orthodox community, and knew practically everything down to the most insignificant details. If the child of someone prominent flunked an exam, she knew it. Practically every affair in town was detected.

Unreliable people carried less weight than reliable ones. You can’t fool people more than twice.

The period of time that corresponds to the reliance on one-sided accounts such as television and newspapers, which can be controlled by the mandarins, lasted from the middle of the twentieth century until the U.S. elections of 2016. In that sense, social networks, allowing a two-way flow of information, put back the mechanism of tidings in its natural format. As with participants in markets and souks, there is a long term advantage to being dependable.

Further, such an agency problem as that of the current press is systemic, as its interests will keep diverging from that of its own public, until the eventual blowup as we saw with the skewness-fragility theorem. I was less frustrated by the misinterpretation than by the fact that no reader would have realized that ninety-nine percent of my discussion with Cameron was about other things than climate change. If the former could have been a misunderstanding, the latter is a structural defect. And you never cure structural defects; you let the system collapse.

Agora: news and merchandise

The divergence is evident in that journos worry considerably more about the opinion of other journalists than that of the general public. Compare to a healthy system, say that of restaurants. As we saw in the [Lindy Chapter], restaurant owners worry about the opinion of their customers, not those of other restaurant owners, which keeps them in check and prevent the business from straying collectively away from its interests. Further, skin in the game creates diversity, not monoculture. Economic insecurity worsens the condition: journalists are currently in the most insecure profession you can find: the majority lives hand to mouth and ostracism by their friends would be terminal. Thus they become easily prone to manipulation by lobbyists, as we saw with GMOs, the Syrian wars, etc. You say something unpopular in the profession about Brexit, GMOs, Putin, and you become history. This is the opposite of business where me-tooism is penalized.

The Ethics of Disagreement

Now let us get deeper into the application of the Silver Rule in intellectual debates. You can criticize either what a person said or what the person meant. The former is more sensational, hence lends itself more readily to dissemination. The mark of a charlatan –say the journalist Sam Harris, promoteur of pseudo-rationality –is to defend his position or attack a critic by focusing on some of his/her specific statement (“look at what he said”) rather than blasting his exact position (“look at what he means” or, more broadly, “look at what he stands for”), the latter of which requires an extensive grasp of the proposed idea. Note that the same applies to the interpretation of religious texts, often extracted from their broader circumstances.

It is impossible for anyone to write a perfectly rationally argued document without a segment that, out of context, can be transformed by some dishonest copywriter to appear totally absurd and lend itself to sensationalization, so politicians, charlatans and, more disturbingly, journalists hunt for these segments. 

“Give me a few lines written by any man and I will find enough to get him hung” goes the saying attributed to Richelieu, Voltaire, Talleyrand, a vicious censor during the French revolution phase of terror, and a few others.

As Donald Trump said “The facts are true, the news is fake” –ironically at a press conference in which he suffered the same selective reporting as my RSA event.

The great Karl Popper often started with an unerring representation of the opponents positions, often exhaustive, as if he were marketing them as his own ideas, before proceeding to systematically dismantle them. Also, take Hayek’s diatribes Contra Keynes and Cambridge: it was a “contra” but not a single line misrepresents Keynes or makes an overt attempt at sensationalizing. (I have to say that it helped that people were too intimidated by Keynes’ intellect and aggressive personality to risk triggering his ire.)

Read Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, written eight centuries ago; you will notice sections with Questio, then Praeteria, Objectiones, Sed Contra, etc., describing with a legalistic precision the positions being challenged and looking for a flaw in them before submitting a compromise. If you notice a similarity with the Talmud, it is no accident: it appears that both methods originate with Roman pagan legal reasoning.

Note the associated straw man arguments by which one not only extracts a comment but also provides an interpretation, or promotes misinterpretation. As an author, I consider straw man no different from theft.

Some types of lies in an open market cause other traders to treat the perpetrator as if he were invisible. It is not about the lie; it is about the system that requires some modicum of trust. For historically, purveyors of calumnies did not survive in ancient environments.

The principle of charity and the repulsion at its violations are Lindy compatible. Isaiah, 29–21 states: That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought. The wicked ensnare you. Calumny was already a very severe crime in Babylon, where the person who made a false accusation was punished as if he committed the exact crime.

However, in philosophy, the principle –as principle — is only sixty years old. As with other things, if the principle of charity had to become a principle, it is because an old practice had to have been abandoned because of modernity.

*  *  *


One way journalism will self destruct [from its divergence away from the public] is illustrated by the Gawker story. A voyeurism outfit realized that there are tort laws in the U.S. protecting private citizens. America has tort laws and a legal mechanism by which people harmed by corporations can be compensated for it –a mechanism that flourished thanks to Ralph Nader. It, along with the First Amendment, protect citizens by putting skin in the game of the corporations. So eventually Gawker which bullied its financially weaker victims (often twenty-one-year old in revenge porn scenes) got bullied by someone richer and went bankrupt.

What was quite revealing is that journalists sided with Gawker on grounds of “freedom of information”, the most misplaced exploitation of that concept, rather than with the public who sided, naturally, with the victim. Nobody is a saint, nobody wants his or her sexual scenes or private information to spread without some type of punishment; nobody likes the industrialization of voyeurism.


Jim in MN GoingBig Fri, 07/06/2018 - 19:30 Permalink

Dolt.  See you in 2023.....

On topic:  BBC reports that Japan has executed members of the cult that nerve gassed the subway in Tokyo back in the day.  It also reports that these WMD attacks (there were others) were part of the cult's religious practice.

It further reports that thousands of believers remain worldwide.

Now, about that English WMD stuff.....false flag, crazy cultists, lone wolf....or completely obtuse state action by the otherwise rather adroit 'Evil Putineers'?




Tokyo Sarin attack: Aum Shinrikyo cult leaders executed

  • 6 July 2018

In reply to by GoingBig

ChiangMaiXPat GoingBig Fri, 07/06/2018 - 21:23 Permalink

As opposed to someone like Obama, a known homosexual who after his last day in office hopped on a plane to spend an extravagantly relaxed 10 day vacation with two married flaming homosexual movie producers from Hollywood. In essence Obama certainly “trans” formed America by mostly being a fraud, hypocrite but most of all a pathological liar who pretended to be a Christian heterosexual man born in Hawaii evolving on everything from gay marriage, to gay rights, to anti bullying programs (that have increased teen suicide 3 fold), evolved on transgenderism and basically thru lies, deceit and a full court press from corporations and media giants destroyed America’s moral compass. Who benefits? Certainly not children or the future of America? The Obama sycophants dream about licking his chocolate salty balls although ironically he did absolutely nothing for America besides destroy her.

In reply to by GoingBig

SybilDefense chrsn Sat, 07/07/2018 - 04:25 Permalink

MSCALUMNY should be NBC's call letters

I've often wondered why Tyler's doesn't post a story on the owners of corporate media.  The who and the why would be enlightening if the horses mouth could be exposed.  We know Bezos bought Wapo so he can purvey his own agenda and assist a political run opposing the Donald.  who are the others?  Who are their editors.  How does someone like Racheal Maddox get a soapbox?  Why people, why???

In reply to by chrsn

Scipio Africanuz DeaconPews Sat, 07/07/2018 - 19:11 Permalink

I absolutely love and adore Taleb, he's a breath of fresh air in a world intoxicated by polluted sentimental philosophies!

I understand folks on the right despise my stance on a woman's rights to her body, and folks on the left howl at my stance on affirmative actions. Fine, I'll simply ask if there's anybody on this earth, who is invested with the authority to sanction spiritual offenses, the answer is NOBODY! Not the Pope,  Bishop, Imam, Ayatollah, Preacher, or what have you..

The allegorical story goes that Adam was prohibited the fruit of the "Knowledge of Good and Evil", and that his eating of the prohibited fruit, earned him the death sentence.

I'd like folks to go read that story again! God did not kill Adam, Adam committed suicide, by knowingly undertaking action that he was warned against!

First, he committed trespass, then theft, then misrepresentation, then subterfuge, and finally, evasion of responsibility. Put simply, he was no longer fit for purpose. Allegorically, the owner of the garden deported him, to prevent him from committing further trespass that would have made him unable to escape his predicament, eternal life, as a seriously compromised entity, fallen from grace, and yet, unable to shed his burden through death and rejuvenation.

Today, on the right and left, we have folks, who under the pretense of conservative morality, or liberal equality, propose to eat the fruit prohibited Adam, by asserting they know good and evil and thus, must dictate how others live their lives. The template given by God on the other hand, is advisory and persuasive in essence, not dictatorial, or coercive!

All who seek to sanction spiritual offenses, probably don't understand that this was Satan's philosophical stance as well, that what is good or bad, is known only to God, because as subordinate beings, we only see in part, whereas God sees further than we could ever do.

Does this negate understanding of good or bad? Not at all, but it applies only to us, as long as our understanding does NOT infringe on the rights of others!

We are not God to decide how folks live their lives, we are human, and the best we can do, is to live lives that inspires emulation in others. No more, or less, is required, demanded, or expected of us...

In reply to by DeaconPews

Endgame Napoleon Yen Cross Fri, 07/06/2018 - 20:08 Permalink

This guy’s articles are like a class. Wonder if the 2009 controversy aligned with Al Gore’s $1,200 monthly energy bill, which would be his personal business if it did not contradict the green-energy spiel that he peddled, making so much money and receiving so many accolades. It undermines [trust] in his environmental theories. 

In the USA, there are still a few trustworthy journalists that you can depend on to make logical, consistent arguments, mostly the ones who were more prominent in past decades. They still show up in a few internet forums. 

The broadcast news used to feature the more rigorous reporters, whether they excelled in the straight news or editorial debate. Now, they reward gossips and even turn reporters who would not choose to take a gossipy approach—were ratings not the total focus—into gossips.

It is because the media is corporate-owned, but it also filters down to smaller, less mainstream news venues. Americans can thank Peter Thiel for funding that Gawker thing. I usually feel sorry for small businesses, going up against Goliaths, but Gawker went far too far in trying to make a buck off of private foibles.

In a Republic, we have to be able to critique our leaders— mocking them if we choose—including in private matters if it is relevant to public discourse.

But even in terms of covering politicians, it has not served the public to extend freedom of speech to gossip about their sex lives or other private-life issues that have no impact on public policy and suck all of the air out of the newsroom, overshadowing the real economic and other crucial policy issues.

It is one reason why—in a so-called republic—we can never get representation on real issues anymore, and it is money-motivated. 

Rather than forcing a First Amendment issue, the press just self-censored in previous eras, not covering the personal foibles of JFK or LBJ, likely not due to more innate decency, but just due to the reduced credibility that journalists who stooped to pure gossip would have.

Today, journalists don’t self-censor at all in the area of malicious gossip, but do self-censor on serious things, like their failure to address the mammouth lack of labor force participation among citizens or gross underemployment of citizens. They avoid covering serious economic issues that might challenge their corporate owners. 

It is interesting how the internet is providing some corrective. In the 2016 election, the smartphone-armed public just would not allow Access Hollywood gossip to override issues like welfare-buttressed immigration, unfair trade, etc. 

It IS an pushback on trust, manifesting on the internet. He is right. He should write a book about this subject. 

In reply to by Yen Cross

TacticalTrading Endgame Napoleon Fri, 07/06/2018 - 22:29 Permalink

the MSM has turned into a click bait cesspool

For CNN that is coming back to haunt them in terms of ratings and thus cash flow.

the problem is the owner of CNN (well, previous owner) didn't seem to care. 
We can only hope that market forces will eventually prevail.

For the journalists and MSM, let us hope that the market  will remain longer than they can remain liquid (can't remember the exact saying but you know the one I mean)

In reply to by Endgame Napoleon

jmack homiegot Fri, 07/06/2018 - 20:38 Permalink

wait until november, both in market reaction, and mid term elections.  If democrats take the house by more than a slim margin, then trump is not winning.    If we are in a full fledged trade war, and americans, not trump, capitulate and beg trump to capitulate and go back to the staus quo,   then trump is not winning.



    This trade war is actually quite important.  If it does not result in fair trade, there will be world war within 20 years.  That is just a fact.    But if the pain leads to some type of system that allows for holding excesses in unfair trade to account, then the world can stumble along for another long while perhaps, before the confrontation.    But China just seems too willing to confront America, if one of them do not implode in some way, there will be a hot war between China and the US.

In reply to by homiegot

carbonmutant Fri, 07/06/2018 - 19:15 Permalink

The break in reality comes from the fact that you're expecting news and the media is selling entertainment.

If the press can't find something in your presentation to get people excited your content will go unreported.

If it bleeds it leads...

I am Groot carbonmutant Fri, 07/06/2018 - 19:26 Permalink

^Bingo ! News networks make BIGGLY money on any and all controversy being generated by Trump. Most of what he says is normal,everyday stuff. The media either turns it into "Trump Cures All Disease" or "Trump Causes Pandemic" headlines. The media is all about one thing-ratings. There is virtually no world news now that it basically revolves around Trump and his actions and every word that comes out of his mouth. The Marxist media falsely portrays him as Hitler, Satan , Stalin, and every other historical antagonist. all perpetuated by the CIA/Deep State.

In reply to by carbonmutant

Singelguy carbonmutant Fri, 07/06/2018 - 19:32 Permalink

You are exactly right. It is all about ratings. The more sensational the “news” is, the more viewers they attract, and the more advertising revenue they collect. They don’t care if they piss off half their viewers as long as they can attract enough idiots who believe their BS. The TV executives do not give two shits about the truth. It is all about the bottom line and their bonus checks

In reply to by carbonmutant

jmack carbonmutant Fri, 07/06/2018 - 20:30 Permalink

The break is in application of intent.  If a person says something and in the saying of it, they intend to mislead or to lead you astray.  The press has a duty to show that.   But they do the exact opposite in this day and age. 


    You see it in almost all of Trumps quotes, where he is perhaps making a joke, or he is making a general statement which may or may not be of a degree that he implies, but the press always takes it to the extreme, implying that he meant the very worst that he possibly could have meant.   For example, his famous quote about illegal immigration across the souther border where he said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”


and now that is characterized that trump said all immigrants are rapists and murderers.  It is ridiculous.

In reply to by carbonmutant

GoingBig Fri, 07/06/2018 - 19:22 Permalink

Why are people so obsessed with "climate change". I mean honestly, even if it were completely bogus (which I don't believe), isn't clean air enough of an argument to go towards alternatives to carbon based energy? I mean WTF? I lived through LA during the 80's and it sucked. you couldn't see the mountains or anything else. It would only be after a good rain that you could see anything at all. And then they added smog checks to people's cars. And people freaked out and talked about govt overreach. I can tell you there is not 1 person that would rather go back to those days. Almost always the skies in LA are very clear. Go to Shanghai to see how it was in LA. 

Singelguy GoingBig Fri, 07/06/2018 - 19:36 Permalink

Climate change is not bogus. It is real. The climate has been changing for thousands of years. The important question is, how much of it is man made? The second most important question is, what can economically and realistically be done to change it in any significant way? The answer to the first question is likely, very little, and the answer to the second question is: on a global level, nothing. It is all just a massive wealth redistribution scheme to wring more tax dollars out of the people.

In reply to by GoingBig

Endgame Napoleon GoingBig Fri, 07/06/2018 - 20:33 Permalink

Most of us lack the scientific background to offer any informed opinion on whether human activity controls weather patterns, but assuming scientists are right, we cannot control what the communist / mercantilist country of China does.

The Chinese are going to go right on doing what they need to do to feed 1 billion humans, including being the world’s biggest coal producer, regardless of the environmental damage.

How does sacrificing 5 million industrial breadwinner jobs, whittling down the US middle class to a sliver and ceding the potential SS-retirement fund contributions save the environment when China keeps right on polluting?

On environmental issues, the world is forcibly intertwined, but we cannot force another nation to actually make any sacrifices, although they may fake it for PR purposes. All we can do is sacrifice our own country’s broad-based middle-class prosperity.

I notice that the people who do not need to worry about securing a job that pays enough to cover a full range of living expenses, like Al Gore, are always the first to put environmental aesthetics ahead of a roof over their heads. 

In reply to by GoingBig

Zappalives Fri, 07/06/2018 - 19:23 Permalink

Thank the rapist bill clinton for 6 mega corps controlling our news.

In a sane world......that treasonous globalist would be in prison or worse.

shovelhead Zappalives Fri, 07/06/2018 - 19:52 Permalink

Long before Clinton.

Even our little city paper, owned by a guy who ran for state Senate, refused to print his opponents ads, even when he discussed only issues that directly concerned our area. No attempt to look non-partisan or even handed. None.

He squeaked in by the thinnest margin possible and that raised questions about some ballot fiddling. Oddly enough, his daughter didn't cover that story. His subscription level dropped like a stone after the election. Around here, people believe in fair play and don't care to be treated like fools. Poor behavior has consequences.

Oddly enough, Wifey's library Facebook page has become the local alternative news outlet and someone else has started a local free ads page for the county. They're killing the local paper and nobody will miss it.

Big city folks are easier to bamboozle and will put up with a lot more bullshit from a newspaper.

In reply to by Zappalives

Endgame Napoleon Zappalives Fri, 07/06/2018 - 20:47 Permalink

The ruinous policy directions—like NAFTA, MFN and unfettered, welfare-fueled immigration—were made or accelerated under Bill Clinton. Like you say, the corporate-owned mega-press mostly ignored those serious issues, finding its money-making legs. Reporters found out they could make a ton of money for their corporate bosses via political sex gossip. I could be remembering it from the perspective of youth, but I am pretty sure that, in the Eighties, there was more policy debate, even in the broadcast media. They did it in an entertaining style, but it was still more substantive than the post-Clinton-sex-scandal journalism.

In reply to by Zappalives