Sunday, March 25, 2012

Calories Are Not Just Calories

"Another way to view the connection to the Black Swan idea is as follows. Classical thermodynamics produces Gaussian variations, while informational variations are from Extremistan. Let me explain. If you consider your diet and exercise as simple energy deficits and excesses, with a straight calorie-in, calorie-burned equation, you will fall into the trap of misspecifying the system into simple causal and mechanical links. Your food intake becomes the equivalent of filling up the tank of your new BMW. If, on the other hand, you look at food and exercise as activating metabolic signals, with potential metabolic cascades and nonlinearities from network effects, with recursive links, then welcome to complexity, hence Extremistan. Both food and workouts provide your body with information about stressors in the environment. As I have been saying throughout, informational randomness is from Extremistan. Medicine fell into the trap of using simple thermodynamics, with the same physics envy, and the same mentality, and the same tools as economists did when they looked at the economy as a web of simple links. And both humans and societies are complex systems."
That's philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the new section, 'On Robustness and Fragility' in the updated edition of The Black Swan. It's a bit jargon-heavy, but goofy neologisms are a signature trait of Taleb's, and probably constrains original thinking less compared to other more stylistically-traditional authors. It's just a taste of what's to come in his forthcoming book 'Antifragility,' which extends the ideas in Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan into positive territory, rather than just negative (e.g. discussing what we can and should do, rather than just what we can't and shouldn't). Expect fascinating sections on economics, philosophy of biology, epistemology, medicine, and nutrition.

For a further preview, check out this great EconTalk interview with Taleb. I'm especially excited to get Taleb's full take on the potential health benefits of fasting, especially after reading this great cover story in Harper's.

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