Feeding off the negative

An extract from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book 'Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder'

Published 8 years ago on Sep 02, 2016 4 minutes Read

Information is antifragile; it feeds more on attempts to harm it than it does on efforts to promote it. For instance, many wreck their reputations merely by trying to defend it.

The wily Venetians knew how to spread information by disguising it as a secret. Try it out with the following experiment in spreading gossip: tell someone a secret and qualify it by insisting that it is a secret, begging your listener “not to tell anyone”; the more you insist that it remain a secret, the more it will spread.

We all learn early on in life that books and ideas are antifragile and get nourishment from attacks—to borrow from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (one of the doer- Stoic authors), “fire feeds on obstacles.” There is the attraction of banned books, their antifragility to interdicts. The first book I read, during my childhood, of Graham Greene’s was The Power and the Glory, selected for no other reason than its having been put on the Index (that is, banned) by the Vatican. Likewise, as a teenager, I gorged on the books of the American expatriate Henry Miller—his major book sold a million copies in one year thanks to having been banned in twenty-three states. The same with Madame Bovary or Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signaling that it is not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing for a book. Consider the Ayn Rand phenomenon: her books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have been read for more than half a century by millions of people, in spite of, or most likely thanks to, brutally nasty reviews and attempts to discredit her. The first-order information is the intensity: what matters is the effort the critic puts into trying to prevent others from reading the book, or, more generally in life, it is the effort in badmouthing someone that matters, not so much what is said. So if you really want people to read a book, tell them it is “overrated,” with a sense of outrage (and use the attribute “underrated” for the opposite effect).

Balzac recounts how actresses paid journalists (often in kind) to write favorable accounts—but the wiliest got them to write unfavorable comments, knowing that it made them more interesting.

I have just bought Tom Holland’s book on the rise of Islam for the sole reason that he was attacked by Glen Bowersock, considered to be the most prominent living scholar on the Roman Levant. Until then I had thought that Tom Holland was just a popularizer, and I would not have taken him seriously otherwise. I didn’t even attempt to read Bowersock’s review. So here is a simple rule of thumb (a heuristic): to estimate the quality of research, take the caliber of the highest detractor, or the caliber of the lowest detractor whom the author answers in print—whichever is lower.

Criticism itself can be antifragile to repression, when the fault finder wants to be attacked in return in order to get some validation. Jean Fréron, said to be a very envious thinker, with the mediocrity of envious thinkers, managed to play a role in intellectual history solely by irritating the otherwise brilliant Voltaire to the point of bringing him to write satirical poems against him. Voltaire, himself a gadfly and expert at ticking off people to benefit from their reactions, forgot how things worked when it came to himself. Perhaps Voltaire’s charm was in that he did not know how to save his wit. So the same hidden antifragilities apply to attacks on our ideas and persons: we fear them and dislike negative publicity, but smear campaigns, if you can survive them, help enormously, conditional on the person appearing to be extremely motivated and adequately angry—just as when you hear a woman badmouthing another in front of a man (or vice versa). There is a visible selection bias: why did he attack you instead of someone else, one of the millions of persons deserving but not worthy of attack? It is his energy in attacking or badmouthing that will, antifragile style, put you on the map.

My great-grandfather Nicolas Ghosn was a wily politician who managed to stay permanently in power and hold government positions in spite of his numerous enemies (most notably his archenemy, my great-great-grandfather on the Taleb side of the family). As my grandfather, his eldest son, was starting his administrative and hopefully political career, his father summoned him to his deathbed. “My son, I am very disappointed in you,” he said. “I never hear anything wrong said about you. You have proven yourself incapable of generating envy.”