Watching Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books, engage on twitter, is like being ringside at a verbal boxing match with the intellectual equivalent of Clubber Lang, the snarling, contemptuous boxer played by Mr. T in Rocky 3. In the movie, Clubber Lang was so mean and nasty the performance was almost a parody. When you see Taleb go ballistic on Twitter, as he often does, you wonder similarly if the guy is truly an angry asshole of the highest order, or if it's just some performance schtick by an egghead scholar trying to liven up his day. Then again, he can't seem to help himself: The guy did get into it one time with a parody Twitter account. As one observer noted:
Taleb has a propensity for being quite combative on Twitter, on topics ranging from bonds to GMOs, and Taleb will fight with just about anybody.
Yeah, you could say that again. Some people, such as the economist Noah Smith, make allowances for Taleb's bad behavior:
Nassim Taleb is a vulgar bombastic windbag, and I like him a lot.
But Taleb is more than just a venomous, preening, brawler. It's not enough for him to slug it out with real and imagined adversaries (including journalists). He has to smear their reputations with innuendo. I learned this myself when I engaged with Taleb some months ago. I saw that he was circulating a paper on GMOs and I asked to interview him. He declined and then asked:
!! RT @nntaleb: @keithkloor BTW do you get (indirect) funding from GMO corporations? Can you state this here (which is on the record)? — keith kloor (@keithkloor) August 13, 2014
Now I see that he has just lobbed a similar spitball at David Ropeik. Apparently it was prompted by Ropeik's response to this tweet:
Interesting paper from @nntaleb and co on new rationale for v specific precaution on GM http://t.co/2GI0AJZ6ye. — Jack Stilgoe (@Jackstilgoe) October 30, 2014
Ropeik chimed in with a dim view of the paper:
@Jackstilgoe@2020science@nntaleb Anti GMO advocacy masquerading as ostensibly rational argument. So many examples. Anti-Monsanto? — david ropeik (@dropeik) October 30, 2014
Which elicited this response from Taleb:
Can someone do background check on David Ropeik (journo & advocate of GMOs corrupting "risk perception") to see who finances him? @dropeik — Nassim NicholنTaleb (@nntaleb) October 30, 2014
Can someone do a background check on Taleb's fragile ego to see what makes him so averse to criticism? UPDATE: This review of Taleb's work by another economist is really interesting and worth reading. And so is this recent analysis of the GMO paper he's been circulating the past few months. UPDATE 2: It's worth noting that Taleb also willfully shuts out views he can't abide:
I block science journalists very quickly: they tend to not understand the gap between small and extreme differences (nonlinearity).@Grurray — Nassim NicholنTaleb (@nntaleb) November 4, 2014
UPDATE 3: At Medium, David Ropeik has written a thorough deconstruction of Taleb's GMO paper.