Soul in the Game
By Amy Willis
Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed back flaneur and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The two have had several EconTalk conversations in the past; this episode focused on the COVID pandemic.
The conversation begins with Roberts recounting the exceptional caution he has taken personally since the beginning of the pandemic. Taleb assures him he was right to do so… But why? And why does Taleb still feel secure enough to board a plane overseas? Topics include these as well as broader themes like the goals of scientific inquiry, the moral imperative of masks, the perils of geronticide, and the importance of having soul in the game- as well as skin– when making decisions in times of pandemics.
1- What does Taleb mean when he says that pandemics have the “fattest tails”? How does the risk they pose compare at the individual level versus the systemic level, and why are they an “existential risk?”
2- Taleb delves into the history of pandemics, pointing out how Eurasia successfully dealt with pandemics (think of the account of Genoa and Marseilles, for example). What did this look like? And what does it suggest about what we should have done with regard to COVID in January?
3- What does Taleb mean when he says, “Science is not about evidence. Science is about properties”? And how can uncertainty serve to render decision-making easier?
4- How you can tell a dangerous pandemic (or other fat tail disaster) quickly, according to Taleb? How do we know when we need to worry?
5- How was the bubonic plague “a victory of localism?” What sorts of adaptations do you think will emerge as a result of the COVID pandemic?