Taleb’s CV

Part 1: Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Thin-Skin In The Game

Going through Taleb’s CV, it’s not as impressive as its length suggests. Owing to his large media presence, getting published in some journals is easier, and a lot of his papers are duplicates of the Black Swan concepts. There are also a lot of opinion and policy pieces, which may not count as being scientific. Other papers are collaborations such as with Emanuel Derman. Here’s one such paper on the CV, which is very short and is not particularity new or novel. Although Einstein’s special relativity paper was also very short, typically a substantive research document is at least a dozen of pages (in order to sufficiently convey the significance of the new finding. Owing to all the ‘low hanging’ fruit being picked in competitive fields such as finance, finance, and math, it has been my observation papers typically have to quite long), but all of Taleb’s papers are extremely short.

A 2004 paper by Taleb, Bleed or Blowup? Why Do We Prefer Asymmetric
Payoffs?
, comes in at only 15 pages including illustrations and an inordinately long list of references for such a short paper, and is very light on math and data analysis. Also the subject of asymmetric payoffs was not a new concept at the time. I doubt this would even pass for a master’s thesis.

It shows it was published in the JOURNAL OF BEHAVIORAL FINANCE, which sounds prestigious because behavioral finance is an important topic that has received considerable attention in recent years, so therefore it must be an important journal, right? Nope. Wikipedia shows an impact factor of .2 – putting it at the bottom of the heap:

According to the Journal Citation Reports, the journal [1] has a 2010 impact factor of 0.262, ranking it 71st out of 76 journals in the category “Business, Finance”,[2] and 256th out of 305 journals in the category “Economics”.[3]

That’s pretty bad. In contrast, the Journal of Finance has an impact factor of 4, putting it among the top five most prestigious economics journals in the world.

Counterintuitively, the prestige of a journal tends to be inversely proportional to its specificity. The titles ‘Journal of Finance’ and ‘Journal of Quarterly Economics’ sound very broad, but they are also among the most prestigious economics journals. These journals will publish papers covering a wide variety of topics – trade policy, securities regulation, financial mathematics, quantitative finance, microeconomics, econometrics, behavioral finance – provided the research is of a high enough caliber. Lesser quality papers tend to get published in more specific-sounding journals, with long, keyword-rich titles such as Journal of Statistical Economic Methods.

The handful of papers in the CV are all sparse and published in obscure, low-impact journals. Is this a conspiracy to suppress his research? No, his research just isn’t that novel and or original. Rare events happen, people occasionally underestimate risk, and options have asymmetric payoffs. Big deal.

Also it’s extremely easy to pad a CV. Einstein is reported too have published ‘over 200 papers’ but most of these of variants of his majors work (the stochastic model of Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, general relativity (along with Hilbert), and special relativity (mass-energy equivalence)). Major ideas can be broken apart into smaller papers, along with applications of said theories, turning a handful of ideas into hundreds of papers. Listing TV appearances, which the vast majority of people won’t verify, is another way to pad a CV. Russia Today, for example, will have almost anyone on.

Late mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota describes how duplicate results, or variants of a single results, can be published in multiple journals:

As I looked through his Collected Papers however, another picture emerged. The editors had gone out of their way to publish every little scrap Riesz had ever published. It was clear that Riesz’ publications were few. What is more surprising is that the papers had been published several times. Riesz would publish the first rough version of an idea in some obscure Hungarian journal. A few years later, he would send a series of notes to the French Academy’s Comptes Rendus in which the same material was further elaborated. A few more years would pass, and he would publish the definitive paper, either in French or in English. Adam Koranyi, who took courses with Frederick Riesz, told me that Riesz would lecture on the same subject year after year, while meditating on the definitive version to be written. No wonder the final version was perfect.

So that’s pretty much what Taleb has been doing for the past decade…milking this ‘Black Swan’ concept for all it’s worth, to the tune of millions of dollars in book deals and lots TV appearances, talks, and mediocre papers.

Part 3: Taleb’s Real world Risk Institute

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