Nassim Taleb: Financial risk analyst turned anti-GMO propagandist

Updated on November 29, 2017 | People
PROFILE DETAILS

Name
Nassim Taleb
Birthdate
1960|01|01
Education
PhD, management science
Occupation
Author, academic

Nassim Taleb is a a professor and risk analyst best known for his 2007 book The Black Swan, which criticized the risk management methods used by the finance industry and warned about financial potential crises. More recently he has emerged as a outspoken opponent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and claims they will not help address hunger or malnutrition issues.

In the debate about GMOs, Taleb is perhaps best known for the paper titled "The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms)". He and four colleagues – Yaneer Bar-Yam, Rupert ReadRaphael Douady and Joseph Norman – wrote a paper, The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms, updated in October 2014, in which they claim to bring risk theory and the Precautionary Principle to the issue of whether GMOS might introduce “systemic risk” into the environment. Taleb cautions that GMOs should not be made available to the public until incontrovertible scientific evidence proves they are safe. He portrays GMOs as a 'castrophe in waiting' — and has taken to personally lashing out at those who challenge his conclusions — and, calling them "imbeciles" or paid shills.

The crux of Taleb's claims: There is no comparison between conventional selective breeding of any kind, including mutagenesis which requires the radiation or chemical dousing of seeds (and has resulted in more than 2500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, almost all available in organic varieties) versus what his calls the top-down engineering that occurs when a gene is taken from an organism and transferred to another (ignoring that some forms of genetic engineering, including gene editing, do not involve gene transfers). Taleb goes on to argue that the chance of ecocide, or the destruction of the environment and potentially of humans, increases incrementally with each additional transgenic trait introduced into the environment. In other words, in his mind genetic engineering is a classic "black swan" scenario.

In 2014, he accused Anne Glover, then the European Union’s chief scientist, and one of the most respected scientists in the world, of being a "dangerous imbecile" for arguing that GM crops and foods are safe and that Europe should apply science based risk analysis to the GMO approval process — views reflected in summary statements by hundreds of independent science organization in the world. Taleb's comment was widely circulated by anti-GMO activist web sites.

Neither Taleb nor any of the co-authors has any background in genetics or agriculture or food, or even familiarity with the Precautionary Principle as it applies to biotechology, which they liberally invoke to justify their positions.

Career

Taleb was born in Amioun, Lebanon, to Minerva Ghosn and Najib Taleb, a physician, an oncologist and a researcher in anthropology. His parents were Greek Orthodox Lebanese with French citizenship, and he attended a French school there, the Grand Lycée Franco-Libanais.[1] His family saw its political prominence and wealth reduced by the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975. During the war, Taleb studied for several years in the basement of his family's home.[2]

Both sides of his family were politically prominent in the Lebanese Greek Orthodox community. On his mother's side, his grandfather, Fouad Nicolas Ghosn, and his great-grandfather, Nicolas Ghosn, were both deputy prime ministers. His paternal grandfather was a supreme court judge; his great-great-great-great grandfather, Ibrahim Taleb, was a governor of the Ottoman semi-autonomous Mount Lebanon Governorate in 1861.[3] Taleb has described himself as Greek Orthodox. The Taleb family Palazo, built in 1860 by Florentine architects for his great-great-great-great grandfather, still stands in Amioun.[4]

Taleb received his bachelor and master in science degrees from the University of Paris. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in Management Science (his thesis was on the mathematics of derivatives pricing) from the University of Paris (Dauphine) under the direction of Hélyette Geman.

A polyglot, Taleb has a literary fluency in English, French, and classical Arabic; a conversational fluency in Italian and Spanish; and can read classical texts in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and ancient Hebrew, as well as the Canaanite script.[5]

He often works with Yaneer Bar Yam at the New England Complex Systems Institute with whom he is a co-author of the GMO-critical "Black Swan" report.

Criticism

  • Anti-GMO statistician Taleb defends homeopathy by Debunking Denialism, November 2015: "Over a year ago, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb co-wrote an ignorant paper on the precautionary principle and its supposed lethal application to genetically modified foods. In it, the authors made several errors. They asserted, without evidence, that genetically modified crops are more dangerous than conventional crops and failing to consider the benefits of GM crops in preventing vitamin a deficiency, blindness and death (instead falsely comparing it to letting poor people play Russian roulette to get out of poverty)... Taleb has now gone full-blown anti-science. In a couple of recent tweets, he went so far as to defend homeopathy at length..."
  • Taleb on GMOs: An Advocate Hiding in an Intellectual's Clothes by David Ropeik, 2015: "The noted Nassim Nicholas Taleb and colleagues published some thoughts late last year about why the Precautionary Principle should be applied to agricultural biotechnology, more commonly known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Their argument appears thoughtful and erudite, but more closely examined, it reveals itself to be anti-GMO advocacy masquerading as intellectual argument, based on fears of the technology that have no basis in fact and which deny basic evolutionary biology.
  • Is Nassim Taleb a “dangerous imbecile” or on the pay of anti-GMO activists? by Jon Entine, November 3, 2014: "He claims that the rapidity of the genetic changes using the rDNA technique does not allow the environment to equilibrate. Yet rDNA techniques are actually among the safest crop breeding techniques in use today because each rDNA crop represents only one to two genetic changes that are more thoroughly tested than any other crop breeding technique. The number of genetic changes caused by hybridization or mutagensis techniques are orders of magnitude higher than rDNA methods. And no testing is required before widespread monoculture-style release. Even selective breeding likely represents a more rapid change than rDNA techniques because of the more rapid employment of the method today. In essence. Taleb's ecocide argument applies just as much to other agricultural techniques in both conventional and organic agriculture. The only difference between GMOs and other forms of breeding is that genetic engineering is closely evaluated, minimizing the potential for unintended consequences. Most geneticists — experts in this field as opposed to Taleb--believe that genetic engineering is far safer than any other form of breeding."

References

  • Loren Eaton

    Sooo…Taleb misinterprets what is observable and then turns around and defends something that isn’t. Guy’s a stooge.

    • Tatzelwurm

      I think I know where he is coming from – he is saying conventional hybridization techniques, even radiation based mutation, are from what he’d call Mediocristan (i.e. extreme events occurring in this space are limited in impact and do not generally change entire paradigms – simple, scalable, measurable systems where all or most variables and interactions are known and failure states merely place you in a position in a known curve fall into this space – e.g. games, many statistical models, most laboratory experiments). This is because there is likely to be only so far incremental change from a known ‘natural’ base can go wrong.

      GM on the other hand, is an Extremistan risk (i.e. extreme events occurring in this space are potentially ruinous and can change entire paradigms. Generally these are complex systems with massive unknown interactions and a high level of instability – like, you know, the actual real world taken holistically/systemically, or to a lesser degree, the finance markets). This is because there is not usually any way for a gene from, say, a starfish, to get into an apple – but with GM this could possibly be done. What is the interaction/outcome from this? Probably nothing catastrophic, probably something predictable, but if not and you get a Black Swan (an extreme and usually catastrophic unknown unknown) then the outcome could be ruinous.

      The level of risk in Extremistan therefore increase as you (a) make more modifications on top of your unpredictable modifications and (b) have GM organisms interacting with the complexity of the ‘wild’ (i.e. real world environment with all the quirks and unknowns and interlinked system that entails) and also with other GM organisms.

      The key point is the difference between Mediocristan and Extremistan, and this fundamental difference and accurately placing interventions in the correct space while deciding risks and actions, is what usually leads to Black Swans doing so much damage.

      So – Nassim Taleb is objecting because he believes the experts in this field are misunderstanding the risks of their actions – they think they understand the risks, from a conventional risk management and laboratory testable position, but because they are injecting an inheritable, interacting, maybe mutatable, and extremely unnatural change into an incredibly complex system, they actually don’t. He is not likely to be dismissing the potential benefits of GM, so much as stating that the potential benefits (admittedly huge) are far outweighed by the Extremistan risk (which he sees as catastrophic ruination).

      • Jody

        Your first paragraph is where he makes his mistake in argument. He is assuming that in nature extreme genetic changes are limited in impact. Based on what? And what does he mean by extreme? Viral transgenesis occurs naturally, taking genes from one species and inserting them into another. Also, to what extent is a mutation limited in scope? The whole point of bombarding plants with radiation, in the case of mutagenesis, is that you are not certain what is going to come out. Yet, where is the catastrophe? Biology, without human intervention, is a complex system with massive unknown interactions. Genes coming and going constantly, crossing species lines (which are kind of arbitrary), and producing new and wonderful things. Yet all of a sudden when humans get into the action… CATASTROPHE!!!!!! I just don’t buy it. Again, his mistake seems to be that he doesn’t understand biology, which is why biologist are ignoring him, and why he shouldn’t be taken seriously.

        • Tatzelwurm

          Hi Jody. All good points. I have a few comments though.

          Re: genes crossing species barriers – yes, but much much much less often than GM could implement (even more so at a non viral/bacterial level), particularly if it becomes ultra big business. Further this very tendency, when combined with a deliberately engineered gene, could see that engineered gene getting to a place it was never intended to go.

          I would also suggest that random mutation via radiation or chemicals is less likely to generate a potentially wide ranging change because I (possibly incorrectly) assume smaller alterations are likely because if you scramble too many genes then you probably don’t get a viable organism – so I suspect the odds are you would only get smaller/targeted changes. But… I may be way off base in both biology and probability there.

          Still, I’d say using GM you can build a wildly divergent and yet functioning organism very quickly. You could even rebuild something from scratch, I guess. This sounds like it would introduce much more risk.

          Also, if humans are involved you do have to factor in greed, stupidity, and ideology which could create a targeted risk much more swiftly than nature might.

          E.g. Look at the boringly conventional introduction of biocontrols such as cane toads in Australia. Aussies planted sugar cane, had a problem with bugs, introduced cane toads to control that, and the cane toads are now a way bigger problem than the original thing and are quite literally a catastrophic impact on the ecosystem and economy there (though not world ending). To get to this point a number of serious scientific, political, and business types presumably made multiple decisions based on what seemed sound reasoning, and yet it all went wrong and the repercussions are felt to this day- in fact they are getting worse because the toads are still spreading!

          A similar scenario in GM could be unthinkably worse

          A further simple analogy might be computing – there is a continuous struggle going on in that much more simple and controlled (non ‘wild’) space between malware creators, hackers, intelligence agencies and white hat security types. If gene coding became similarly widespread (some way off, I presume) who is to say you don’t get the same thing in time, yet with much deeper impacts, in a much more complex and wild environment?

          On top of all that, even without malicious intent, stupidity, or just unforeseen consequences nature does kick our backsides periodically with new (or in some cases revived ancient) organisms. Or even just known organisms shifting their operating areas due to human intervention (e.g. creating conditions that allow mosquitoes to breed in places they normally wouldn’t, allowing previously minor diseases to have impacts they would not have otherwise had).

          Given all this, I’d say the idea that GM could significantly increase the odd of Black Swans is worth taking seriously…

          So, all up, I think (read as ‘wildly speculate’ since while I have read some of his stuff, I am not totally up to date on his current thinking – I look forward to his next book though) this is why Nassim Taleb is saying we drastically increase our risks by delving into the GM space.

          I am not sure biologists should ignore him, as from my own (admittedly ignorant) point of view I think he may have a point that needs to be explored. I’d like to see more dialogue between him and the subject matter experts to more fully explore risks in this space. His incredibly abrasive, insulting, confrontational, and arrogant manner will not help this to happen though, alas.

          • Stephan Neidenbach

            He fails to even imagine a single risk that doesn’t also apply to nonGM crops. He can make up words like extremistan all he wants, it helps makes his readers feel smarter. But he fails to differentiate the individual product. The new potato only contains new genes from wild potatoes, making it less of a change than a hybrid pluot. His weakness is that he wants to lump all GMOs together and apply the same risk, rather than looking at each one individually.

      • Robert Howd

        The problem with your argument, Tatzelwurm, is that the changes being made through manipulation of specific genes are much more limited and inherently understandable than the plethora of changes occurring through radiation mutation or even hybridization. And when a truly unforeseen event occurs (a change was made accidentally in another gene), what happens is just like what happens with induced or random mutation. If it’s unfavorable, the organism doesn’t thrive; if it’s beneficial, that’s great. So my question for those worrying about the Black Swan is, Why are you so scared of an incidental unforeseen and unknown change occurring when a specific gene-manipulation method is used, compared to the potential changes when a random gene method is used?

        Would it matter to these concerns if you know that no foreign genes are being inserted, that the change is just alteration of a gene the organism already has? That’s the situation with Arctic apples, for instance. If you agree that this is a completely different, and less troublesome manipulation, will you agree that the single label “GMO” is inadequate, misleading, and a potential restraint on good agricultural science?

        • Taztelwurm

          In answer to your question as whether I agree the Arctic apple thing alteration of existing genes is less troublesome – then yes I do. The overarching GMO label encompassing minor tweaks vs major alterations, is probably making it difficult to distinguish between small and likely safe changes, and radical interventions that may not be so safe.

          Further, I think that proper regulation could likely mitigate most extremist risks, while leaving the useful aspects available. This is particularly important as I think that the genie is out of the bottle anyway, so railing against the whole technology is a waste of time. It would be better to see proper regulation and sensible risk assessment going on.

          As for my position on the traditional mutation vs targeted GMO (I wish to note this bit is now going significantly beyond my knowledge level so I may be way off base) – in a nutshell I suspect the odds of a radically altered (arguably even truly alien – not in the sense it is from outer space or from little green men, but in the sense that is effectively generated outside of our environment) organism thriving in an environment which has not seen its like before, and thus increasing odds of unforeseen consequences (whether that be by it doing something directly, or just by reducing diversity and creating a monoculture that is now more vulnerable to collapse from other causes), are much greater via GMO. This is because a GM organism can be truly designed and tweaked to an exact fit to a (possibly radical) spec and to a higher level of success, whereas a mutated one is more scattershot. Thus the odds of a radical organism being viable are increased (?).

          After all – if conventional techniques are not inferior to GM in potential utility and scale, then why is everyone so excited about GM? We’d just stay with conventional techniques?

  • Robert Howd

    When very minor changes are made to a genome, such as in the Arctic apples and several new potato varieties, applying the Precautionary Principle to say these are potentially so dangerous we must prevent them from being marketed – because of the method(s) used to produce them, not any composition of matter – strikes me as abuse of the concept. Shall we carry an umbrella on a sunny summer day just because it might rain? How silly can “precaution” get?

    • Tatzelwurm

      Hmm. Yes, he may be taking a position that is too extreme for minor changes like that (the question being – what changes are being made and could it recombine into something nastier). Of course, I suspect he’d say you would indeed take an umbrella on a sunny day if the consequences of you getting rained on are catastrophic (e.g. you are the wicked witch of the west, or – more sensibly, if I may take your example somewhat further – you went on a mountain hike on a day trip on an easy trail, it was sunny and fine, and you had no wet weather gear or warm clothes. You got lost and then an unexpected storm blew in. Now you are in an (best case) uncomfortable to (worst case) life threatening position. This sort of scenario happens rather a lot because many folk do not understand mountain weather, or they do, yet proceed with a poor decision anyway, for a variety of reasons – e.g. peer group pressure, or sunk cost fallacy, or rushing their decision making, amongst others . This sort of scenario effectively leads to Black Swans – at least as far as the individual is concerned).

      Nassim obviously feels the consequences of GM are potentially that catastrophic. So is he ignorant and over-reacting, or are the GM experts overlooking something for some reason? I believe the feeling here is that he ignorant and over-reacting. Personally, I don’t know (If you would like, please see my other reply to Jody for some more examples as to why).

  • Hahaha. What an industry orthodox crock. I’ll go with Talib any time over this schlock. No authorship. Bogus criticisms. Basically just an ad-hominem screed with bio points for industry spokesparrots. Hey, its easy to defend homeopathy – your paragraph ignores its main benefit – zero side effects, and its main mechanism – the placebo effect. I’ll take ‘useless’ homeopathy over dangerous medical interventionism any time it makes sense (obviously not after a car accident). As for GMO and its sidekick herbicides (which always seem to be omitted from the debate), I’m delighted to see markets starting to react to consumer distrust with voluntary labeling, non GMO alternatives, etc. Next step – riddance to Roundup. Hopefully Monsanto will shrivel up to reveal itself as the Gollum from Hell it has always been.

    • Farmer Sue

      You go right ahead with your placebos. The rest of us will just ignore you and continue to grow food. Your opinions about GE crops and herbicides are all from anti-GE sites, but sadly do not reflect the reality in the field. Oh, and we buy GE seeds from numerous other seed companies, not just Monsanto. You going after them, too?
      Curiosity question — are you also an anti-vaxxer? I would presume so with your venomous diatribe against “dangerous medical interventionism” (which is not a thing). Let me know when you need a transfusion, and I will be sure to show up if my blood type is the same as yours.
      Consumer distrust? Then why did the recent various voter ballot initiatives get slammed? Voters do not agree with you.

      • Thank you JP, I try hard! As for Industry Sue, I too grow food. Real food. Not the Roundupped crap you revel in. Monsanto is the main monster for a variety of reasons they are the author of. Who can blame voters who have to sift through all the misleading garbage your industry spews non-stop (like this page). Shoppers of course can vote with their dollars. As I said, free markets coming to the rescue – you may want to check it out before cancer gets you.

        Anti vaxxing? Put away your ASSumptions. But since you asked, here it is. Truth as near as I can make it, not Big Pharma pablum. curmudgeonreport.com/2015/02/08/forcing-vaccination/

    • JP

      Wow. I didn’t think it was possible to fit that much word salad into one paragraph.

      • DQxavvyvar

        And even more masterful the fact that he makes more sense than most “experts” here. Most of the dangers related with consumption of GMO foods are tied more to the pesticides included within them or over sprayed over them than some altered genes. We´re talking about several million tons a year of higlhy toxic chemicals to the extent that the pesticides now appear in most water sources: Penicillin was once a great discovery, but now it appears it is losing its power. Can scientists see all the health statistics since the “scientific method” became the guiding standard in health and medicine?
        Where are we, ordinary people, to find proper guiding information when scientists keep misleading us, or rather, leading us into disasters?

Send this to a friend