Jul 27, 2009

Maps and why Nassim Nicholas Taleb is wrong about them

This FT review of 'Lecturing Birds on Flying' points to a quote by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in the book's preface: "Giving someone the wrong map is worse than giving them no map at all."

It's a sort of maxim that seems an ironclad un-contestable truth. No doubt, it was quoted by Taleb as such - to make the case for the arguments in the book.

I am not qualified to say anything about the quant mathematical models - the "wrong maps" - that led to the current financial climate and are the subject of the book in question.

But I have more than a sneaky suspicion that Taleb is wrong to assert that a wrong map does more harm than having no map.

In fact, a wrong map is almost always the first step towards a right map. Because it represents what we already think we know and allows for our individual or collective experience(s) to verify if that's true - and to change the bits that don't match. Ad nauseam.

It was true in the times of Christopher Columbus - when map-transforming expeditions could be undertaken only by a handful few. And it is especially true now, when the wonders of digital technology make everything around us a palimpsest - thus enabling each one of us to embark on micro-explorations that result in the continuous refinements of our "maps." (Something I wrote about in a piece some time ago.)

Strangely, the quote is the sort of thing that Taleb stands against - something that seems intuitively right, but is in fact far from it.

A far more instructive and appropriate quote for the occasion would have been Alfred Korzybski's assertion: "The map is not the territory."

And that's something all of us - including the financial academics currently in the dock - would do well to remember.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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