On the Trail of a Black Swan Philosopher

It all began with a political article on the BBC website—“Is Nassim Nicholas Taleb Downing Street’s Favorite Advisor?” In it, a correspondent hypothesized about the influence that the author of The Black Swan has over British Prime Minister David Cameron. The BBC reporter’s answer:  a lot.

Wharton Magazine would be a great venue for Taleb, WG’83, to respond, would it not? The magazine’s editorial committee agreed—and even suggested a lead to contact him. Taleb spoke on campus recently, they recalled, and Mukul Pandya, executive director and editor-in-chief of Knowledge@Wharton, might have had a hand in arranging that. Richard Herring, the Jacob Safra Professor of International Banking, also might be helpful, as he was Taleb’s former teacher at the School. I started by emailing Pandya.

Pandya was flattered that anyone would think he knew Taleb. Professor Herring did indeed interview Taleb when he was last on campus. Perhaps Robbie Shell, editorial director at K@W, would know more, Pandya added. I emailed Shell.

Nassim Taleb, WG’83

Shell corroborated. But Shell recalled that Shannon Berning, the executive editor of Wharton Digital Press, arranged it. She copied Berning on her reply.

Berning provided a missing piece of the puzzle. Taleb had been on campus on April 5, 2011, to participate in the 11th Annual Goldstone Forum, an annual lecture by a leading figure in the business, political or academic arenas. The person who arranged that was able to also schedule the Knowledge@Wharton interview. That was Dr. Sumantra Sen, associate director of undergraduate studies in Penn’s philosophy, politics and economics program. It also turns out that Herring did conduct the interview. At the time, Berning remembered, Herring had mentioned he no longer had contact with Taleb, but perhaps after the interview he is back in touch.

Now we were getting somewhere. I emailed Sen. I emailed Herring.

And their responses … bummed me out. Neither had contact with Wharton’s superstar scribe.

As a last resort, I tried Google. A search of “Nassim Nicholas Taleb” produces his personal homepage as the first result: www.fooledbyrandomness.com.

The website was not reassuring. It is as bare-boned as the corporate site of Berkshire Hathaway—the sign of an entity so successful and in demand that it doesn’t need to sell itself. Taleb’s site provides an email address with the caveat: “I beg journalists & members of the media to leave me alone.”

Still, I emailed. And received an immediate reply. An auto-reply. It said:

(Please ignore this message if you are a personal friend or engaged in an ongoing correspondence).

Dear correspondent;

I am currently disengaged from the rest of the world (until November 2012).

I had to stop replying to emails outside of the strictly personal (friends, family, citizens of Amioun, etc.), except for extremely important/urgent matters.

Please note that, except for emergencies & appointments, I reply to mails with an equivalent frequency to that of classical letters.

(REQUESTS: Also note that 1) I no longer do media interviews (except those scheduled by publishers), 2) can no longer endorse books, 3) do not participate in documentary films, 4) will not give lectures in Asia, Australia, and other places entailing severe jetlag, etc.)

I apologize for the inconvenience.

Wharton Magazine will not give up hope of course. Expect an update sooner … or later.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Mukul Pandya for suggesting this blog post (though at the time my unrealistic hopes were not yet dashed).

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