The Taleb-GQ emails

June 30, 2009
story simply refuses to die.

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The Nassim Taleb exaggeration story simply refuses to die: after first flaring up a few weeks ago, Eddy Elfenbein and Joe Weisenthal now pick up on a little yellow note that Taleb has put on the notorious GQ story about him by Will Self. Taleb is accusing Janet Tavakoli of conducting a “(failed) smear campaign” against him — see here and here for instances. But that accusation has just brought attention back onto the numbers in the GQ article — numbers which everybody agrees are false.

Elfenbein and Weisenthal seem to be saying that unless and until GQ puts out a correction, they’ll believe that the magazine is standing by its story — which in turn would imply that Taleb really did say that he got those massive returns. As Don Fishback put it:

Here’s what the curmudgeon thinks: He said it, boastfully. Then it got printed and he realized he said something he shouldn’t have. To cover his a$$, he came up with some excuse to make it sound as if GQ got it wrong.

It’s plausible — but I don’t think it’s true. Taleb has now sent me a copy of an email he sent to Will Self on December 17, long before the article was printed (but after Self had given him the opportunity to read an advance copy). He specifically picks up on the sentence in question, and tells Self that there are “problems with the numbers”. He suggests that where the article quotes him as saying “when they went to the wall we made $20 billion for our clients, half a billion for the Black Swan fund”, that should be changed to “when they went to the wall we made almost half a billion for the Black Swan funds” — deleting the erroneous $20 billion figure altogether.

Taleb didn’t hear back from Self or GQ, so it’s unclear what happened next. Did the email just fall through the cracks? Did Self decide that he had quoted Taleb correctly the first time and would keep the $20 billion number in the article even if Taleb didn’t want it there? Did he misunderstand what Taleb was saying in the email, which wasn’t completely explicit that the $20 billion number was wrong?

In any case what does seem clear is that there was some miscommunication going on, which is understandable when a generalist writer like Self starts writing about the more abstruse areas of high finance. And when Americans refuse to be satisfied until they see a US-style correction from a much more lackadaisical UK magazine.

In any case, here are those emails in full:

From: nassim nicholas taleb
Date: December 17, 2008 7:40:55 AM EST
To: Will Self
Subject:Re: From Will Self
Hello there (from Los Angeles airport). Thanks a million. I cannot interfere with the content, only to correct some minor facts.There are some potential problems with the numbers like the 20 billion, half a billion, etc. that may lead to confusion.
Also I am trying to add my middle name whenever possible to avoid confusing the byline.
I will read again on plane and send clarifications about the numbers.
BTW it was great seeing you.

From:nassim nicholas taleb
Date: December 17, 2008 6:13:44 PM EST
To:Will Self
Re: From Will Self
Here is what I found.

1- “when they went to the wall we made $20 billion for our clients, half a billion for the Black Swan fund.
“when they went to the wall we made almost half a billion for the Black Swan funds.”

2- “Mean variants” “mean-variance”

I will give it a second reading.
Thanks again.

Update: Taleb has found an email from Will Self, dated the following morning, saying that “these changes will be incorporated tout suite”. It’s not clear why they weren’t. Also, Janet Tavakoli emails to say that she stands by both this and this.


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