Don't Handle With Care

Antifragility and Anomaly: Why Science Works

I think I like this terminology.

Antifragility is the true opposite of fragility. Unlike mere robustness, it is the ability to actually profit from misadventure. A porcelain cup is fragile, and shatters if dropped. A plastic cup, being robust, will not be any the worse for such an experience, but it will not be any the better for it either.

Among the things that Taleb lists as fragile are scientific theories. Scientific theories are indeed vulnerable to disproof, since they must be tested against reality. The simplest way to describe this is to say that they must be falsifiable by experience, a criterion associated with the name of Karl Popper. In the popular imagination at least, however well established the theory may be from past experience, it could at any time be refuted in the future by a single observation that differs from what is theoretically predicted. If so, scientific theories would indeed be fragile, since they could not survive a single shock.

But that is not what really happens. Well-established theories have already explained a wide range of observations, and will not readily be destroyed by a single counterexample. On the contrary, they usually emerge all the stronger for accommodating to it.

Of course theories can break, but it requires contrary evidence in such a way that we can’t simply narrow the scope of the idea, i.e. the holes are in all through it rather than at an edge. Phlogiston, for example, or the early models of the atom.