“An outré appearance generally hides a conventional mind.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)
In nature, bright colors are often a warning: I’m poisonous! Don’t eat me! Stay away! Insect-eating birds avoid any butterfly who looks like a monarch, intelligent residents of the Amazon refrain from handling poison dart frogs, and only a fool would eat that bright red mushroom in the meadow. However, in the forest of social life, bright colors are often an invitation: I’m friendly, gregarious, approachable, somewhat outrageous, thoroughly interesting, and definitely not poisonous. My friend Janice Simpkins taught me a handy heuristic based on this insight, which has served me well on numerous occasions: “If you find yourself stranded in a room full of strangers—at some social function—talk to the person wearing the loudest outfit, because that person is invariably the friendliest person in the room.”
But alas, in nature and in social life, we sometimes encounter false advertising. Biologists call it mimicry. For instance, the red milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum syspila) is not poisonous, nor is the equally harmless scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides). Yet predators steer clear of them both because they look like the deadly coral snake (Micrurus fulvius). Likewise, in social life, we sometimes encounter brightly colored bores—viz., middle-class hipsters who dress like bohemians but talk like accountants. The sense of betrayal that washes over you when you find yourself stuck in a pointless conversation with one of these philistines is surprisingly intense: their mimicry seems to offend our innate sense of social justice. Brightly colored bores should come with a warning. Something like: WARNING: OBJECTS BEHIND THIS INTERESTING PERSONA ARE DULLER THAN THEY APPEAR.
A student with a signed copy of The End of Faith and a subscription to Skeptic magazine once asked me: “Why does Taleb spend so much time trashing people like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, and so little time trashing Science’s real enemies? You know, people like the climate deniers, the anti-vaxxers, creationists; people who go on Oprah and talk about chakras or the power of prayer.” I said that I couldn’t speak for Taleb, but that my guess was that he didn’t see these people as a serious threat to Science. These people are losers, underdogs, soft-targets; and Taleb never goes after soft-targets. He picks on the powerful not the powerless. Like Nietzsche, Taleb only attacks causes which are victorious: “I only attack causes which are victorious; I may even wait until they are victorious” (Ecce Homo). Although I stand by this explanation, I’ve since discovered that Taleb’s choices are as ethical as they are guttural.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb unwittingly answered my student’s question on Facebook this morning: the double-standard he found so troublesome is clearly a function of reason as well as revulsion: “I finally figured out why I am gripped with so much revulsion at BS vendors dressed in the garb of high priest of scientists, intellectuals, or logicians, (say Pinker or Shermer or Harris or some scientist under Monsanto’s control), to the point of total maddening anger, and why I do not experience any disgust when I see a fortune teller, a market commentator, or some new age meditation guru such as Deepak Chopra. . . . A part man-part animal is vastly more horrifying than a full wild animal. Extremely eerie are monsters who look like humans with small differences. The uncanny resides in the resemblance, not the difference.” In other words, Taleb’s rage is rooted in the very same sense of betrayal elicited by brightly colored bores.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)