Black Swan by Shakespeare

Oct 11, 2023

There’s an interesting argument from Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) in his new biography by Michael Lewis,

I could go on and on about the failings of Shakespeare . . . but really I shouldn’t need to: the Bayesian priors are pretty damning. About half the people born since 1600 have been born in the past 100 years, but it gets much worse than that. When Shakespeare wrote almost all Europeans were busy farming, and very few people attended university; few people were even literate—­probably as low as ten million people. By contrast there are now upwards of a billion literate people in the Western sphere. What are the odds that the greatest writer would have been born in 1564? The Bayesian priors aren’t very favorable – “The Fetishization of the Old” by Sam Bankman-Fried (2012)

Some thoughts:

  • Black Swan events happen. Even if it was statistically unlikely that the greatest writer would have been born in 1564, it could have happened. How many theoretical physicists were born in 1879 (Einstein was one)? What are the chances that one would publish four of the greatest papers of all time explaining space, time, mass, and energy in 1905? “Greatness” often emerges in circumstances that are not statistically favorable.
  • Bayesian priors are a function of evidence. Another quote from SBF, “I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that…If you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.” There are many people who might be able to judge whether Shakespeare is a good writer, but is someone who doesn’t read books in a good position to make that claim? We don’t have to rely on population statistics to prove a point. We can analyze Shakespeare ourselves.
  • Is there an objective measure of greatness in literature? Literature isn’t created (or consumed) in a vacuum. While athletes continue to break world records every year because of new technology, better diets, and better research, the best buildings aren’t always the newest.

On the other hand, he brings up good meta points. We should challenge the status quo and think from first principles – we shouldn’t believe that Shakespeare is the greatest just because we are told he is (unfortunately, for SBF, this means reading Shakespeare). We should be asking what led to Shakespeare’s statistically improbable greatness – what cultural, societal, personal, or other factors might help us replicate some of the necessary conditions for greatness?