Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Black Swan

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A black swan is a highly impactful, often destructive event, like the tsunami that destroyed the nuclear power plants in Japan in March 2011. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb states, a black swan “lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to the possibility” of its occurrence. We tend to try to make black swans look explainable and even predictable so that it seems the situations would have been manageable if only we had been better prepared, whereas in all likelihood this wasn’t possible. Taleb suggests that we will see more and more of these events because of the growing interdependence of world events and the leveraging of power through technology.

To me the central idea of The Black Swan is the “Platonic fold,” which is the gap that exists between the map and the actual territory being described. This is important because it can cause “Platonic blindness,” a state in which we rely on familiar abstractions rather than being present to an ever-changing and  infinitely more complex reality. Taleb identifies five common errors that heighten these misperceptions and miscalculations: 1) The error of confirmation, where for example a turkey has 1,000 really good days that seem to confirm that the farmer has his best interests at heart, and then Thanksgiving Day ends very badly. 2) The narrative fallacy, in which we tell ourselves or each other a story about an event that oversimplifies or distorts it, making it more acceptable or less frightening. 3) A variety of arguments that suggest that “human nature is not programmed for Black Swans,” but rather for small, day-to-day successes or failures. 4) The distortion of “silent evidence,” such as discussing the efficacy of prayer in surviving a shipwreck when we only hear the testimony of survivors. 5) Finally there is tunnelling, where we look to known examples of risk, thereby missing the unexpected ones.

The Black Swan challenges our understanding of risk, causality, and knowledge, and our assumptions about the world. 

- Ken

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