Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Unknown unknowns have long been a problem in human understanding, and with this toughtful extended personal essay from the insightful Taleb I have now read all of the books from this author that are presently available from the local library system, at least until and unless he writes some more of them as part of his Incerto series on dealing with problems of risk and uncertainty. This book is really a seminal book, not least for introducing the term black swans into the general lexicon of terms relating to surprising negative events. Sadly, much of what has been labeled as black swans, events such as Hurricane Sandy or the Great Recession of 2008, were not even all that surprising or impossible to imagine happening, and it is likely that a great many future crises and difficulties will be labeled as black swans as people try to escape responsibility even as they would be precisely the sort of events that someone could conceive of if they were not blinded with irrational optimism and rose colored glasses. The fact that human beings have great rationalizing skills also makes black swans hard to appreciate, since while they are impossible to predict, they are also very easy to force into just so stories to account for their reality once they do occur. That which was inconceivable in foresight is all too often inevitable in hindsight, after all.
This particular book is, like many of Taleb’s books, a somewhat lengthy and complicated one. The author begins with a thoughtful prologue before continuing to the search for validation that human beings engage in (I) with chapters on the author’s apprenticeship as an empirical skeptic (1), Yevgenia’s black swan (2), the speculator and the prostitute (3), how not to be a sucker (4), more confirmation bias problems (5), the narrative fallacy (6), life in the antechamber of hope (7), the problem of silent evidence (8), and the ludic fallacy (9). After that the author talks about our inability to predict (II), with chapters on the scandal of prediction (10), how to look for bird poop (11), the dream of epistemocracy (12), and what one does if one cannot predict (13). The author then looks at the gray swans of extremistan that one learns from the Mandelbrotian (III) with chapters on the difference between mediocristan and extremistan (14), the problem with bell curves (15), the aesthetics of randomness (16), Locke’s madmen (17), the uncertainty of the phony (18), and how one gets even with the black swan (19), which makes up the closing of the original book. Then there is a postscript essay which gives some thoughtful discussions on robustness and fragility and deeper philosophical and empirical reflections on how to learn from mother nature, how systems become fragile, pearls before swine, the asperger’s problem of lacking empathy, a useful problem for modern philosophy, the fourth quadrant and why it is trouble for modeling, along with some basic principles on how a society can make itself robust against black swan events and how one can even become (something close to) indestructible.
There are two basic approaches that we can take to reality. One of these approaches, the one clearly advocated by the author, is for us to understand reality as best as possible and shape our response to that reality in a way that seeks to draw on our strengths and not put us in a place where we are blindsided by our weaknesses (such as our inability to predict very well, for example). The other approach is to ignore reality or to wish it away with wishful positive thinking, seeking to avoid the troublesome recognition of reality and to try to make other people suckers for when reality inevitably harms our beloved models and wrecks our hopes and expectations. It is pretty clear that this author, as long as he remains alive and writing, will have plenty of charlatans and fraudsters to write about given the massive avoidance of reality that is encouraged by social and cultural and political elites at present. And let us hope that he does not shrink from the task of puncturing the fragile egos and fallacious reasoning of those who put society at risk for the sake of their own ego and personal profits.