The Black Swan

Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, once said that, “I secretly think reality exists so that we can speculate about it.” And it has a strange way of aligning itself with our expectations and assumptions—especially the unspoken ones. Because of this ideological sameness the future can often seem predictable, and so the unspoken truth can go on being unexamined and unspoken. But the longer things remain unspoken, the worse they get, and the more likely that they will go beyond our ability to manage or even think about in a clear-headed way. Our unspoken public acceptance of the creations of science has led to the rise of the modern state and our highly technocratic civilization. Our unspoken assumptions about war has lead to uncountable deaths and failed policy. Our unspoken assumptions about community have led us to commit genocide. Our unspoken assumptions about the economy keep us either in plenty or desperation. From a certain point of view, our unspoken assumptions lie at the heart of our entire social existence.

It only takes a brief review of the historical record to find that these assumptions often fail to work out in practice. Assumptions always have an element of temporal arrogance to them; they assume a lot about the future from the behavior of the past. And when one tries to navigate a highway through the rear window, one often crashes headlong into ditches. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his wonderfully insightful and witty book, The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, believes that this error is the ultimate (and probably the most laughable) delusions that we labor under. We live in a world that has been essentially shaped by what he calls black swans: evens that we cannot possibly predict with any confidence; a black swan is an unknown made manifest. Our problem is that we pretend we can control them.

The highly improbable can look a lot like luck, and it has played a role in every major social upheaval you care to mention. In fact, luck has played the ultimate role in human history, especially once one considers the evolutionary history of the species and the geological history of the planet. As Darwin made abundantly clear, and as scientists like Einstein and Hubble were able to demonstrate in the universe at large, our very existence owes itself to an incomprehensible volume of time, accompanied by a whole lot of random chance that only looks sensible in hindsight. But that doesn’t mean that it was.

For many, this chaos has been reason for despair. After all, our reliance on the whimsy of history certainly has the effect of rendering our lives into rather humble things. For others, the choice is to ignore randomness. To help them comes an army of analysts and pundits, armed with bell curves and very expensive suits, to tell them that the future is somehow predicable on the basis of the past. But unpredictability persists, and exposes ideas about control as the flailing desperation that they are. Faced with this, many feel that the best hope for surviving the future is nestled somewhere between suicide and religion. Mr. Taleb would seem to disagree.

The truth is, he suggests, that randomness is both a fact of life and a tool, and properly understood can open both possibility while granting a sense of calm in the face of overwhelming odds. The unexpected, whether serendipitous or tragic, is out there and waiting to be discovered. You must choose how to live within the fact of uncertainty; you must be open to black swans.

The title of the book is illustrative of its central ideas. After all, a black swan is a pretty well-known thing these days. We breed them and house them in parks and in public spaces. We make ballets and films about them. I googled an image up as inspiration for this review. Of course, for Europeans, this was not always the case. Mr. Taleb tells us that, when the first black swans were reported in Australia, no one quite believed the stories. After all, swans were white – not black. Perhaps the black swan was a different kind of bird entirely? But the point really is that the black swan was always there. Our language and ideas were insufficient, in part because the culture simply was unaware of the existence of the thing. Black swans used to exist in the same realm as unicorns and space aliens; it was something we simply didn’t know about.

And that’s where Taleb’s work lives: in the realm of unknown unknowns. He challenges us to reject the claims of our experts and to accept a level of considerable randomness in our businesses and our lives. We should actively work to anticipate our own failure. He dismisses (rightly, I think) the claims made by mainstream theorists and their adherence to the falsely predictive claims made by people obsessed with things that promise a clear picture of reality (he lumps them together as “gaussian” in honor for mathematician Carl Friedrick Gauss, the creator of the bell curve). Despite our best efforts to predict it away, reality has a way of asserting itself and bringing about dramatic and unexpected shifts (the Great Depression, the 2008 economic collapse, the Russian Revolution) that are wholly unanticipated and often misinterpreted by contemporary witnesses.

This is perfectly natural, of course. Human nature is such that we are blind to the future and understand the past only as hearsay. The sheer density of social and physical systems make understanding now hard enough, and leave most of us with a host of generalizations and clumsy assumptions about reality. Our problem with the future is made worse because Black Swans exist in what Taleb calls the Platonic fold: the gap between what you know and what you think you know. The wider that gap, the less prepared you will be for any black swans that might be lurking in between the sheets of reality. The future might as well be a black hole for all you can reliably say about your place in it.

For the serious scholar and academic, Mr. Taleb’s book offers little that is genuinely new. It skewers many assumptions though, and helps to explain how our most respected minds can so often come away from important decisions with egg on their faces. But his real power is in how he attempts to restore our credulity. The presence of black swans reminds us not to simply accept, and reminds us that knowledge is really a conversation that has little to do with facts and predictions. More important is what some might call wisdom: the content of our impulse to action. Black swans offer possibility as well as disaster; they remind us that outcome is only guaranteed when nothing is done.

Of course, Taleb’s style isn’t for everyone. He has a casual arrogance that must be maddening for students of the theories he casually dismisses. I had to forgive him though; he shows a great respect for learning, but little for the twin cults of institution and granted expertise. The reader will have to decide if his criticisms are unfair in themselves, but the book is still worthwhile as a thought experiment and an exploration of a theory of knowledge. Above all, no matter how much you think you know, its important to learn humility in the face of creation. Of course, your odds might be even better if you forget what you know and just go for it. I think Mr. Taleb would agree.

Black Swan

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