Prologue to The Black Swan

Nassim Nicholas Taleb published The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable in 2007. The book was an incredible success, selling over three million copies. It has been translated into 31 languages and was named by the Sunday Times as one of the twelve most influential books written since World War II. To give an idea about the content of the work we present the beginning of the Prologue below:


On The Plumage Of Birds

Before the discovery of Australia, people in the old world were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the colouring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.

I push one step beyond this philosophical-logical question into an empirical reality, and one that has obsessed me since childhood. What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.
Second, it carries an extreme impact.
Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives. Ever since we left the Pleistocene, some ten millennia ago, the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events, the ones we study and discuss and try to predict from reading the newspapers, have become increasingly inconsequential.

Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next. (Don't cheat by using the explanations drilled into your cranium by your dull high school teacher). How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet bloc? How about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.

This combination of low predictability and large impact makes the Black Swan a great puzzle; but that is not yet the core concern of this book. Add to this phenomenon the fact that we tend to act as if it does not exist! I don't mean just you, your cousin Joey, and me, but almost all "social scientists" who, for over a century, have operated under the false belief that their tools could measure uncertainty. For the applications of the sciences of uncertainty to real-world problems has had ridiculous effects; I have been privileged to see it in finance and economics. Go ask your portfolio manager for his definition of "risk," and odds are that he will supply you with a measure that excludes the possibility of the Black Swan - hence one that has no better predictive value for assessing the total risks than astrology (we will see how they dress up the intellectual fraud with mathematics). This problem is endemic in social matters.

The central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly the large deviations: Why do we, scientists or nonscientists, hotshots or regular Joes, tend to see the pennies instead of the dollars? Why do we keep focusing on the minutiae, not the possible significant large events, in spite of the obvious evidence of their huge influence? And, if you follow my argument, why does reading the newspaper actually decrease your knowledge of the world?

It is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks. It is not so hard to identify the role of Black Swans, from your armchair (or bar stool). Go through the following exercise. Look into your own existence. Count the significant events, the technological changes, and the inventions that have taken place in our environment since you were born and compare them to what was expected before their advent. How many of them came on a schedule? Look into your own personal life, to your choice of profession, say, or meeting your mate, your exile from your country of origin, the betrayals you faced, your sudden enrichment or impoverishment. How often did these things occur according to plan?

What You Do Not Know

Black Swan logic makes what you don't know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.

Think of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001: had the risk been reasonably conceivable on September 10, it would not have happened. If such a possibility were deemed worthy of attention, fighter planes would have circled the sky above the twin towers, airplanes would have had locked bulletproof doors, and the attack would not have taken place, period. Something else might have taken place. What? I don't know.

Isn't it strange to see an event happening precisely because it was not supposed to happen? What kind of defence do we have against that? Whatever you come to know (that New York is an easy terrorist target, for instance) may become inconsequential if your enemy knows that you know it. It may be odd to realize that, in such a strategic game, what you know can be truly inconsequential.

This extends to all businesses. Think about the "secret recipe" to making a killing in the restaurant business. If it were known and obvious then someone next door would have already come up with the idea and it would have become generic. The next killing in the restaurant industry needs to be an idea that is not easily conceived of by the current population of restaurateurs. It has to be at some distance from expectations. The more unexpected the success of such a venture, the smaller the number of competitors, and the more successful the entrepreneur who implements the idea. The same applies to the shoe and the book businesses - or any kind of entrepreneurship. The same applies to scientific theories - nobody has interest in listening to trivialities. The payoff of a human venture is, in general, inversely proportional to what it is expected to be.

Consider the Pacific tsunami of December 2004. Had it been expected, it would not have caused the damage it did - the areas affected would have been less populated, an early warning system would have been put in place. What you know cannot really hurt you.

Experts and "Empty Suits"

The inability to predict outliers implies the inability to predict the course of history, given the share of these events in the dynamics of events.

But we act as though we are able to predict historical events, or, even worse, as if we are able to change the course of history. We produce thirty year projections of social security deficits and oil prices without realizing that we cannot even predict these for next summer - our cumulative prediction errors for political and economic events are so monstrous that every time I look at the empirical record I have to pinch myself to verify that I am not dreaming. What is surprising is not the magnitude of our forecast errors, but our absence of awareness of it. This is all the more worrisome when we engage in deadly conflicts: wars are fundamentally unpredictable (and we do not know it). Owing to this misunderstanding of the casual chains between policy and actions, we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance - like a child playing with a chemistry kit.

Our inability to predict in environments subjected to the Black Swan, coupled with a general lack of the awareness of this state of affairs, means that certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not based on their empirical record, they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better at narrating - or, worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models. They are also more likely to wear a tie.

Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naïvely try to predict them). There are so many things we can do if we focus on anti knowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans by maximizing your exposure to them.

Learning to Learn

Another related human impediment comes from excessive focus on what we do know: we tend to learn the precise, not the general.

What did people learn from the 9/11 episode? Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding Islamic proto-terrorists and tall buildings. Many keep reminding me that it is important for us to be practical and take tangible steps rather than to "theorize" about knowledge. The story of the Maginot Line shows how we are conditioned to be specific. The French, after the Great War, built a wall along the previous German invasion route to prevent reinvasion - Hitler just (almost) effortlessly went around it. The French had been excellent students of history; they just learned with too much precision. They were too practical and exceedingly focused for their own safety.

We do not spontaneously learn that we don't learn that we don't learn. The problem lies in the structure of our minds: we don't learn rules, just facts, and only facts. Meta-rules (such as the rule that we have a tendency to not learn rules) we don't seem to be good at getting. We scorn the abstract; we scorn it with passion.

Why? It is necessary here, as it is my agenda in the rest of this book, both to stand conventional wisdom on its head and to show how inapplicable it is to our modern, complex, and increasingly recursive environment.

But there is a deeper question: What are our minds made for? It looks as if we have the wrong user's manual. Our minds do not seem made to think and introspect; if they were, things would be easier for us today, but then we would not be here today and I would not have been here to talk about it - my counterfactual, introspective, and hard-thinking ancestor would have been eaten by a tiger while his non-thinking, but faster-reacting cousin would have run for cover. Consider that thinking is time-consuming and generally a great waste of energy, that our predecessors spent more than a hundred million years as non-thinking mammals and that in the blip in our history during which we have used our brain we have used it on subjects too peripheral to matter. Evidence shows that we do much less thinking than we believe we do - except, of course, when we think about it.

JOC/EFR January 2019

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