Black Swan

23 11 2016

the_black_swan_taleb_cover

It’s not too often that I write a largely glorious review for a book which I couldn’t manage to finish despite my best intentions. Sounds kind of counter intuitive. Isn’t it? But that’s how it is for Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Black Swan is a metaphor coined by the author to describe a phenomenon with the following three attributes: “First, it is a outlier. 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.” Typical examples include Sep 2011 attack, 2008 economic meltdown etc. In this book, Taleb talks about the nature of black swan events and why we can’t predict them.
As I started reading this book, I couldn’t help marveling at the sheer ingeniousness of the author. It seemed every phrase and sentence oozed intelligence and creativity. I was spell bound. As new as I am to the world of philosophy and philosophers, I was filled with awe. I got introduced to more and more interesting and intriguing concepts and I was enjoying every moment of it. One such concept that runs through more or less the entire book is “platonitcity”. It is the tendency to mistake the map for the territory. The author explains that “the platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide.” He says that it is here that the Black Swan is produced.

He draws up the occurrence of black swan events and our perception of them through a simple analogy of “thanksgiving turkey”. While the butcher feeds the turkey for months, only to kill it for a feast. For the turkey, the occurrence of its murder is a black swan event. It doesn’t expect it in the months leading up to it because there was never any evidence to suggest anything other than continued pampering. But it’s not a black swan event for the butcher. So, the key is “not to be a turkey”. 🙂 Our confusion of our perception of ” there is no evidence of the possibility of black swans” with the statement “there is evidence of no possible Black Swans”, which the author calls “round-trip fallacy” lies at the root of why we can’t predict those events.

He also talks about Mediocristan and Extremistan. Mediocristan is a place an outlier doesn’t impact the overall measure and it follows the Gaussian distribution and is non-scalable. Example – weight a person, audience for a play etc. Extremistan, on the other hand is highly scalable and the outliers heavily impact the aggregate. Example – one extremely bestselling author or musician etc. The lesson is not use predictive methods applicable only to Mediocristan to Extremistan. It is in Extremistan there is a high chance of occurrence for a black swan event. Wow, pretty simple and deep at the same time!!

Another tendency of ours which contributes to our misunderstanding of Black Swans is “narrative fallacy”. Our tendency to develop narratives around facts (for the basic and subconscious need of easier storage and retrieval of information) based on our System 1 thinking. The result of this simplification is that we think that the world is less random than it is and we leave the black swans out.

There are many more interesting and though-provoking ideas in this book. It’s a shame that I couldn’t finish it, I must add, despite my best efforts. I don’t know why. It’s true that the book is so dense with content and ideas, even if they all have common threads. I might even have found it a little repetitive (but that’s how many good non-fiction books usually are anyways – just to make sure that you don’t miss the point and that it’s ingrained in your brain, to make maximum impact.). It’s also true that time and again I felt that the author was a more than a little pompous as he repeatedly bashed or disagreed with many other (supposedly) renowned philosophers and experts on many things. Still. Maybe, that’s all true. Maybe that’s how philosophers usually are – hold strong opinions and theories, single minded, assertive, and speak with utmost conviction.

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