The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
One of the most enjoyable publishing phenomena of the last fifteen years has been the rise of the popular science book. From maths to evolutionary biology, from economics to quantum physics, publisher’s catalogues are awash with titles that seek to explain the world and communicate a sense of wonder. As an entertaining fightback by the forces of a sceptical enlightenment against the pervasiveness of wishful thinking and anti-reason, this is to be welcomed.
One such populariser, Professor Richard Dawkins, is known for prickliness as much as for the uncompromising elegance of his work, so much so it is easy to forget he made his bones not by poo-pooing religious belief, but by sharing a sense of wonder that can only be appreciated by understanding the world around us. His early books in particular are jaw-droppingly good.
Alongside, or rather right below, these mind-expanding/blowing books is a plethora of sub-sub branches that are less “oh wow” and more “gee whizz”. These are the sort of books that tend to enjoy pointing out the non-obvious and the counter-intuitive, books like A Short History Of Everything, Do Ants Have Arseholes, or even Freakonomics, books that exploit our non-understanding of probability, catch a wave and become best sellers.
One such is The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a book about how randomness and uncertainty play a much larger role in shaping our world than we would like, or experts lead us, to believe. It is random events, outlying deviations from the norm that change everything, and these are the Black Swans of the title. Taleb uses a variety of historical, economic and psychological examples to demonstrate how our reliance on simplistic explanations blinds us, an error compunded by our insistence on interpreting events in ways that confirm our belief systems. Worse, because we are very, very good at post-rationalisation, we have, according to Taleb, come to believe we understand How Things Work, that we are driving them and that things will always proceed pretty much in line with our expectations. That is, until Something Happens and they no longer do. Sound familiar?
As a pricker of balloons, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an annoying but entertaining host, who clearly enjoys his role as iconoclastic destroyer of “pseudo science” and slayer of preening over-confidence on the part of otherwise clever people. Perhaps this belongs more in the business than the science section but The Black Swan is a work of science in that it is an appeal for empirical scepticism, a clarion call for a dispassionate understanding of “evidence” in the face of prescribed bias.
Taleb adopts the William Goldman-esque position, ie experts know nothing. We cannot predict a Black Swan, we can only be prepared for the fact there will be Black Swans and as we survey the current damage and the failure of thousands of the world’s brightest minds to see it coming much less prevent it, he may well be right. This may in the end be an appeal for simple common sense, nothing more than saying be prepared, because from time to time bad stuff happens. Banal? Perhaps, but events of the past few weeks suggest there has been precious little understanding that Nemesis is bound to follow Hubris.
The Black Swan is thought-provoking and irritating in roughly equal measure. It is also entertaining and in its own way quite profound.