The Naivety of Expertise

We all have them. Those books that just sit on your bookshelf, unbroken spines catching your eye from across the room. Berating you, each one a silent personal challenge – a demand that you prove that no, you weren’t so naive enough as to believe that by simply buying a book you’d also somehow be purchasing the time required to read it.

For me, one of those books was ‘The Black Swan‘ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Like many, I picked it up in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. And it’s only taken about 9 years for me to determinedly take it down from its shelf for the purpose for which it was intended.

As is often the case, once you’ve committed to read something, by the time you actually get between the covers, you remember why you bought it in the first place. It would be wrong to claim that there aren’t disappointments on occasion – and life’s too short for bad books of any genre – but not this time. I was immediately sucked in by Taleb’s original (and surprisingly witty) style.

I’ve read many books that hurt my brain. It’s not hard after all. And this one definitely falls into this category – in places. But stick in – the payoff is huge.

For me, there’s a few things that I still find myself mulling over the day after finishing it:-

Narrative Fallacy

Humans have a weakness (stop the press…). We’re unable to see data and accept it for what it is without rushing to create an explanation. Why? Because stories help us to remember and it’s always possible to build a narrative when looking back. However all stories are inevitably simplified – very much a case of inserting a fiction after the fact. As a result, after major events, we humans are great at agreeing that we now understand things – when really, we still have no clue and no ability were we to face a similar situation in the future.

Predictions and Experts

For proof, take a look at predictions made by those that we pay (in terms of salary, time or attention) to be experts. In many areas (say politics or economics, to name a couple), the reality is that these predictions are often totally wrong. Indeed, the evidence shows that experts often get no better results than the rest of us.

The Grateful Turkey

Say you run a farm in which you breed turkeys. You keep them for 99 days and ship them to the butcher on the 100th day. If you asked any of those turkeys how they felt their lives were going on Day 99 and also to predict the future, I suspect you’d get pretty positive feedback (in turkey-speak of course). Nice food, well-looked after, big social circle…

But then ask the last one standing the following day. He’d be (understandably) shocked at the day’s events (no doubt pyschologically scarred also). After a great life, the slaughter came from nowhere, there was no advance warning.

A true Black Swan event. An unknown unknown (for turkeys).

To grossly oversimplify his point: Taleb points out that the more we continue to predict the future from a position in society of being on the 99th day (our standard method of prediction, through reliance which is what we’ve grown accustomed to over the years, by a lazy reliance on such models as the standard Gaussian (Bell) Curve, the more we’re going to have problems.

Speaking Without The Full Knowledge

The final thought that struck me was that I’ve been using the term ‘Black Swan’ to describe an unforseen significant event for a number of years now. Yet it took me until this week to actually read the book. So at what point did the terminology actually cross that tipping point and make it into the popular lexicon?

And more importantly, how many other concepts and points of view are inadequately wielded by others with less than complete knowledge of what it is that they’re talking about across many different fields of society?

Thankfully, plenty of people have written plenty of words about Taleb’s Black Swan theory. Indeed, amazingly Mark Suster released a blog post (‘Don’t Be Fooled By Your Own Expertise‘) on this ‘old’ book yesterday on the day that I finished reading it.

A recent article told of the books that so many of us have claimed to have read but never ploughed through. When it comes to fiction, I don’t think I’d be too bothered if you’d claimed to have read ‘War & Peace’ because you felt it made you sound erudite. Whatever. But as the General Election approaches and once again the country considers appointing representatives, some of whom you would hope to be ‘experts’, perhaps our standards need to be higher.

Or expectations lower.

Because this is a narrative in which we accept individuals expounding on concepts that they may have never fully (or partially) digested. And in a modern world, where knowledge is becoming increasingly specialised and the possibility of Black Swans is increasing, not reducing, that has to give us all some food for thought.

Turkey sandwich anyone?



Looking Far Off Into A Sci-Fi Future

I’ve written before about the positive effects that science fiction as a genre can have on the advancement of technology. By thinking far enough into the future, explaining the details of how mankind will overcome current technological hurdles becomes far less important for most writers than thinking about the knock-on effects that these changes will have on the humans that inhabit that society (however that evolves).

I read a great post today by Tiago Forte (‘What I Learned About The Future By Reading 100 Science Fiction Books‘) that focuses precisely on this point. Here’s a few takeaways:-

  • If you want to move the species forwards, you’re not going to find inspiration simply by reading the same material online as everyone else.
  • Mankind will inevitably evolve in a manner that will cause divisions once we are forced to colonise places beyond the Earth as individuals become exposed to a vast variety of differing external stimuli according to their location and for periods measured in years, not days (such as gravity, radiation, gene pools within a distant settlement etc)
  • Once we start to travel immense distances, time will radically change everything – those who embark on an epic journey are unlikely to be the first to arrive at their destination because technology will advance during their absence that means that others will leave later but get there sooner.
  • In the same way, technology will become outdated even more quickly – one great example is the 4 megapixel camera in use on the Rosetta spacecraft that was launched back in 2004 that is now lower quality than your average mobile phone camera today.
  • When we reach the singularity, the chances are that the ‘wide’ AI that develops will not be precoccupied solely with solving the problems that we believe need to be solved today. Instead, it will likely start to seek answers to issues that we can neither comprehend nor have the language to describe currently.

Sure, these aren’t issues that are knocking on the door demanding a solution today. But progress is inevitable and it’ll be fascinating to see how things pan out (no doubt virtually, given the fact that we’re talking about a time well after ours when blogs such as this are no more than a random historical artefact).