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:-
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?