Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb

Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon warned that our minds are wired to deceive us. "Beware the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall--they are the real distorting prisms of human nature." Chief among them: "Assuming more order than exists in chaotic nature." Now consider the typical stock market report: "Today investors bid shares down out of concern over Iranian oil production." Sigh. We're still doing it.

Our brains are wired for narrative, not statistical uncertainty. And so we tell ourselves simple stories to explain complex thing we don't - and, most importantly, can't - know. The truth is that we have no idea why stock markets go up or down on any given day, and whatever reason we give is sure to be grossly simplified, if not flat out wrong.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb first made this argument in Fooled by Randomness, an engaging look at the history and reasons for our predilection for self-deception when it comes to statistics. Now, in The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, he focuses on that most dismal of sciences, predicting the future. Forecasting is not just at the heart of Wall Street, but it’s something each of us does every time we make an insurance payment or strap on a seat belt.

The problem, Nassim explains, is that we place too much weight on the odds that past events will repeat (diligently trying to follow the path of the "millionaire next door," when unrepeatable chance is a better explanation). Instead, the really important events are rare and unpredictable. He calls them Black Swans, which is a reference to a 17th century philosophical thought experiment. In Europe all anyone had ever seen were white swans; indeed, "all swans are white" had long been used as the standard example of a scientific truth. So what was the chance of seeing a black one? Impossible to calculate, or at least they were until 1697, when explorers found Cygnus atratus in Australia.

Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it's practically useless. September 11th is one such example, and stock market crashes are another. Or, as he puts it, "History does not crawl, it jumps." Our assumptions grow out of the bell-curve predictability of what he calls "Mediocristan," while our world is really shaped by the wild powerlaw swings of "Extremistan."

In business and government, major money is spent on prediction. Uselessly, according to Taleb, who administers a severe thrashing to MBA- and Nobel Prize-credentialed experts who make their living from economic forecasting. A financial trader and current rebel with a cause, Taleb is mathematically oriented and alludes to statistical concepts that underlie models of prediction, while his expressive energy is expended on roller-coaster passages, bordering on gleeful diatribes, on why experts are wrong. They neglect Taleb's metaphor of "the black swan," whose discovery invalidated the theory that all swans are white. Taleb rides this manifestation of the unpredicted event into a range of phenomena, such as why a book becomes a best-seller or how an entrepreneur becomes a billionaire, taking pit stops with philosophers who have addressed the meaning of the unexpected and confounding. Taleb projects a strong presence here that will tempt outside-the-box thinkers into giving him a look.

This is an entertaining and enlightening book, and fairly easy to read. It has an important message regarding how the world works; that the world is governed not by the predictable and the average, but by the random, the unknownable, the unpredictable - big events or discoveries or unusual people that have big consequences. Change comes not uniformly but in unpredictable spurts. These are the Black Swans of the title: completely unexpected and rare events or novel ideas or technologies that have a huge impact on the world. Indeed, Taleb argues that history itself is primarily driven by these Black Swans.

It is convincing argument, entertainingly presented with plenty of sarcasm, and indeed, anger, by Taleb. For example he rails against the academic community, economists (including specific names), and Nobel Prize committee. Considerable numbers of his arguments "ring true" to me, that is my experience in life confirms that they are more accurate than the traditional approach. Like any important work, 90% of what is in the book is not original; that does not make it less important. Taleb's contribution is in integrating the material together, and showing how these different ideas are tied to the Black Swan.

The themes include: winner-take-all phenonomen, numerous effects of randomness on the world, the invalidity of the Gaussian Bell Curve to most things in world, concepts of scalablity, numerous instabilities in the world, especially the modern world where information travels so quickly, the fallacies about people's inability to predict the future. The importance of these ideas, Taleb's ability to weave them together into a single theory, and the ability of this theory to change the way you look at the world, means the book easily deserves my highest recommendation.

However, the book does have many flaws, unfortunately - unfortunate because I believe they will take away from the credibility of the message, which is in important one. The are numerous minor flaws such as, for example, the inexplicable invention of a fictional author (disclosed a few pages later), when certainly there must have been some real example that would have worked better. Another example is repeated jabs about the French; these may be amusing but I just don't think they have a place in work like this. There are also diatribes against specific people, including famous economists, which, though amusing, and possibly justified, demonstrate a high level of anger by author and take away from his credibility.

Another flaw is that Taleb seems to go a little toward the extreme of saying that we can predict almost nothing about the future, and though he does not say so explicitly, this seems to imply we have no moral responsibility to the future. This, combined with Taleb's advice to the reader about their behavior based on the "Black Swan" view of world just rubbed me the wrong way, for several reasons. One is that Taleb personally has very little in common with most people; never having as far as I know had a regular career (essentially what he calls non-scalable, e.g. dentist, engineer, baker) he nevertheless recommends that people choose these kinds of careers rather than a scalable career (e.g. financial trader, author, actor which are subject to a few lucky successful people and a lot of failures). This advise is odd first because Taleb is in a non-scalable profession (derivatives trader, then hedge fund manager) -- indeed it appears he is quite wealthy. Even more odd because he says all these types of non-scalable types of work are boring and evens makes sarcastic comments (the book is extremely sarcasm heavy) for example about dentists being able to do well by diligently drilling teeth for 30 years. The second things is that Taleb seems be somewhat amoral to me; in this type of book where plenty of his own emotions come through, plenty of his personality, he has plenty of criticism of others for their wrong models and wrong view of the world, and how this has hurt the world, but there remains a lack of moral responsibility to his advice.