We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, May 18, 2012

Black Swan Events

Source: corporate-eye.com
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has developed the concept of Black Swan Events to describe a phenomenon already well-known among historians.   Basically, a Black Swan Event is any historical event that was unlooked for and had significant impact on subsequent events.  Once it has taken place, historians and society in general develops  explanations about why it happened so that it no longer seems to have been unpredictable.  According to Taleb, history is driven by Black Swan Events.  The unpredictable is far more powerful in our lives than we usually realize.  In an excerpt from his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (here), Taleb writes, "Black Swan logic makes what you don't know far more relevant than what you do know."

While apparently Taleb has become something of a guru of unpredictability and yet another prophet alerting us to the fundamental ignorance of the human race, Black Swan Events is but a name for the way history unfolds.  War, for example, is a breeding ground of black swan events large and small, which are collectively termed "the fog of war."  And while historians struggle mightily to understand the origins of Black Swan Events, they realize that at the end of the day such events can't be fully accounted for.  Historians are also aware of the Black Swan Events that didn't take place, such as Winston Churchill being run over by a car in New York City well before World War II.  If he had been killed or more severely injured, the course of world history would surely have been significantly different.  Had the assassination attempt on Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 before he was inaugurated been successful, history also would have been greatly affected.

Taleb is wrong, I think, in claiming that humanity has gone through history ignorant of the importance of Black Swan Events.  In fact, the book of Genesis, written some 2,500 years ago, contains a vivid account of just such an event: the call of Abraham and the emergence of the Hebrew people.  Surely, the Exodus and Moses, also stands as a Black Swan Event.  The Old Testament explains these unlooked for events as being the work of God, which is one way to make sense of them.

Taleb contends that such explanations obscure the unpredictability of Black Swan Events and normalizes them in a sense,  which means that we fail to see their true nature as random events.  He may be correct, but only to a degree.  Historians of World War I realize that for all of their explanations about how that war happened, they cannot really explain the random events that led to it.  They can only describe them.  That is why history is not a science and more of a craft than anything else.  Science has not yet developed investigative tools and research methods for studying the past, and it is hard to see how it ever will—short of time travel!

Still, the concept of Black Swan Events names something that deserves being named, the randomness and unpredictability that is a key part of the human experience.  We are tremendously shaped by unexpected events.  I'd like to follow up tomorrow.