The Unknown Unknown

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was one of those books I had been longing to read, after being recommended by one of my teachers. And hence, it was after I ordered the book that I looked for its reviews. It seemed like Nicholas Taleb completely failed to delight the reviewers and critics. Most reviewers called it ‘bloated’ ‘uneven’and a ‘waste of time’. While it may be true that the book could have been trimmed a little bit, I don’t think it was ever a waste of time.

The Black Swan is not a vacation read and not an easy read either. It was neither written to please the majority. It needs to be approached with as much seriousness as the author demands. The Black Swan is harsh in spitting out the truth, so is Taleb. So many readers might have been hurt in the run and I guess it might have been them that later turned out to be his negative reviewers.

Taleb describes black swans as events that are rare, has an extreme impact, and is predictable and explainable only in the hindsight. The success of Google was a black swan. The 9/11 terrorist attack, Katrina hurricane, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the spread of religion, all were black swans. The book centers around the idea of ‘Empirical Skepticism’ – a way of approaching randomness in the world. Taleb wants us to accept the fact that black swans are unpredictable.

The book starts with the story of swans. For ages Europeans believed that all swans were white. It was only after the discovery of Australia that people came to know black swans existed. The story embodies Taleb’s main theme, the idea that what we don’t know is more important than that what we do know. Black swan to one need not have to be black swan to another. The killing of an American turkey after feeding him for the first 1000 days might seem as a black swan for the turkey but for the butcher it is not.

Taleb also claims that we humans are blind to black swans by default. He strengthens his argument by three points, what he calls as the triplet of opacity:

  • The illusion of understanding or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated than they realize
  • The retrospective distortion or how we can assess matters only after the fact
  • The overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritarians & learned people

In succeeding chapters he further strengthens his argument that we are programmed to be blind to black swan by three more problems, what he calls ‘The Narrative Fallacy’, ‘The Problem of Silent Evidence’ and ‘The Lucid fallacy’.

He also goes on to explain why predictions fail and he unsympathetically attacks the bell curve fallacy or the intellectual’s and statistician’s tendency to fit almost all predictions and hypothesis into the Gaussian curve and calls it ‘The Great Intellectual Fallacy’.

In the closing note he advises us that the only way to deal with the black swan is to maximize luck and prepare for the consequences that would arise from those events.

If we accept what we don’t know, we can redefine ‘possible.’

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