The Black Swan Is not a Black Swan

I like to buy a book at the airport before a flight. The random element of what I might find in the airport bookstore amuses me. My most recent airport purchase was Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Usually I provide a link when I mention a book, but this book does not merit a link. Indeed, to aid someone in purchasing the book, even inadvertently, would require that I do penance to expiate my guilt. This book made such a splash a few years ago, that though I doubted it could live up to the hype, I thought it must surely have some merit. But it took only a few chapters to persuade me that the only merit in this book was in its engorgement of Talib’s bank account.

According to Talib, a black swan is a highly improbable event, one that cannot be predicted. Those events are not just important, but are apparently the sum total of meaning in the world. They explain nearly everything, and nothing is explained in any other way. The thesis seems to grand, too sweeping, to be seriously entertained, yet Talib can hardly suppress his enthusiasm for it. I penciled in my first question mark on only the second page of the prologue, by the claim that

A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world…

He follows with a diatribe against the “social scientists” (his scare quotes) who “act as if it [the black swan] does not exist!”

Let me pause to summarize so far. We have a claim that X explains everything, followed by a claim that the “experts” don’t get it. The next characteristic, the trite would-be cleverness, can’t be far behind. And there it is, just three pages later:

There are so many things we can do if we focus on antiknowledge, or what we do not know.

Yes! A perfect trifecta of pretentious pesu-intellectualism. But the real gag-reflex inducing mode of operation here is his continual dismissal of the small step, the tinkering, the refinement, in favor of the big breakthrough, the giant leap that constitutes his beloved black swan. For example, he says,

…almost no discovery, no technologies of note, came from design and planning–they were just Black Swans.

I am sure Thomas Edison would be surprised to hear that. He designed, and redesigned, and tinkered repeatedly, until he created the incandescent light bulb. It was no black swan, but something he believed he could create and that he struggled toward until he managed it. Henry Ford, too, would react dubiously, I am sure. Functional internal combustion engines had been worked toward for many years, and he was far from alone in visualizing the marriage between such an engine and a chassis. Likewise Wilbur and Orville Wright, who were simply the first to be successful at what countless others were working on.

But perhaps electric light, automobiles, and airplanes aren’t technologies of note?

Taleb then applies his argument to understanding health.

Can we understand human health without considering wild diseases and epidemics? Indeed the normal is often irrelevant.

The answer to his question here is, “no, we cannot, and as far as I am aware, nobody tries to do so.” Is he seriously claiming that we have not considered such “wild diseases and epidemics” as the black plague, measles, smallpox, and AIDS in our attempts to understand human health? And the response to his statement here is, “sickle cell anemia, diabetes, cataracts, senility, etc., are all normal, but hardly irrelevant.” Indeed there is a brutal dismissiveness of many of the chronic diseases that hundreds of millions of people suffer from that is frankly chilling.

He applies his argument to essentially all of human existence, claiming that:

History and societies do not crawl. They make jumps.

I find this an astonishingly shallow claim. Certainly history and societies do make jumps. The arrival of the Spanish in the Americas was certainly a societal and historical jump for the Aztecs. But what about the history of Aztec society prior to that? For that matter, what about the history of Spanish society prior to that? Was it all jumps, with absolute stasis in-between? Did the Spanish develop ships capable of sailing across the ocean overnight? Or was it through a slow process of development and refinement, continually building on the models that already existed?

And at page 21, I quit. At that point Taleb reveals his primary error. As he boasts about having made enough money to quit working and spend his time just thinking about ideas, he writes:

I wanted to be left alone to build, small steps at a time, an entire system of thought based on my Black Swan idea.

And there it is, the fundamental self-deception of Nassim Taleb. It is not sufficient to add his new idea into the ferment of existing ideas. It is not enough to say, “I think the effect of unpredictable events has been under-appreciated.” No, it must be the basis for “an entire system of thought.” But the idea of the Black Swan, while not meritless, is too small, to unencompassing, on which to build an entire system of thought.

Purely coincidentally, I had ordered an apparently unrelated book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, just before I took that trip, and it arrived today. In the first chapter, the author, Martin Gardner, lists these characteristics of the “sincere pseudo-scientist.”

(1) He regards himself as a genius.
(2) He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads…
(3) He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against (by the experts)…
(4) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories…
(5) He often has a tendency to write in complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined…

Taleb self-evidently satisfies criterion #1. Near the end of the book he congratulates himself on having devised a method of keeping fit that is superior to that devised by anyone else, and boasts of being nearly unique in his ability to walk properly (if you walk to get somewhere, or to get exercise, you are walking improperly). He repeatedly gives evidence of criterion #2. Nearly all scientists, economists, etc., are described as fools, with a special few (notably, mostly dead) elevated to the status of intellectual saints. #4 is satisfied in his repeated diatribes against the use of normal distributions (the bell curve). And while he is not overly complex in his jargon, he does like to create impressive sounding phrases like “the Platonic fold, “the explosive boundary where the Platonic mind-set enters into contact with messy reality…” thereby satisfying #5. The only criterion he does not obviously meet in this book is #3. Even so, satisfying 4 out of 5 criteria–devised half a century prior to publication of one’s book–that define the “sincere pseudo-scientist” should give anyone pause.

For me, it gives me pause in my reading. It’s the rare “great” book that I set aside with such immense disdain. But the book is itself no black swan, no great “a ha” moment, as the author so desperately would like it to be (and as so many sadly limited reviewers apparently believed it to be). It is, indeed, astonishingly mundane.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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5 Responses to The Black Swan Is not a Black Swan

  1. Scott Hanley says:

    I wanted to be left alone to build, small steps at a time, an entire system of thought based on my Black Swan idea.

    Hey, what’s with this “small steps at a time” business? It can’t be any good unless he thinks it all up at once, right?

  2. James K says:

    I haven’t read The Black Swan (and after that, I don’t think I’ll bother), but based on interviews I’ve listened to, I liken him more to someone like Josef Stiglitz: he came up with a genuinely smart idea, with limited applications (which, let’s face it, is more than most of us manage in our lives), and if he’d stopped there all would have been well. Instead he goes around trying to apply his idea to everything, which doesn’t work so well.

    Taleb is probably right that skewness and kurtosis (probability of extreme events) are under-examined in finance and economics, but at the end of the day the normal distribution describes most things pretty well. We don’t use it just because the math is easier.

  3. James Hanley says:

    he came up with a genuinely smart idea, with limited applications (which, let’s face it, is more than most of us manage in our lives), and if he’d stopped there all would have been well.

    Exactly. And I’m glad you’ve found us, Mr. K. I have a great appreciation for our connection with you, however “virtual” it may be.

  4. James K says:

    I’m glad to see you guys back up an running again as well.

  5. Jason Kuznicki says:

    I wanted to be left alone to build, small steps at a time, an entire system of thought based on my Black Swan idea.

    I dread it whenever anyone calls me with a book proposal that they have spent years working on in isolation.

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