On Black Swans

by F.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb goes on sale on Tuesday. I suspect it will sell well, since skeptical books seem to be finding and audience. On the other hand, I’m not sure folks–especially Americans–will be prepared to be told over and over how little they know and how their success (if they’ve had any) is most likely the result of luck. We’ll see.

Here’s a taste from an interview with Taleb:

I have been thinking about the neglected role of luck and our overestimation of knowledge ever since I can remember, though not in clear form…. I figured out that that the system taught you what little certainties we think we had, and trained you to become a sucker by making you ashamed of saying “I don’t know”.

The world is too ambiguous–the Black Swan comes from believing in crisp and neat texture of reality, and from the overestimation of our skills in mapping the world.

…I was only able to express my idea after I started working in the city of London and in Wall Street. It seemed so obvious that people in Wall Street didn’t know what was going on, yet thought that they did. It was so blatant that they overestimated their explanations, the role of “skills”, yet didn’t realize it.

So I kept a tally of predictions and realized they can’t  predict but somehow manage to convince themselves they could. The Black Swan, that rare, high-impact event, was the main reason for their failure to predict and understand the world. It was both a psychological problem (we didn’t know) and an empirical one; so I approached the problem from both ends.