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John Wilson

Future Contingency

Elsewhere in this issue (p. 23, to be precise), you'll find Greg Cootsona's review of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Wall Street trader whose previous book was the 2004 release Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. Taleb argues that we consistently assume an excessive degree of predictability, even inevitability, in the course of events large and small. When we are taken by surprise by an event none of the experts saw coming, we summon them—and without batting an eye they proceed to explain how this once unimaginable happening was in fact entirely predictable, ho-hum, what's the fuss? (For a related argument, see Lee Clarke's Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2006. Clarke wants us to pay more attention to potential events that are admittedly improbable but possible nonetheless—events with consequences so catastrophic we ignore them at our peril.)

All right, you may say, but what's the payoff? Something along the lines of "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition"? For an answer, best set Taleb aside and turn to Philip Jenkins' new book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis (Oxford Univ. Press), for a how-to in epistemic humility informed by history. Two converging trends are at the heart of Jenkins' book. The first is the decline of Christianity in Europe, for many centuries the heartland of the faith. The second is the growth of Islam in the same region, fueled by immigration and higher birth rates. Again and again Jenkins shows how commentators on these trends are guilty of the bad habits that Taleb excoriates. Christianity is dying in Europe. It's inevitable. Europe will be dominated by Islam a century from now. It's inevitable. And so on.

A better case study can hardly be imagined. In 1967, my professors overwhelmingly assumed that religion—already moribund, ...

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