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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto)
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto)
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Random House, 2007
366 pp., 35.00

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Greg Cootsona

In Extremistan

The impact of the highly improbable.

One impossibly sunny September day in Manhattan, I was making my way to work, and—appropriately enough for a New Yorker—dropping off dress shirts. My extremely pleasant dry cleaner eschewed the usual greeting and exclaimed, "A plane has hit one of the Twin Towers." That was it. He moved on and didn't seem especially agitated. Surprised but not unduly distressed, I hopped on my bike and continued to the church office. Just another normal day.

I'm going to assume that the day before, somewhere in the vicinity of Boston, eager hands grabbed another set of dry-cleaned clothes in preparation for a trip to Los Angeles. This customer had been getting ready for United Flight 175 and was flying overhead as I leisurely pedaled in Central Park on the way to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. That 767 would collide with the South Tower. Who would have known? Who could have predicted that set of events?

Routinely we operate on the understanding that life in general and our own lives in particular are governed by the predictable, the consistent. But such was hardly the case on that beautiful September morning. In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the case that

Our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according to our current knowledge)—and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated.

This emphasis on the predictable leads us to make all sorts of false assumptions, about matters large and small. Before people in the Old World encountered Australia, all swans were assumed to be white. Then they saw a black swan.

Taleb is himself an idiosyncratic character—a high-stakes trader and an autodidact with a taste for philosophy. (The Wall Street Journal says that his previous book, Fooled by Randomness, "enjoys cult status in the hedge-fund industry.") His style has the flavor of Umberto Eco and Milan Kundera: jumpy, sprightly, erudite, iconoclastic, and even somewhat cynical. The Black Swan verges on chaos at times and cries for another round of editing. But I suppose that's what I should have expected from a book which asserts that the unanticipated and discontinuous make the biggest difference in life. In other words, the book's form embodies its content.

Our perennial problem, Taleb says, is our craving for certainty. We want to be able to grasp the future and graph it on a comforting bell curve. But as Yogi Berra (a Taleb favorite) once quipped, "It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future." We never see Black Swans coming, but ex post facto, we offer intricate accounts for why they were so obvious. Using Taleb's vocabulary, we want a world that's Mild. Instead it's Wild. We want to live in Mediocristan, but we actually live in Extremistan. The former is "The province dominated by the mediocre, with few extreme successes or failures. No single observation can meaningfully affect the aggregate. The bell curve is grounded in Mediocristan." The latter is "The province where the total can be conceivably impacted by a single observation."

Taleb offers examples of both. In the land of Mediocristan are height and weight distributions, income for a dentist, and mortality rates. In Extremistan are wealth, damage caused by an earthquake, financial markets, and book sales per author. (I mention that last case because, as an author, I find it oddly reassuring.) More worthy of note is that Taleb openly admits that it was not possible to predict the stock market crash of 1987, for example, and advises us that more economic Black Swans are due in the future (and that we can potentially benefit from that fact).

So let's look at one inhabitant of Extremistan that's of particular interest to readers of Books & Culture (though it's evidently not to important for Taleb), the emergence of Christianity:

The Roman chroniclers of that period did not even take note of the new religion—historians of Christianity are baffled by the absence of contemporary mentions. Apparently, few of the big guns took the ideas of a seemingly heretical Jew seriously enough to think that he would leave traces for posterity.

This isn't quite right—Taleb's more comfortable with broad strokes than with the nuances of history—but never mind. On to the lesson: "History and societies do not crawl. They make jumps. They go from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between. Yet we (and historians) like to believe in the predictable, small incremental progression."

All this reminds me of an internal debate among scholars of Darwinian evolution. Though Charles Darwin famously endorsed the time-honored dictum that "nature does not make leaps," some contemporary scholars—e.g., Stephen Jay Gould—argue for the importance of fits and starts in the process. But discontinuous change—"punctuated equilibrium," as Gould and his colleague Nils Eldredge formulated it— remains unpalatable to many scientists and their co-belligerents. Taleb, of course, would say that they just don't want to accept the sheer contingency of our universe.

And yet I detect an inconsistency in his argument. He says we're suckers for a grand narrative. So his Big Story is that there is none. That doesn't mean I haven't learned from Taleb's book. Indeed, I want to shout amen to his contention that humans by nature create huge structures in order to assert certainty and predictability in a highly improbable world. And I'd love to sit down with him over a beer or two for a long conversation. (I have a feeling that I'd mostly be listening, but it would be an evening well spent.) Ultimately, though, Taleb falls prey to the paradox that skulks around the halls of postmodernity: No sooner does he herald the fragmentary, the irrational, the postmodern—no sooner does he evoke an incredulity toward metanarratives—than some new meta-structure sneaks in via the back door. The Black Swan is his totalizing concept. By asserting unpredictability (against the common, pedestrian desire for the known and the repeated), Taleb finds some level of mastery over the world.

Very well, how shall we then live? One of his responses, which I energetically endorse, is humility. Taleb promotes epistemic humility, or as he names it, Epistemocracy, "the province where the laws are structured with this kind of human fallibility in mind." But does it also lead to despair? Indeed, Taleb admits, all this randomness disturbs him: "I have spent my entire life studying randomness, practicing randomness, hating randomness. The more that time passes … the more disgusted I am with Mother Nature." And I would argue, humanist that he is, Taleb's conclusion is well-nigh foregone. Without any (at least explicit) commitment that some great Force is at work guiding these events, isn't a certain sourness the logical conclusion?

I hasten to clarify: belief in God's providential dealings with the world can overcome despair, but ought never lead, backdoor, to human presumption. Presumed psychological mastery by faith over life's uncertainties is a blatant misuse of the great doctrine of Providence. Instead, humility before, and submission to, God's will is what we are called to. The central conviction remains that God's hand is guiding the events of history whether we can discern a pattern or not. That conviction stands however correct Taleb is with his reflections on Black Swans. In fact, I think he's on to something. We don't know what the future holds, only that Someone—entirely wiser than our statistics, predictions, and bell curves—holds the future.

Greg Cootsona is pastor of adult discipleship at Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico, California. He holds a Ph.D. in theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and his dissertation morphed into Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science (Geneva). He can be reached at GCootsona@bidwellpres.org, and he's not certain if you'll email him or not.

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