'The Black Swan' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb has popped in and out of my life for quite a while. I listened to the audiobook last year some time, but then borrowed it again and listened to it three times while I was sorting letters at work. Then I had to borrow a hard copy so I could write some quotes for you.
It's hard to put your finger on quite what this book is about, because it is about so many things. It is in parts the story of his life, and the things that happened to him to make him realise that he was seeing everything backwards. He describes how people's attitude to rare and highly unlikely events, Black Swans, is twisted in a way to make us think they should have been predictable. Throughout he uses vignettes from the real world, and invented ones, to highlight such Black Swan events and how the human race responds.
I wrote down a few things as I was listening that made sense to me: the link between busyness and being able to claim responsibility for success; managers in a business busy doing their managing stuff, the business does well, they get to claim it was all their doing, but when disaster strikes they claim it was events out side their control. What the book argues a lot is that what humans do mostly bears little relation to the outcome. He talks about how people are notoriously bad at predicting things, and so probably shouldn't bother. Opinions are like possessions and we don't like to let go of them; when we have a precious belief and someone or some event shows it to be mistaken we are very loath to change it.
We narrate backwards to give an illusion of understanding; this is another way of being wise after the fact. He discusses 9/11 at some length, and the notion that authorities should have been able to predict and thus prevent it. People point to all the clues, and with hindsight, show how it was not only predictable but patently obvious. Then when authorities put in place precautions to prevent exactly the same thing happening again, he points out that if some politician had suggested these precautions prior to 9/11 he would have been argued with or even laughed at.
"Being a Fool in the Right Places
The lesson for the small is: be human! Accept that being human involves some amount of epistemic arrogance in running your affairs. Do not be ashamed of that. Do not try to always withhold judgement - opinions are the stuff of life. Do not try to avoid predicting - yes, after this diatribe about prediction I am not urging you to stop being a fool. Just be a fool in the right places.
What you should avoid is unnecessary dependence on large-scale harmful predictions - those and only those. Avoid the big subjects that may hurt your future: be fooled in small matters, not in the large. Do not listen to economic forecasters or to predictors in social science (they are mere entertainers), but do make your own forecast for the picnic. By all means, demand certainty for the next picnic; but avoid government social-security forecasts for the year 2040.
Know how to rank beliefs not according to their plausibility but by the harm they may cause.
The reader might feel queasy reading about these general failures to see the future and wonder what to do. But if you shed the idea of full predictability, there are plenty of things to do provided you remain conscious of their limits. Knowing that you cannot predict does not mean that you cannot benefit from unpredictability.
The bottom line: be prepared! Narrow-minded prediction has an analgesic or therapeutic effect. Be aware of the numbing effect of magic numbers. Be prepared for relevant eventualities. " (p.203)
I have dithered and dithered over writing this review, and then in searching about him last week I came across this old review in the Guardian for 'Antifragile', but had much more fun reading the comments at the bottom, many of them attacking Black Swan. It can make you feel a bit stupid sometimes to enjoy a book, and then have other people point out how not-clever it really is. But then I thought to myself that what I liked about the book is all the things that people were criticising it for. I loved his anecdotes and the stuff that he made up to make a point, I found the style engaging and allowed myself to be carried along by his arguments. Yes, it was a bit rambling and repetitive in places, but you know what ... so is Harry Potter and you rarely read a critical review of her writing. I even liked the fact that he is a bit full of himself and hyped up on his own cleverness. And so what if his ideas are not that original, it's being able to get the ideas across in an interesting and accessible way that can often be the thing that matters. I trawled through trying to find another quote but he is so constantly circling round and referring back to other points in his argument that it is impossible to find any single paragraph that tells you anything succinct. Review quotes on the back use words like idiosyncratic, opinionated, provocative and bouncy ... make of it what you will.