I liked The Black Swan better than John Holbo and much of the Crooked Timber commentariat. But I completely agree with a lot of the criticisms. The book itself is not a good read because Taleb gets so caught up in invective against a world that has scorned him: at times it reads like Victor von Doom’s critique of Reed Richards and Tony Stark rather than an exploration of prediction and probability. It’s also perfectly right to say that the economic events of this last year were not unpredictable nor were they unpredicted: there were quite a few analysts out there who called some aspect of the current crisis well in advance of its unfolding. If no one cared to listen, that’s an institutional and political problem, not a problem with knowledge itself.
If I find the book useful, it’s probably because I just discard all of that filler and distraction and use the book to affirm some working inclinations that I have already developed. I do think that Taleb is right that there are sudden or significant shifts in history which are in some sense both unpredictable and in retrospect, perfectly comprehensible.
My current simple take on complex-systems theory, emergence and related ideas is that this body of thought is applicable to some but not all historical transformations. I think there are some moments in human history where the simultaneous actions of many independent agents have created a relatively sudden and unexpected “phase change” which has altered the social, economic and political environment in fundamental ways which none of those agents planned or anticipated, where one system or structure of human life gives way to a significantly new system.
This is what I end up thinking of as “black swans”: moments where some novel structure of feeling or being crystallizes from a great many independent forces and actions and surprises everyone involved. I think it’s very easy to overstate how much historical change is best described in this way. What is important when this description applies, however, is to resist the usual impulse of social science to isolate determining causes, to find the real or underlying reason why change happens. This kind of change is not incomprehensible or inexplicable, but it equally can’t be picked apart into discrete causes which can be given differing weights. If we’re talking about a “black swan” in the past, we have to find a way to appreciate the total process of change, to hold as much as we can in view at one time, because it is the simultaneity of interactions between many agents and actions that produces these unexpected changes.
Change the perspective to predictive rather than retrospective analysis. What I take from my understanding of “black swans” is that this kind of transformation limits the potential horizons of predictive social science and policy built on that kind of social science. Inasmuch as there are ever black swans of the kind that Taleb describes, you can’t build a better mousetrap and plan for them. We might learn to adapt to them, to live with them, but not master them. This is fine with me, but I think this proposition sits pretty ill with a lot of scholars, to be told that you can only go so far with knowledge, that there isn’t any tool or method or research that will get you past this problem. This is where I stop to let a kind of Romantic, Counter-Enlightenment attitude get on board my personal train, and it’s in that spirit that I read Taleb’s book.
Holbo takes on another aspect of Taleb’s argument, which concerns the evolutionary psychology of prediction and probability. Again, I completely agree that the argument as it is made in the book is pretty crappy.
I’m no fan of evolutionary psychology in general, moreover. But there is a kind of salvage job of Taleb’s points that would work pretty well for me. What I understand him to be saying is that in our current world, black swans happen more often than they once did, due to the density and size of the modern global system. Human beings, in his view, are cognitively adapted to an environment where black swans happen far less often.
On one level, I think that’s more or less on the money. As a species, we’re inclined toward identifying patterns and then making meaning from those patterns. We see coincidences as a hidden map of secret intentions, and try to make probability fall into regular beats and rhythms. When we predict, we usually do it by extrapolation, by guessing that the future will be like the changes we’ve recently lived through, only more so. So in this sense, we’re never going to be good at anticipating highly improbable or unexpected transformations. There’s always going to be a disconnect between our emotional inclinations about probability and our scientific understanding of it.
On the other hand, Holbo and CT commenters are completely right that in the past, black swans happened all the time at the microhistorical level of individual human lives. Maybe premodern societies were less prone to black swan events at the macrolevel, but in any past society, ordinary human life was constantly shadowed by unpredictable change, by moments where many forces and actions converged to produce a new way of being or living or thinking for one person or for a small group of people. In this sense, black swans aren’t a unique affliction of modernity, nor can it possibly be true that we’re seriously maladapted to them. Maybe we’re not inclined to expect such transformations, but at the same time, we’re often able to roll with the punches when they happen. In the aftermath of both microhistorical and macrohistorical black swans, the really amazing thing is the extent to which an abruptly strange and alien past is quickly forgotten or reimagined to conform to the newly normal.