Nobody Expects the Black Swans?

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.

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4 Responses to Nobody Expects the Black Swans?

  1. Carl says:

    I remember thinking the same thing about Taleb when I ran across him at The Edge, that he was chippy and combative to the point of useless incoherence. But I agree it’s worth stripping out the affect to get to the good stuff. In particular, I like the robust understanding this field is developing of why it’s so much easier to predict the future in retrospect.

    If I remember correctly Taleb wants the I-told-you-so cred, based on the idea that black swans (e.g. catastrophic economic crashes) are both rare and ultimately inevitable. Eventually the dice come up snake-eyes. But it’s the oldest game in the book to throw out a bunch of predictions based on multi-variable extrapolations of possible futures, then cherry-pick the ones that actually happen and say look, I nailed it. Intellectual history is full of wacko prophets; we tend only rediscover the ones who happened to be right. And grannies the world over foretell doom for their younguns, kids these days, then confirm the bias the n+1 time something bad happens.

    It seems to me that we can be more prudent in our approaches to future paradoxes of unintended consequences if we understand the dynamics of complex systems. But ‘more likely, less likely’ does take us out of the certainty comfort zone.

  2. Doug says:

    I found Taleb’s authorial voice insufferable, quit at the preface, lent the book to a colleague and moved out of the country (demonstrating something about correlation and causation in the process, I am sure), so I’ll just chip in about the arguments as presented here. Tim, do you think you might be receptive to ideas about a “phase change” because you witnessed a big one, the fall of Communism, relatively early in your adult life?

    Moving from predictive to political, there’s also a substantial body of work in bringing about “phase changes” – not just your traditional revolutionaries, but their modern mediated descendants, the folks who brought down Milosevic, and spurred the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Of course that effort, too, gets recursive. Right now, both government and opposition in Georgia are graduates of this school, and the opposition is trying to use these methods to push out the government without recourse to elections.

    In finance, a quibble that Taleb may or may not have addressed, which is related to timing. Not only can the market stay irrational far longer than any individual actor can stay solvent, if a professional money manager got out of a particular market in 2006 or 2007, he or she left an awful lot of money on the table, very possibly enough to have gotten fired over it.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    In a way, the “phase change” I’m most eager to apply this idea are the two big disjunctures of modernity: 1500-1650 and 1750-1820, where I think the human subject was quite substantially different on the other side than it was going in, even if all individual human beings even at the metropolitan center hadn’t undergone that transformation in total. So much historical work is aimed at seeing some major force or driver underneath that change (often deriding alternative arguments), when it seems to me that both moments are quintessential cases of emergence, of novel structures arising from the accidental or unplanned convergent actions of many independent agents and institutions, and at both moments, the political, social and cultural environment was substantially different afterwards in ways that could scarcely have been imagined by most humans on the other side. And yet, as with most cases of emergence, the results make sense in terms of what came before: the novelty of modernity didn’t fall intact from the moon.

  4. john theibault says:

    I’ve not read Taleb, but I am very sympathetic to your ideas on how complexity theory and emergence can be useful for historians. I thought immediately of the French/Industrial Revolution as embodying that “phase change” quality. I’d cast the critique of “so much historical work” slightly differently, though. It’s true that professional recognition often comes from proposing a new cause for some significant historical event (“it’s the rising bourgeoisie!” “No, it’s an aristocratic reaction to centralization!”), but good historical work is often additive (“Religion was really important, too”) in a way that can be very helpful for defusing monocausal explanations. Indeed, I think complexity theory and emergence can help history find a place in the social sciences beyond being a repository of case studies from which political scientists, economists, and sociologists can build their models.

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