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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto) Hardcover – April 17, 2007
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Bestselling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb continues his exploration of randomness in his fascinating new book, The Black Swan, in which he examines the influence of highly improbable and unpredictable events that have massive impact. Engaging and enlightening, The Black Swan is a book that may change the way you think about the world, a book that Chris Anderson calls, "a delightful romp through history, economics, and the frailties of human nature." See Anderson's entire guest review below.
Guest Reviewer: Chris Anderson
Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and the author of The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.
Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon warned that our minds are wired to deceive us. "Beware the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall--they are the real distorting prisms of human nature." Chief among them: "Assuming more order than exists in chaotic nature." Now consider the typical stock market report: "Today investors bid shares down out of concern over Iranian oil production." Sigh. We're still doing it.
Our brains are wired for narrative, not statistical uncertainty. And so we tell ourselves simple stories to explain complex thing we don't--and, most importantly, can't--know. The truth is that we have no idea why stock markets go up or down on any given day, and whatever reason we give is sure to be grossly simplified, if not flat out wrong.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb first made this argument in Fooled by Randomness, an engaging look at the history and reasons for our predilection for self-deception when it comes to statistics. Now, in The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, he focuses on that most dismal of sciences, predicting the future. Forecasting is not just at the heart of Wall Street, but its something each of us does every time we make an insurance payment or strap on a seat belt.
The problem, Nassim explains, is that we place too much weight on the odds that past events will repeat (diligently trying to follow the path of the "millionaire next door," when unrepeatable chance is a better explanation). Instead, the really important events are rare and unpredictable. He calls them Black Swans, which is a reference to a 17th century philosophical thought experiment. In Europe all anyone had ever seen were white swans; indeed, "all swans are white" had long been used as the standard example of a scientific truth. So what was the chance of seeing a black one? Impossible to calculate, or at least they were until 1697, when explorers found Cygnus atratus in Australia.
Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it's practically useless. September 11th is one such example, and stock market crashes are another. Or, as he puts it, "History does not crawl, it jumps." Our assumptions grow out of the bell-curve predictability of what he calls "Mediocristan," while our world is really shaped by the wild powerlaw swings of "Extremistan."
In full disclosure, I'm a long admirer of Taleb's work and a few of my comments on drafts found their way into the book. I, too, look at the world through the powerlaw lens, and I too find that it reveals how many of our assumptions are wrong. But Taleb takes this to a new level with a delightful romp through history, economics, and the frailties of human nature. --Chris Anderson
In business and government, major money is spent on prediction. Uselessly, according to Taleb, who administers a severe thrashing to MBA- and Nobel Prize-credentialed experts who make their living from economic forecasting. A financial trader and current rebel with a cause, Taleb is mathematically oriented and alludes to statistical concepts that underlie models of prediction, while his expressive energy is expended on roller-coaster passages, bordering on gleeful diatribes, on why experts are wrong. They neglect Taleb's metaphor of "the black swan," whose discovery invalidated the theory that all swans are white. Taleb rides this manifestation of the unpredicted event into a range of phenomena, such as why a book becomes a best-seller or how an entrepreneur becomes a billionaire, taking pit stops with philosophers who have addressed the meaning of the unexpected and confounding. Taleb projects a strong presence here that will tempt outside-the-box thinkers into giving him a look. Gilbert Taylor
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The book covers both the math as well as the narrative intuition for understanding rare events and why we tend to underestimate both their frequency and effects on our best laid plans.
The book is full of hundreds of great examples, and it is written in a very approachable style.
Whether you are a hard core statistician or just someone interested in statistics, this is a great book for you.
In many ways this book tells us things that we all already know, but part of the reason that I believe it is so long is that it needs to systematically go through so many examples of situations that we all use the same type of false logic in, and tell us that it is harmful, no matter how trivial the situation may seem. Embracing what this book is trying to say is painful, and will cause extreme amounts of cognitive dissonance if you are not in the right place. You can generally tell if you fall into that category, when you find yourself picking holes in the edge of the argument for black swans, rather that looking at your held beliefs through the central idea of the book: seeing a million white swans does not confirm the theory that every swan is white, however the sight of one black swan means that the theory is irreparably flawed.
as a real world example, an algorithm that can perfectly predict a normal commodity market and provide consistent returns for 5 years, but is wrong for one day when the market moves 200+% due to a spontaneous crisis, is useless. The one day is the only thing that mattered, while the 20% years of small consistency are the statistical noise.
Most people will always prefer a seemingly solid floor to stand on, even if it prevents them from realizing that they're sinking into the ocean