Monday, July 14, 2008

Black Swans and Skeptics

I am about to order "The Black Swan" by Nassim Taleb. Taleb was a trader/hedge fund guy on Wall Street. Looking at market behavior, he had a few insights into the concepts of randomness, rational reasoning, and improbable events.
Taleb's Black Swan has a central and unique attribute: the high impact. His claim is that almost all consequential events in history come from the unexpected—while humans convince themselves that these events are explainable in hindsight (bias). (Wikipedia)

If you've been reading my blog and my comments on other blogs, you already know how annoyed I am by the term "skeptic" when used in the context of atheism. In Taleb's worldview, these skeptics who deny religion based on the concept that the descriptions of events are highly improbably, are not "true skeptics" at all.

Taleb calls himself a "skeptical empiricist", and believes that scientists, economists, historians, policymakers, businessmen, and financiers are victims of an illusion of pattern; they overestimate the value of rational explanations of past data, and underestimate the prevalence of unexplainable randomness in that data. He follows a long lineage of skeptical philosophers, including Socrates, Sextus Empiricus, Al-Ghazali, Pierre Bayle, Montaigne, David Hume and Karl Popper in believing that we know much less than we think we do, and that the past should not be used naively to predict the future.

Taleb now focuses on being a researcher in the philosophy of randomness and the role of uncertainty in science and society, with particular emphasis on the philosophy of history and the role of fortunate or unfortunate high-impact random events, which he calls "black swans", in determining the course of history.

Taleb believes that most people ignore "black swans" because we are more comfortable seeing the world as something structured, ordinary, and comprehensible. Taleb calls this blindness the Platonic fallacy, and argues that it leads to three distortions:

1. Narrative fallacy: creating a story post-hoc so that an event will seem to have an identifiable cause.
2. Ludic fallacy: believing that the structured randomness found in games resembles the unstructured randomness found in life. Taleb faults random walk models and other inspirations of modern probability theory for this inadequacy.
3. Statistical regress fallacy: believing that the probability of future events is predictable by examining occurrences of past events.

He also believes that people are subject to the triplet of opacity, through which history is distilled even as current events are incomprehensible. The triplet of opacity consists of

1. an illusion of understanding of current events
2. a retrospective distortion of historical events
3. an overestimation of factual information, combined with an overvalue of the intellectual elite


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha. I saw that book too. So if highly improbable events are actually quite probable, then I guess I was wrong all along. Scientology really is the one true religion!

July 14, 2008 1:51 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Hmmm, don't follow your logic. Try again.

July 14, 2008 1:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


July 14, 2008 6:17 PM  
Blogger Leora said...

For a moment, I thought you were entering Project Black. No, you couldn't, cuz that's not your image. Against the rules.

I don't follow any of these arguments, and I don't follow why it is so important to try to follow them. I'm too right-brained, perhaps.

July 15, 2008 4:09 AM  

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