The Black Swan is a standalone book in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s landmark Incerto series, an investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand. The other books in the series are Fooled by Randomness, Antifragile, Skin in the Game, and The Bed of Procrustes.
A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives.
Why do we not acknowledge the phenomenon of black swans until after they occur? Part of the answer, according to Taleb, is that humans are hardwired to learn specifics when they should be focused on generalities. We concentrate on things we already know and time and time again fail to take into consideration what we don’t know. We are, therefore, unable to truly estimate opportunities, too vulnerable to the impulse to simplify, narrate, and categorize, and not open enough to rewarding those who can imagine the “impossible.”
For years, Taleb has studied how we fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world. In this revelatory book, Taleb explains everything we know about what we don’t know, and this second edition features a new philosophical and empirical essay, “On Robustness and Fragility,” which offers tools to navigate and exploit a Black Swan world.
Elegant, startling, and universal in its applications, The Black Swan will change the way you look at the world. Taleb is a vastly entertaining writer, with wit, irreverence, and unusual stories to tell. He has a polymathic command of subjects ranging from cognitive science to business to probability theory. The Black Swan is a landmark book—itself a black swan.
Praise for Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“The most prophetic voice of all.”—GQ
Praise for The Black Swan
“[A book] that altered modern thinking.”—The Times (London)
“A masterpiece.”—Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired, author of The Long Tail
“Idiosyncratically brilliant.”—Niall Ferguson, Los Angeles Times
“The Black Swan changed my view of how the world works.”—Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate
“[Taleb writes] in a style that owes as much to Stephen Colbert as it does to Michel de Montaigne. . . . We eagerly romp with him through the follies of confirmation bias [and] narrative fallacy.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Hugely enjoyable—compelling . . . easy to dip into.”—Financial Times
“Engaging . . . The Black Swan has appealing cheek and admirable ambition.”—The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has devoted his life to problems of uncertainty, probability, and knowledge. He spent nearly two decades as a businessman and quantitative trader before becoming a full-time philosophical essayist and academic researcher in 2006. Although he spends most of his time in the intense seclusion of his study, or as a flâneur meditating in cafés, he is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. His main subject matter is “decision making under opacity”—that is, a map and a protocol on how we should live in a world we don’t understand.
Taleb’s books have been published in thirty-three languages.
Read an Excerpt
ON THE PLUMAGE OF BIRDS
Before the discovery of Australia, people in the old world were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.*
I push one step beyond this philosophical-logical question into an empirical reality, and one that has obsessed me since childhood. What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.* A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives. Ever since we left the Pleistocene, some ten millennia ago, the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events, the ones we study and discuss and try to predict from reading the newspapers, have become increasingly inconsequential.
Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next. (Don’t cheat by using the explanations drilled into your cranium by your dull high school teacher). How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet bloc? How about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.
This combination of low predictability and large impact makes the Black Swan a great puzzle; but that is not yet the core concern of this book. Add to this phenomenon the fact that we tend to act as if it does not exist! I don’t mean just you, your cousin Joey, and me, but almost all “social scientists” who, for over a century, have operated under the false belief that their tools could measure uncertainty. For the applications of the sciences of uncertainty to real-world problems has had ridiculous effects; I have been privileged to see it in finance and economics. Go ask your portfolio manager for his definition of “risk,” and odds are that he will supply you with a measure that excludes the possibility of the Black Swan–hence one that has no better predictive value for assessing the total risks than astrology (we will see how they dress up the intellectual fraud with mathematics). This problem is endemic in social matters.
The central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly the large deviations: Why do we, scientists or nonscientists, hotshots or regular Joes, tend to see the pennies instead of the dollars? Why do we keep focusing on the minutiae, not the possible significant large events, in spite of the obvious evidence of their huge influence? And, if you follow my argument, why does reading the newspaper actually decrease your knowledge of the world?
It is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks. It is not so hard to identify the role of Black Swans, from your armchair (or bar stool). Go through the following exercise. Look into your own existence. Count the significant events, the technological changes, and the inventions that have taken place in our environment since you were born and compare them to what was expected before their advent. How many of them came on a schedule? Look into your own personal life, to your choice of profession, say, or meeting your mate, your exile from your country of origin, the betrayals you faced, your sudden enrichment or impoverishment. How often did these things occur according to plan?
* The spread of camera cell phones has afforded me a large collection of pictures of black swans sent by traveling readers. Last Christmas I also got a case of Black Swan Wine (not my favorite), a videotape (I don’t watch videos), and two books. I prefer the pictures.
* The highly expected not happening is also a Black Swan. Note that, by symmetry the occurrence of a highly improbable event is the equivalent of the nonoccurrence of a highly probable one.
What You Do Not Know
Black Swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.
Think of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001: had the risk been reasonably conceivable on September 10, it would not have happened. If such a possibility were deemed worthy of attention, fighter planes would have circled the sky above the twin towers, airplanes would have had locked bulletproof doors, and the attack would not have taken place, period. Something else might have taken place. What? I don’t know. Isn’t it strange to see an event happening precisely because it was not supposed to happen? What kind of defense do we have against that? Whatever you come to know (that New York is an easy terrorist target, for instance) may become inconsequential if your enemy knows that you know it. It may be odd to realize that, in such a strategic game, what you know can be truly inconsequential.
This extends to all businesses. Think about the “secret recipe” to making a killing in the restaurant business. If it were known and obvious then someone next door would have already come up with the idea and it would have become generic. The next killing in the restaurant industry needs to be an idea that is not easily conceived of by the current population of restaurateurs. It has to be at some distance from expectations. The more unexpected the success of such a venture, the smaller the number of competitors, and the more successful the entrepreneur who implements the idea. The same applies to the shoe and the book businesses–or any kind of entrepreneurship. The same applies to scientific theories–nobody has interest in listening to trivialities. The payoff of a human venture is, in general, inversely proportional to what it is expected to be.
Consider the Pacific tsunami of December 2004. Had it been expected, it would not have caused the damage it did–the areas affected would have been less populated, an early warning system would have been put in place. What you know cannot really hurt you.
Experts and “Empty Suits”
The inability to predict outliers implies the inability to predict the course of history, given the share of these events in the dynamics of events.
But we act as though we are able to predict historical events, or, even wore, as if we are able to change the course of history. We produce thirty year projections of social security deficits and oil prices without realizing that we cannot even predict these for next summer–our cumulative prediction errors for political and economic events are so monstrous that every time I look at the empirical record I have to pinch myself to verify that I am not dreaming. What is surprising is not the magnitude of our forecast errors, but our absence of awareness of it. This is all the more worrisome when we engage in deadly conflicts: wars are fundamentally unpredictable (and we do not know it). Owing to this misunderstanding of the casual chains between policy and actions, we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance–like a child playing with a chemistry kit.
Our inability to predict in environments subjected to the Black Swan, coupled with a general lack of the awareness of this state of affairs, means that certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not. based on their empirical record, they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better at narrating–or, worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models. They are also more likely to wear a tie.
Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naïvely try to predict them). There are so many things we can do if we focus on anti knowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans by maximizing your exposure to them.
Learning to Learn
Another related human impediment comes from excessive focus on what we do know: we tend to learn the precise, not the general.
What did people learn from the 9/11 episode? Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding Islamic prototerrorists and tall buildings. Many keep reminding me that it is important for us to be practical and take tangible steps rather than to “theorize” about knowledge. The story of the Maginot Line shows how we are conditioned to be specific. The French, after the Great War, built a wall along the previous German invasion route to prevent reinvasion– Hitler just (almost) effortlessly went around it. The French had been excellent students of history; they just learned with too much precision. They were too practical and exceedingly focused for their own safety.
We do not spontaneously learn that we don’t learn that we don’t learn. The problem lies in the structure of our minds: we don’t learn rules, just facts, and only facts. Metarules (such as the rule that we have a tendency to not learn rules) we don’t seem to be good at getting. We scorn the abstract; we scorn it with passion.
Why? It is necessary here, as it is my agenda in the rest of this book, both to stand conventional wisdom on its head and to show how inapplicable it is to our modern, complex, and increasingly recursive environment.*
But there is a deeper question: What are our minds made for? It looks as if we have the wrong user’s manual. Our minds do not seem made to think and introspect; if they were, things would be easier for us today, but then we would not be here today and I would not have been here to talk about it–my counterfactual, introspective, and hard-thinking ancestor would have been eaten by a tiger while his nonthinking, but faster-reacting cousin would have run for cover. Consider that thinking is time-consuming and generally a great waste of energy, that our predecessors spent more than a hundred million years as nonthinking mammals and that in the blip in our history during which we have used our brain we have used it on subjects too peripheral to matter. Evidence shows that we do much less thinking than we believe we do—except, of course, when we think about it.
* Recursive here means that the world in which we live has an increasing number of feedback loops, causing events to be the cause of more events (say, people buy a book because other people bought it), thus generating snowballs and arbitrary and unpredictable planet-wide winner-take-all effects. We live in an environment where information flows too rapidly, accelerating such epidemics. Likewise, events can happen because they are not supposed to happen. (Our intuitions are made for an environment with simpler causes and effects and slowly moving information.) This type of randomness did not prevail during the Pleistocene.
A NEW KIND OF INGRATITUDE
It is quite saddening to think of those people who have been mistreated by history. There were the poètes maudits, like Edgar Allan Poe or Arthur Rimbaud, scorned by society and later worshipped and force-fed to schoolchildren. (There are even schools named after high school dropouts). Alas, this recognition came a little too late for the poet to get a serotonin kick out of it, or to prop up his romantic life on earth. But there are even more mistreated heroes–the very sad category of those who we do not know were heroes, who saved our lives, who helped us avoid disasters. They left no traces and did not even know that they were making a contribution. We remember the martyrs who died for a cause that we knew about, never those no less effective in their contribution but whose cause we were never aware–precisely because they were successful. Our ingratitude towards the poètes maudits fades completely in front of this other type of thanklessness. This is a far more vicious kind of ingratitude: the feeling of uselessness on the part of the silent hero. I will illustrate with the following thought experiment.
Assume that a legislator with courage, influence, intellect, vision, and perseverance manages to enact a law that goes into universal effect and employment on September 10, 2001; it imposes the continuously locked bulletproof doors in every cockpit (at high costs to the struggling airlines)– just in case terrorists decide to use planes to attack the World Trade
Center in New York City. I know this is lunacy, but it is just a thought experiment (I am aware that there may be no such thing as a legislator with intellect, courage, vision, and perseverance; this is the point of the thought experiment). The legislation is not a popular measure among the airline personnel, as it complicates their lives. But it would certainly have prevented 9/11.
The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors gets no statues in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary. “Joe Smith, who helped avoid the disaster of 9/11, died of complications of liver disease.” Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, the public, with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office. Vox clamantis in deserto. He will retire depressed, with a great sense of failure. He will die with the impression of having done nothing useful. I wish I could go attend his funeral, but, reader, I can’t find him. And yet, recognition can be quite a pump. Believe me, even those who genuinely claim that they do not believe in recognition, and that they separate labor from the fruits of labor, actually get a serotonin kick from it. See how the silent hero is rewarded: even his own hormonal system will conspire to offer no reward.
Now consider again the events of 9/11. In their aftermath, who got the recognition? Those you saw in the media, on television performing heroic acts, and those whom you saw trying to give you the impression that they were performing heroic acts. The latter category includes someone like the New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso, who “saved the stock exchange” and received a huge bonus for his contribution (the equivalent of several thousand average salaries). All he had to do was be there to ring the opening bell on television–the television that, we will see, is the carrier of unfairness and a major cause of Black Swan blindness.
Who gets rewarded, the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to “correct” his predecessors’ faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)?
It is the same logic reversal we saw earlier with the value of what we don’t know; everybody knows that you need more prevention than treatment, but few reward acts of prevention. We glorify those who left their names in history books at the expense of those contributors about whom our books are silent. We humans are not just a superficial race (this may be curable to some extent); we are a very unfair one.
LIFE IS VERY UNUSUAL
This is a book about uncertainty; to this author, the rare event equals uncertainty. This may seem like a strong statement–that we need to principally study the rare and extreme events in order to figure out common ones–but I will make myself clear as follows. There are two possible ways to approach phenomena. The first is to rule out the extraordinary and focus on the “normal.” The examiner leaves aside “outliers” and studies ordinary cases. The second approach is to consider that in order to understand a phenomenon, one needs to first consider the extremes–particularly if, like the Black Swan, they carry an extraordinary cumulative effect.
I don’t particularly care about the usual. If you want to get an idea of a friend’s temperament, ethics, and personal elegance, you need to look at him under the tests of severe circumstances, not under the regular rosy glow of daily life. Can you assess the danger a criminal poses by examining only what he does on an ordinary day? Can we understand health without considering wild diseases and epidemics? Indeed the normal is often irrelevant.
Almost everything in social life is produced by rare but consequential shocks and jumps; all the while almost everything studied about social life focuses on the “normal,” particularly with “bell curve” methods of inference that tell you close to nothing. Why? Because the bell curve ignores large deviations, cannot handle them, yet makes us confident that we have tamed uncertainty. Its nickname in this book is GIF, Great Intellectual Fraud.
PLATO AND THE NERD
At the start of the Jewish revolt in the first century of our era, much of the Jews’ anger was caused by the Romans’ insistence on putting a statue of Caligula in their temple in Jerusalem in exchange for placing a statue of the Jewish god Yahweh in Roman temples. The Romans did not realize that what the Jews (and the subsequent Levantine monotheists) meant by god was abstract, all embracing, and had nothing to do with the anthropomorphic, too human representation that Romans had in mind when they said deus. Critically, the Jewish god did not lend himself to symbolic representation. Likewise, what many people commoditize and label as “unknown,” “improbable,” or “uncertain” is not the same thing to me; it is not a concrete and precise category of knowledge, a nerdified field, but its opposite; it is the lack (and limitations) of knowledge. It is the exact contrary of knowledge; one should learn to avoid using terms made for knowledge to describe its opposite.
What I call Platonicity, after the ideas (and personality) of the philosopher Plato, is our tendency to focus on pure and well-defined “forms,” whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias (societies built according to some blueprint of what “makes sense”), even nationalities. When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over other less elegant objects, those with messier and less tractable structures (an idea that I will elaborate progressively throughout this book).
Platonicity is what makes us think that we understand more than we actually do. But this does not happen everywhere. I am not saying that Platonic forms don’t exist. Models and constructions are not always wrong; they are wrong only in some specific places. The difficulty is that a) you do not know where beforehand (only after the fact), and b) the mistakes can lead to severe consequences. These models are like potentially helpful medicines that carry random but very severe side effects.
The Platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with the messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide. It is here that the Black Swan is produced.
TOO DULL TO WRITE ABOUT
It was said that the artistic filmmaker Luchino Visconti made sure that when actors pointed at a closed box meant to contain jewels, there were real jewels inside. It could be an effective way to make actors live their part. I think that Visconti’s gesture may also come out of a plain sense of aesthetics and a desire for authenticity–somehow it may not feel right to fool the viewer.
This is an essay expressing a primary idea; it is neither the recycling nor repackaging of other people’s thoughts. An essay is an impulsive meditation, not science reporting. I apologize if I skip a few obvious topics in this book out of the conviction that what is too dull for me to write about might be too dull for the reader to read. (Also, to avoid dullness may help to filter out the nonessential).
Talk is cheap. Someone who took too many philosophy classes in college (or perhaps not enough) might object that the sighting of a Black Swan does not invalidate the theory that all swans are white since such a black bird is not technically a swan since whiteness to him may be the essential property of a swan. Indeed those who read too much Wittgenstein (and writings about comments about Wittgenstein) may be under the impression that language problems are important. They may certainly be important to attain prominence in philosophy departments, but they are something we, practitioners and decision makers in the real world, leave for the weekend. As I explain in the chapter called “The Uncertainty of the Phony,” for all of their intellectual appeal, these niceties have no serious implications Monday to Friday as opposed to more substantial (but neglected) matters. People in the classroom, not having faced many true situations of decision making under uncertainty, do not realize what is important and what is not–even those who are scholars of uncertainty (or particularly those who are scholars of uncertainty). What I call the practice of uncertainty can be piracy, commodity speculation, professional gambling, working in some branches of the Mafia, or just plain serial entrepreneurship. Thus I rail against “sterile skepticism,” the kind we can do nothing about, and against the exceedingly theoretical language problems that have made much of modern philosophy largely irrelevant to what is derisively called the “general public.” (In the past, for better or worse, those rare philosophers and thinkers who were not self-standing depended on a patron’s support. Today academics in abstract disciplines depend on one another’s opinion, without external checks, with the severe occasional pathological result of turning their pursuits into insular prowess-showing contests. Whatever the shortcomings of the old system, at least it enforced some standard of relevance.)
The philosopher Edna Ullmann-Margalit detected an inconsistency in this book and asked me to justify the use of the precise metaphor of a Black Swan to describe the unknown, the abstract, and imprecise uncertain– white ravens, pink elephants, or evaporating denizens of a remote planet orbiting Tau Ceti. Indeed, she caught me red handed. There is a contradiction; this book is a story, and I prefer to use stories and vignettes to illustrate our gullibility about stories and our preference for the dangerous compression of narratives.
You need a story to displace a story. Metaphors and stories are far more potent (alas) than ideas; they are also easier to remember and more fun to read. If I have to go after what I call the narrative disciplines, my best tool is a narrative.
Ideas come and go, stories stay.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The beast in this book is not just the bell curve and the self-deceiving statistician,
nor the Platonified scholar who needs theories to fool himself with. It is the drive to “focus” on what makes sense to us. Living on our planet, today, requires a lot more imagination than we are made to have. We lack imagination and repress it in others.
Note that I am not relying in this book on the beastly method of collecting selective “corroborating evidence.” For reasons I explain in Chapter
5, I call this overload of examples naïve empiricism–successions of anecdotes selected to fit a story do not constitute evidence. Anyone looking for confirmation will find enough of it to deceive himself–and no doubt his peers.* The Black Swan idea is based on the structure of randomness in empirical reality.
To summarize: in this (personal) essay, I stick my neck out and make a claim, against many of our habits of thought, that our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according our current knowledge)–and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated. This implies the need to use the extreme event as a starting point and not treat it as an exception to be pushed under the rug. I also make the bolder (and more annoying) claim that in spite of our progress and the growth in knowledge, or perhaps because of such progress and growth, the future will be increasingly less predictable, while both human nature and social “science” seem to conspire to hide the idea from us.
* It is also naïve empiricism to provide, in support of some argument, series of eloquent confirmatory quotes by dead authorities. By searching, you can always find someone who made a well-sounding statement that confirms your point of view–and, on every topic, it is possible to find another dead thinker who said the exact opposite. Almost all of my non—Yogi Berra quotes are from people I disagree with.
The sequence of this book follows a simple logic; it flows from what can be labeled purely literary (in subject and treatment) to what can be deemed entirely scientific (in subject, though not in treatment). Psychology will be mostly present in Part One and in the early part of Part Two; business and natural science will be dealt with mostly in the second half of Part
Two and in Part Three. Part One, “Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary,” is mostly about how we perceive historical and current events and what distortions are present in such perception. Part Two, “We Just Can’t Predict,” is about our errors in dealing with the future and the unadvertised limitations of some “sciences”–and what to do about these limitations. Part Three, “Those Gray Swans of Extremistan,” goes deeper into the topic of extreme events, explains how the bell curve (that great intellectual fraud) is generated, and reviews the ideas in the natural and social sciences loosely lumped under the label “complexity.” Part Four, “The End,” will be very short.
I derived an unexpected amount of enjoyment writing this book–in fact,
it just wrote itself–and I hope that the reader will experience the same. I
confess that I got hooked on this withdrawal into pure ideas after the constraints of an active and transactional life. After this book is published, my aim is to spend time away from the clutter of public activities in order to think about my philosophical-scientific idea in total tranquillity.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Just as the negative space gives form to the objective in a work of art, so the unknown gives relevance to knowledge. In The Black Swan, Taleb shows that all human knowledge is but a collection of crude marks on a vast canvas of ignorance. We know much less than we think we know, and understand even that poorly. Further, our history, both personal and collective, is governed by events that we did not predict, could not have predicted, and really do not comprehend. Taleb defines the black swan concept as an event with three characteristics: unpredictability, extreme impact, and (unfortunately) the power to inspire us to contrive ex post facto explanations. For much of history conventional wisdom held that all swans were white. When Europeans colonized Australia and found black swans, however, an entire body of knowledge was upended. That is a key concept. Some events out there will obliterate all prior understanding. These events reside in a province Taleb dubs "Extremistan." Despite our blindness to high-impact black swan events, we always go back and contrive explanations that would have predicted those events. Narrative fallacy is a term the author uses to describe how we fit facts to a preconceived story. After the dust settles, we tell ourselves that we are smarter now, and wait for the next Black Swan, drunk with the false belief that we understand the risk and are somehow protected from it. Taleb describes several other mental traps. Epistemic arrogance is a term he uses to tell us that we are not nearly as smart as we think, and confirmation error is the tendency to look for instances that confirm our beliefs. It is our nature to connect random facts, weave a story, and then force fit this crude mental model onto physical reality. We do this not only to make future predictions, but also to interpret the past. Causal stories we contrive to make historic events appear deterministic are in fact just a cherry picking of facts to fit a story. We can't even predict history well. The author cautions us to be very wary of any human explanations: he makes a strong argument that we should avoid making strong arguments. Despite the shortcomings of our primitive mental processors, the situation is not entirely as hopeless. Though we can know little of the events that most impact our lives, we can profit from the delusion of others. Financial markets are driven by a great many people that underestimate the impact and likelihood of Black Swan events. We can profit by betting on long shots, doing it a lot, but placing only small bets. That way, the losses will be bounded and you never suffer from catastrophic black swan events. Taleb cashed in this strategy, and retired to pursue his passion for philosophy. When someone writes with intensity and honesty, the reader invariably gets a sense of the writer's personality. So it is with Taleb. He is a brilliant and unconventional thinker with little respect for established and institutionalized knowledge. Platonified (compartmentalized) thinking incenses him and he despises the high priests of academia - the ministers of what Robert Pirsig called "The Church of Reason". Taleb disdains their sacraments (especially the Gaussian curve) and their holiest institutions (e.g. the Nobel Prize.) I went through most of the book believing the writer a man of very strong opinions, only to realize at the end that I was, of course, wrong. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a man of extreme opinions.
Easy enough to understand but rarely used in practice... Taleb's overwhelming point in this entertaining book is simple... 'Keep your eyes wide open'. Through his anecdotal reasoning Taleb illustrates case after case and historical reference after historical reference with a unique narrative style that is slightly fragmented yet nearly as entertaining as what you might expect from a work of fiction often leaving the reader with a discernable smile while mumbling to himself: 'Hmmm... You know this guy's got a point!¿ With an impressive understanding of the human social condition and our psychological tendencies, Taleb lays good claim to how we fail to anticipate, react to and make sense of the random events that have the greatest impact on our lives. In the end Taleb offers no specific solution or process by which one can profit or gain from the unexpected... however, the reader invariably learns the value of 'skepticism' and can easily see how this primarily philosophical dogma can be applicable to real life and of course, the financial markets! The Black Swan does more to re-align one's perspective than anything else, but few books do as good a job in this regard.
According to critic Harold Bloom, Hamlet's predicament is not 'that he thinks too much' but rather that 'he thinks too well,' being ultimately 'unable to rest in illusions of any kind.' The same could be said for philosopher, essayist and trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who finds something rotten in misguided yet supremely confident investment gurus, traders, hedge fund managers, Wall Street bankers, M.B.A.s, CEOs, Nobel-winning economists and others who claim that they can predict the future and explain the past. Like everyone else, says Taleb, these so-called 'experts' fail to appreciate 'black swans': highly consequential but unlikely events that render predictions and standard explanations worse than worthless. Taleb's style is personal and literary, but his heterodox insights are rigorous (if sometimes jolted by authorial filigree). This combination makes for a thrilling, disturbing, contentious and unforgettable book on chance and randomness. While Taleb offers strong medicine some readers may find too bitter at times, we prescribe it to anyone who wants a powerful inoculation against gullibility.
I could hardly make myself finish the book. Mr. Taleb devotes thousands of words to weaving together quip anecdotal musings that struggle to support his loosely defined thesis statements. Using a short, choppy prose style we are forced to review Mr. Taleb¿s observations of ¿nonlinearities¿ that seem to better highlight the authors worldly travels and successful friends than offer new insights. The popularity of this book simply illustrates our societal weakness for catchy titles and to ¿listen¿ to anyone who speaks authoritatively about the unknown.
This book simply challenges our presuppositions regarding our ability to understand the world we live in. It seems that many of the long-held and cherished statistical dogmas that we depend on to interpret our past, present and future are simply and demonstrably false. Sometimes counterintuitive, frequently funny, always engaging and highly addictive, this book will prove to be one of the important works of the early 21st Century.
Taleb's Black Swan metaphor is a clever one. It fits his central concept--the highly improbable and its impact. This book would make a nice 15 page essay the rest is autobiographical filler, snide comments about various 'established' cultures (e.g., academe) and absurd attacks on established statistical concepts.
An incredibly provocative book! I walked away questioning much and not quite seeing the world the same way. What more can one expect from a book. Just a delight to read or listen to.
Fantastic book, compelling and thought provoking. Over my head, but interesting to know theoretical mathematicians can work at the far extremes (tails) of the Gaussian distribution. The author is witty, making the book a bit less difficult to read. If you are into math or statistics or even skepticism this is a wonderful book with which to become familiar.
While NNT's postulate is certainly valid and should be wider known (although to a rational mind it sounds rather obvious), diluting it in such a convoluted and rapidly boring book is certainly not giving it credit. Examples are redundant and often contradictory. The author's vast contempt towards economist is satisfying and even amusing at first, but its constant repetition quickly bores the reader. So does the affirmation of Taleb's large ego around every second sentence. A ten-page pamphlet getting to the point would have been much more efficient, but probably less satisfying to the author's reputation and bank account...
a very unusual book with a central idea (events with catastrophically positive or negative consequences are more likely than our existing mental habits allow us to recognize) smothered into a stylish and highly entertaining pile of anecdotes and invectives against the intellectual establishment. The practical recommendations stemming from this world view seem rather weak: at one point Taleb explains that the consequence of all this is that you should buy ironclad insurance over the portion of your assets you want to secure and be wildly speculative with the rest. The reader could be excused for wondering what makes Taleb think that the ironclad insurance you bought won't itself be exposed to a catastrophically negative event. This is in essence the problem of extreme skepticism, against which Taleb brushes a couple of times in the book without giving it a more convincing answer than that once offered by the tough Sir Karl Popper (and quoted in the book): if you doubt my skepticism I'll throw you out of my lecture.
As much as I enjoyed this book, I could have stopped after digesting the summary contained on the inside leaf of its jacket.Don¿t take my lead the wrong way. I ordered The Black Swan the evening I received an e-mail announcement of its soon-to-be publication. It may have taken me a little longer to read it than my fellow reviewers, but I was not going to miss it.Taleb¿s first book, Fooled by Randomness, articulated fleeting thoughts harbored by me for years.1.Random events are unpredictable.2.They arrive with a massive impact.3.Immediately afterwards a rational explanation can be concocted.Who could have active in the markets as long as I without experiencing an evening trip home perusing real estate ads for a castle in the South of France only to wake the next morning and experience a meat cleaver appearing from the middle of nowhere and removing half of your face.My mistake, I now recognize, was in expecting Euclidean precision in a book about randomness. It will never happen. Sure, I scrutinized the end notes, pondered the bibliography selectively adding books and journal articles for my Umberto Eco Memorial Library.I loved the book. I am sure Taleb benefited greatly from articulating and expressing the thoughts contained in it. If you seek a narrative on randomness, save your time and money. Like his previous book, reading this will change the way you perceive events. You will find yourself with a new appreciation for life¿s outliers.Posted by the Pointed PunditJuly 9, 20079:28:53 PM
Tough book to review... There are some nuggets of interesting, useful content. I did find the writing style to be rambling without much of a clear sense of direction. In a few words, I might summarize the key points for me as:- go to parties, you never know who you might meet- don't be fooled by confirmations of an idea or theory. Look for counter-examples and withhold judgment- you don't know as much as you think you do- look for some positive black swans in your life and work- don't ignore outliers if they can dominate
I became bored with this book after the first hundred pages or so. I got the gist of what he was saying and then it seemed to become very repetitive. I think I was also put off to some degree by his style of writing, which tends to ramble a bit. It was thought-provoking and I can see myself referring to it from time to time for its many good examples of the shortcomings of forecasting and long range planning.
'The Black Swan' is a scathing polemic against phony intellectuals, economists and others who misuse mathematical models being at the top of that long list (Nobel laureates included). Taleb dishes out most of his scorn to the unrefined, and, to use a label he loves, 'platonic' thinkers who mistake the map for the territory and who, in so doing, neglect to factor in the inherently unpredictable events which he refers to as black swans--events for which no a priori probabilities can be assigned, and, against which no risk-taking should be carried out unless one is prepared to lose.In brief, this book explains why it is really hard to form accurate predictive models of complex systems based on historical data due to cognitive, survivorship, and other human biases, the fractal nature of, well, nature, and, of course, the age old philosophical chestnut known as the problem of induction. Because of these limitations on the accuracy of our theory building, predictive models of the future are always subject to breaking down when confronted with black swans, those unknown unknowns that escape our best attempts at mapping the world, and as the world becomes more complex, the black swan problem intensifies. The only possible recourse for those who wish to predict the future states of complex systems may come from properly using fractal mathematics which employ power-law distributions in modeling the world instead of the easier and more comforting Gaussians which Taleb says most scientists rely upon as a crutch, and even then, 'Mandelbrotian' modeling would only turn some black swans into gray swans, not truly known but not invisible either.So then, in domains where non-linear complexity dominates (such as economics and other social sciences) Taleb advises keeping theorizing to a minimum and being a practitioner instead of an academic, a tinkerer who gets her hands dirty and relies on tried and tested heuristics learned over many failed attempts instead of overly abstract mathematical models. This is why he prefers literary history and narratives instead of overly serious historians and social scientists, because the culture and erudition of the broadly-exposed and nimble minded thinkers he admires lack the erroneous pretense of futilely trying to create as accurate a model of the world as possible which, for the most part, end up being neither, instead offering aesthetically pleasing stories that have the benefit of actually being useful. In conclusion, I agree with most of Taleb's thesis even though his tone may get a bit annoying (though if it hadn't I doubt the book would have been as popular). I also wish he had written more about possible solutions to our epistemological predicament, something he hints at on page 211 where he writes, "...I am optimistic that the academy is losing its power and ability to put knowledge in straitjackets and that more out-of-the-box knowledge will be generated Wiki-style." I too am optimistic of such developments, and think they offer the best way forward for a society facing the unpredictability of black swans.
Taleb has an infectious, somewhat cheeky attitude that gets lost in his dense explanatory passages. He swings between rollicking prose and indulgent intellectualist rambling. As a result it's an uneven read, not as enjoyable as it could be and never really makes its point clearly. With some editing this would translate to a much more accessible book.
Excellent reading for anyone who thinks they know it all.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is, in equal parts, enthralling and utterly infuriating. He has written a book so sure of its own certitude, that has one effective lesson: there can be no certitude. Taleb makes the enormous mistake of believing (and saying) that he's solved the eternal verities - that after millennia of philosophical, ethical, political, economic and social debate: thrust and counter-thrust - that mathematics and physics can save the day. While there is certainly value in this book - if you can bear the cloying self-regard with which it is expounded, it's a pretty ripsnorting read - Taleb is also very, very inconsistent (or confused) about some very, very fundamental things which he doesn't seem to have read or thought nearly hard enough about. Early doors he praises the virtue of having unread volumes on the shelves of ones library: I was continually struck that it was a pity Taleb hadn't dipped into one or two of them along the way. Firstly, he calls himself a philosopher and an intellectual, but writes off people who "took too many philosophy classes" or "read too much Wittgenstein", and who may therefore be under the impression that language problems are important, when infact such intellectual niceties have "no serious implications". This, naturally, makes him look a bit of a Philistine, which would be okay, were it not to bear directly on the content of his book. The principle problem which Taleb sets out to solve is that of the misleading narrative discipline. Better familiarity with Wittgenstein might have helped him here. The Continental view is that we *cannot* make sense of with the world but through one or more narratives. Our daily labour is to untangle and jury rig all our working narratives so they can steer us in a broadly satisfactory path through the data. "The Truth" doesn't exist independently of our relationship to the physical universe, but rather is a function of our narratives. Narratives can't get in the way of truths; narratives are containers in which truths are packed and brought to market. Taleb might not like Platonicity, but it is the human (Humean?) dilemma that we're stuck with it. This might seem a petty, arcane, weekend-ish sort of objection, but I don't think it is. In overlooking this, Taleb fails to recognise that beloved physics and mathematics, by which he would sweep aside the dismal gaussian-inflected social sciences, are simply narratives themselves, with no epistemic priority over the social sciences (the priority that he cites is - must be - a narrative!). Indeed, he calls himself an "sceptical empiricist", but conveniently overlooks that the social scientists tend to be far more enthusiastic collectors of empirical evidence than physicists (a point made eloquently by in a recent book by Nancy Cartwright). Taleb's narrative is a rather quaint (and I would say uninformed) form of essentialism: He is a thorough-going reductivist who says things like "one may have a million ways to explain things, but the true explanation is unique, whether or not it is in our grasp" and seems to take it as read that all true learning, reduces to and can be extrapolated from a few essential, internally consistent logical truths. Pragmatists like Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty (doubtless volumes on his Eco-esque Anti-library: his reading in the philosophy of science seems to have stopped at Karl Popper) had a radically different (and to my mind more compelling) view about essentialism, but would agree about the pitfalls of what he calls "Platonicity", but would mark them down as facts of life. Taleb, curiously, isn't entirely antagonistic to Platonicity, and is happy enough to fall into it when it suits him (reductivism/essentialism about science is hard core Platonicity, in this humble reviewer's opinion). Taleb is also a contradictory on the value of the narrative. For example, he rails at length about Platonocity - to mistake the map for the territory - by dint of which we privilege "crisp cons
A bit too tedious to finish.
very thought provoking
Taleb is credible because his reliance on real experience is backed by his real experience. He succeeded as a trader by thinking in the face of traditional belief in Gaussian statistics and faith in regression to the mean. He succeeds as a French-school essayist by leveraging his business and worldly experience to explain his challenge to the dominant assumptions used to guide commerce and public policy. Any thoughtful reader will appreciate his points, though the implications will likely make them uncomfortable. His conclusions imply investing through barbells rather than bell curves, recognizing that most outcomes are not distributed evenly, and appreciating the role of luck.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a difficult book to review. I'm not ashamed to say that I don't really understand all that this book is about but have hopes that reading it may have broadened my knowledge some and will be an incremental step in understanding similar works in the future. Not that I can predict the future, that appears to be something that NNT feels strongly about.Here are a few other things that Nassim Nicholas Taleb doesn't like: * ludic fallacy * Platonicity * pompous academics * the bell curve (this won big points with me) * the narrative fallacy * financial consultants * and, putting things into categories (oops)The idea of the black swan is that there are events that are rare & hard-to-predict with huge impact in just about every endeavour including science, finance, and mathematics. The name comes from the belief among Europeans in past centuries that all swans are white because all the swans ever observed were white, a theory busted by the discovery of black swans in Australia. Black swans may be beneficial or disasterous but have in common that people will generally ignore theses outliers until they happen and then try to create a reason for their happening.NNT (he calls himself by these intials, btw) writes in a style mixing an essay-style discourse with narrative stories, often rather silly. He also has kind of an arrogant, sarcastic tone that can be off-putting, but mostly I liked it since what he writes is pretty interesting.
Very readable with an overblown (and obviously self-inflated) prose, but an important message about the ways in which people fool themselves into thinking that the world is more predictable than it is. On the other hand, Taleb is under the delusion (apparently) that the only kind of knowledge is that which gives us the power to predict the future. He doesn't seem to understand that reflection, elaboration and introspection can bring joy in ways that trying to figure out which stock is likely to go up doesn't!
Nassim Taleb is one of only a very small handful of people who recognized the major faults in the finance industry, speaking out before it collapsed.And given the subject matter this is a very entertaining book that covering a very idiosyncratic and erudite range of fields. E.g. How many quants evangelize Montaigne? This is not just about finance. It is about the history of knowledge -- or rather, the history of ignorance and uncertainty -- and what we should take from that.
This book had great insights on how things happen randomly and we really don't know the future or how to predict things. Yes, he also talks about empty suites who talk, but have no substance.. The black swan is the unexpected out come that happens sometimes. Yes, it's the why did that happen. Yes, he talks about Benoit Mandelborot "Father of Fractal Geometry" . Mandelborot gives great examples of black swans which are the unknown and the book uses these examples. Yes, you can see sometimes were they are going to happen, but we really can't know. Google who knew they would be so big, but it was the ability to just do and see what happens... So, everything is a chance. But, also we must not be fooled by randomeness and the suites who talk. We need to be critical and ask the big questions and not be afraid to realize that people are lying to use, or they don't know what they are talking about. Yes, I have seen this.. He also talks about Carl Popper"The degeneration of philosophical schools in it's turn is the consequence of the mistaken belief that one can philosophize without having been compelled to philosophize by problems outside philosophy.... Genuine philosophical problems are always rooted outside philosophy and they die if these roots decay... (emphasis mine) these roots are easily forgotten by philosophers who "study" philosophy instead of being forced into philosophy by the pressure of nonphilosophical problems...."Yes, this book helped me to watch out for fools who try to lie to you. He also says in the book, never trust people who were suites. they are all image and no brains...Yes, just watch out and this is also true for science.... What, why and How.... Great book...
Very interesting book, all analysts and business people should read it. Gets a bit slow in the middle, but it is worth sticking out to the end.