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Shock-testing the Black Swan Theory

Michael Lee

Ethical Technology

November 16, 2012

Adopting a satirical tone, self-confessed sceptic Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller The Black Swan ridicules the idea of predicting the future. Instead, he argues that the world is dominated by the impact of rare, unforeseen, random, highly improbable and yet influential events. These Black Swans, he says, happen abruptly, coming from outside the range of our vision.


Complete entry


Posted by Intomorrow  on  11/16  at  10:20 PM

“Examples would be the rise of Hitler, the sudden fall of communism in 1989, 9/11, the stock market crash of 1987, the global credit crisis of 2008, the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism on the global stage…”

Another would be Wilhelm II’s withered arm: Wilhelm compensated by realising a huge ambition belied by his immaturity.
At any rate I don’t see much reason to subscribe to Taleb’s theory: we are animals living on a ball of rock spinning through space, thus the random makes ‘sense’—IMO who needs Taleb to tell us anything about it.

Posted by Intomorrow  on  11/16  at  10:42 PM

... apology:
Taleb’s hypothesis, not theory; the public conflates the two.
BTW, we don’t just predict the future, we alter it: Churchill’s role for example wasn’t limited to predicting WWII, he was part of bringing it about as well.

“As a monomaniac, [Hitler] never deviated from the principles, ideas and plans openly explained in Mein Kampf back in the 1920s.”

Sort-of. Hitler had maximum and minimum goals—the minimum was a Reich in Central and Eastern Europe; you needn’t be told what his maximum goals were.

Posted by Intomorrow  on  11/17  at  07:32 PM

A flaw in Taleb’s analysis will be touched on at the end of this comment.
Prediction is acceptable if the element of self-determinism—in the vernacular, “self-fulfilling prophecy”— is acknowledged. A readily apparent example for us would be the Internet: as the ‘80s transpired, the builders of the Internet could predict the World Wide Web because they were creating the machine.  Which somehow segues into the determinism of (you’d never guess who) Hitler. The great mistake concerning Hitler still being made is underestimating him.. not his perniciousness, but rather, underestimating his abilities. Though today’s top Hitlerologist Ian Kershaw correctly writes Hitler was lacking in many respects, Kershaw omits for brevity’s sake how Hitler was not in many respects lacking in talent- which is how, why the underestimation of Hitler derives. Not that Kershaw himself underestimates Hitler; Kershaw wisely decided to concentrate on so-called history (history is quite imprecise) surrounding Hitler to minimise ‘biographical’ (biography also being highly imprecise) details. That way, the personalisation is examined from a distance. The Third Reich was highly personalised albeit we keep in mind Marx’s dictum individuals do make history but within certain parameters. Though we mustn’t underestimate Hitler, neither should we overestimate him. Kershaw perhaps mistakenly deems Hitler an “unperson” in his private life; IMO Hitler brought such enormous pressure to bear on himself after 1933 that a full private life would have distracted him from his mission, as it were. Then, too, for an unstable individual such as Hitler to have been a soldier in WWI is evidence of Hitler’s willingness to sacrifice his private life for a ‘higher’ (in this case, lower: base) goal, his Mission. It’s a good lesson on the faultiness of historical record. Think on how the justified admiration for Churchill’s latter-day role blinds us to his own latent admiration for war despite the looming prospect of heightened civilian “collateral damage”—we surely don’t want to confuse Churchill with his rival, Gandhi.
Hitler didn’t want WWII, his vainglorious foreign minister Ribbentrop maneuvered him into it; when the war on Poland commenced there was no way Hitler could back down and still remain Hitler. Things got fast in 1940: with six months to prepare for the invasion of the West, the assets and liabilities of Hitler’s minimum and maximum goal-making began to surface. Hitler’s minimum goal-setting was astute to the point of outstripping his maximum goal-making: after conquering most of W. Europe, Hitler had no maximum goal handy, no strategy, so he turned to the minimum goal of bombing England.
Will stop the narrative there to get to Taleb’s misreading of history.
Taleb appears to ignore Marx’s truism that individuals do make history, but under certain constraints. Taleb doesn’t comprehend the constraints, he seems to overestimate the accidental nature of historical processes—and the very fact of the processes is evidence of less randomness than Taleb perceives.


Posted by Intomorrow  on  11/18  at  12:53 PM more thing (promise),
forgot the reason for the little Hitlerology lecture; Mein Kampf wasn’t a blueprint, it was a poorly written vague outline which Hitler later on regretted writing. Hitler did deviate—for instance his alliance with Stalin—many times from his original goals, he was not as monomaniacal as is thought.. which is the point:
Hitler was a ‘success’ because of having been underestimated, because he was underestimated as being merely a monomaniac.

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