Jun 23

A couple people have recommended I read the book The Black Swan recently. I’m only 40pgs in and already I have a serious issue with it. The picture below is a good summary of my gripe:

It’s essentially like that highway roadsign that warns you of falling rock – it’s useless advice. Since when has that sign ever altered your driving behavior? In fact it’s worse than useless, it’s presence is detrimental because it generates unnecessary worry and distraction without giving you any actionable info to be able to do something about it. It merely broadcasts, ”
Yeah, so rocks might fall on you. Sucks.

Similarly The Black Swan appears to offer this as its core message:

Despite our best efforts to make sense of situations throughout history, inevitably a massive, random event at some point manifests and its unpredictable effects trump everything we knew previously.

Basically “rocks might someday fall on you. sucks” – a completely worthless and defeatist message. And yet somehow this book has won a bunch of praise as being insightful. I’m not sure if the author is advocating that we stop applying science to attempt to understand current situations but that is a message that one could infer.

I’ve admittedly only read a sliver of this book thus far so maybe the author eventually gets around to offering some type of prescriptive advice. But at this point it appears to be a pop psychology wankfest (and a verbose one at that). At least books like “Tipping Point” and “Blink” had concise writing and referenced interesting psychology experiments to yield conversation fodder. This one appears to be entirely devoid of both. Somebody who’s read it and found it valuable – what did you take from it that was useful and how has it changed your behavior and how you think?

4 Responses to “My problem with The Black Swan”

  1. Ray Niemeir says:

    Hi Sean,

    I discovered Taleb at random from the (physical) cover of his book "Fooled by Randomness" which introduced the "black swan" idea . His writings have caused me to pay a lot more attention to outliers, much to my benefit.

    Taleb's actionable info is "improbable events do in fact happen, even though infrequently — act accordingly." This is more profound than it sounds, and the "accordingly" is quantitative and highly context dependent. The message is not "increase vague anxiety" but "calculate well".

    Also, Taleb is a much better thinker than writer, quite the opposite of Gladwell.

    Thanks for the post,
    — Ray

  2. @jurb says:

    Although the effects can be severe, what causes a rock to fall is relatively easy to theorize (gravity, weather conditions, erosion). On top of that, we don't give weight to these causes when someone dies in a car crash because of falling rocks. The falling rocks are a given, and since we still want to avoid it, we try to warn people so they can drive saver (which might not have that effect at all, I agree that we might be worse of). Falling rocks might even be predictable a few minutes before, with thousands of camera's and lots of other equipment. But that's too expensive.

    Taleb talks about other events in the book. Things like a stock market crash, the outbreak of a civil war, a debutant that has a bestseller, a terrorist attack. There are thousands of variables that were in place that led to these events. The presence of absence of these variables are not predictable. Even if a few were predictable, the sheer randomness of other variables would make them useless.

    Yet we go out of our way to predict these big events. That's human nature. This is easy to see with books like 'the habits of highly effective people'. We are inclined to think that we have to emulate the habits of winners to be winners ourselves. But this doesn't make any sense. The winners might all have some of the same characteristics, but they have a dozen more personality traits that make an intricate mix, that will have to be coupled with a lot of luck and enviromental variables. We don't see these things. It's too complex.

    Even a bigger gap in our perception of things come into play when you factor in the absence of negative evidence. There are millions of people who exhibit the habits of highly effective people, who are total losers. People who haven't had a decent meal in a week, who don't have home. These victims of chance and enviromental factors don't surface as highly effective people.

    It might seem that this will give you a dark and depressing outlook on life, but it doesn't have to be that way. The insights in the book allow you direct your enery to the things you do think you can control. Furthermore, it both humbles and empowers you concerning succesful people and endeavors. It makes clear that chance plays a big role, enviromental factors are very important and you must be sceptical of people that claim why unpredictal event X happened. Agency doesn't vanish with this notion. It just teaches you too see how much gamble there is in everything, and that placing small bets on big outcomes can be not only ok, but rational (which depends on your line of work of course, if you are a plumber your income will still be lineair, the more sinks you fix the more money you make).

    This is the main takeaway for me. Learn to embrace randomness. Have an eye for the the absence of negative evidence and don't try to predict large events after the fact.

    Give it another chance, re-read it later even. It will give you a nice perspective on things, both personal and of the big picture.

  3. guest says:

    The sign is to warn you that there might be rocks on the road or a rockslide blocking the road. Or "Don't take a whiz here." All actionable items and much more likely to happen than rocks actually falling on you.

  4. […] about 2/3rds through Black Swan and have revised my opinion that it does actually have some value. Initially I was surprised why it […]

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