Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Black Swan

I just finished reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Amazingly, I had never heard of him or the book before serendipitously finding it in the new books section at the library.

The title refers to the commonly held European fallacy that, because a black swan hadn't been observed, then no black swans must exist. Black swans became synonymous with things that don't exist. So many people fall for this "round trip" reasoning error. Black swans do exist in Australia, a place Europeans had not visited yet when they coined the phrase.

Like The Corrections, I almost stopped reading the book after a couple of dozen pages. But I am glad I continued reading, because both books got better and better. In fact, you might do better to skip the TBS's prologue and short autobiography (the despised narrative!) and dive into the evisceration of the ubiquitous Gaussian bell curve in part 3 and then go back to read from the beginning.

Here is a delicious passage from the end of chapter 8:
My biggest problem with the educational system lies precisely in that it forces students to squeeze explanations out of subject matters and shames them for withholding judgment, for uttering the "I don't know."
Or from the beginning of chapter 18 about the phoniness of invoking quantum mechanics and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle for systems that have nothing to do with quantum scales and observables. (Quantum mechanics has great predictive value precisely because the quantum scale world follows such nice and neat statistical distributions.)
But political, social, and weather events do not have this handy property, and we patently cannot predict them, so when you hear "experts" presenting the problems of uncertainty in terms of subatomic particles, odds are the expert is a phony. As a matter of fact, this may be the best way to spot a phony.
Taleb is an excellent spotter of bullshit and you should read The Black Swan.

Finally, I want to close with a passage from Daniel Stern's "Crib Monologues from a Psychoanalytic Perspective", chapter 9 of Narratives from the Crib.
The pleasure principle in psychoanalysis can be interpreted very narrowly in terms of excitation which disturbs a resting equilibrium by adding a quantum of energy which is experienced as unpleasure and pushes the psychic system to discharge energy equal to that introduced into the system. The discharge of energy and the return of the system to equilibrium will be experienced as pleasure. Or, the pleasure principle can be interpreted more broadly and without the energy metaphor in terms of psychic systems at equilibrium, in states of perturbation and disequilibrium, and in terms of the motives and moves to reequilibrate the system at an old or new point of equilibrium. And this, of course, brings us to the narrative, its elements and its engine.

1 comment:

  1. The Black Swan is on my reading list, but at last glance there are 62 other books, so it may be a while until I get to it.