Nassim Taleb – The Black Swan

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Nassim Taleb – The Black Swan
Random House, New York (2007) 1st Edition

[A second edition of the book is now available, with an added chapter]

The central concept in this book is interesting enough, especially useful for those (like myself) who do not have a tight grip on statistics, advanced mathematics and financial markets. The central idea of Black Swan is simple: most important events in our lives, and in History in general, are outliers that could not have been predicted, even though after the event we tend to construct narratives that explain how the event could have been predicted in hindsight.  Beware of Gaussian statistics (based on bell curves) says Mr. Taleb: they tend to simply ignore these outlier events, thus exposing themselves blindly to them. But most of all, beware of so-called experts, whether financial planners, hedge fund managers or Historians, who try to trick you into accepting their Gaussian models, because they are in fact as helpless as the ignorant man off the street when it comes to predicting the next major event.

Mr. Taleb urges his readers who want to succeed to expose themselves to as many potential positive Black Swans as they can, while minimizing their exposure to negative Black Swans. However, outside of the world of finances, he does not give any clear indication of how this could be accomplished. When he tries, over the course of a few shot paragraphs, it sounds like classic self-help terminology: “Seize any opportunities, or anything that looks like opportunity” (p. 208).

Overall, the book feels like a drawn-out denunciation of charlatan-experts, parceled with real life anecdotes that support the author’s conclusions. Take out all the fluff, and the central message could fit in less than 50 pages. Quite frankly, if you have a genuine interest in non-Gaussian statistics, you are better off reading one of a myriad of papers on the subject (including some very good ones from Mr. Taleb himself). One the other hand, if you are interested in Malcolm Gladwell-style pseudo-scientific writing intertwined with smart anecdotes, you might want to give this book a try.

Though, I have to warn you from the get-go that Mr. Taleb is a poorer writer than Mr. Gladwell, yet of an arrogance without limits. He thinks that HE is very smart, and that his reader is very dumb. He specializes in trading in “complicated financial instruments” (he repeats himself twice in the same note) that require “advanced mathematics” (Note p. 20). Mr. Taleb speaks French with a Parisian accent and makes fun of those who express themselves in “broken French.” Mr. Taleb is a mathematical genius who has a reserve of “F—k you money” (p. 20, his own words) so that he does not have to resort to “prostituting [his] mind” to an “outside authority” (p. 21). When Mr. Taleb stopped reading newspapers or watching the news, he was able to free up one hour or more a day, which allows him to read “more than a hundred additional books per year” (p. 17). But was it not Mr. Taleb himself who told us in the Prologue that only idiots fawn over the amount of books others read, while really smart people do not brag about it (p. 1)? And if I may add my humble opinion, Mr. Taleb would benefit from reading fewer books, but taking more time to discuss those books with others in an effort to better understand those books. Alas, as would become clear by reading the book, Mr. Taleb is a fan of the monologue, not the dialogue.

Mr. Taleb’s true passion and calling in life is Philosophy, he makes sure to point that out very early in the book. Of course, not “philosophy” as it has been practiced in the academic world for most of this and the last century, centered on problems of language, identity and consciousness. Mr. Taleb flies above the fray, sweeping Wittgenstein and the entire field of the philosophy of language away in the prologue of his book as exploring unimportant pursuits, which are best left “for the weekend” (Prologue, Page XXVI, emphasis in the original). Mr. Taleb does not want to focus on these “phony” philosophers (his word), instead he chooses to focus on the “real ones” (p. 290). However, it soon becomes clear that those “real” philosophers happen to be the ones Mr. Taleb agrees with. If you have a different opinion than him, then you too are phony or simply deluded!

In fact, the absence of an intellectual dialogue is one of the most glaring flaws in Black Swan. Firstly, Mr. Taleb fails to give proper weight to any philosopher or “expert” who happens to share different views or different pursuits than him. At best Mr. Taleb presents a caricature of a straw argument, which he then hastily destroys. At worst, as with the great Ludwig W., Mr. Taleb does not even take the time to explain to us dim-witted readers why he thinks that 20th century philosophy has NO relevance to our every-day lives (he certainly emphasizes his point, why not also take the time to explain his reasoning?).

Secondly, Mr. Taleb presents a lot of the material in his book as original, when in fact it is not. Take a look here for a good overview of the evolution of the concept of risk in financial models. Or look at what he coins the fallacy of the “silent evidence” (page 100), which he traces back to Cicero, Montaigne and Sir Francis Bacon. The concept is simple: when we want to replicate success in a field, we tend to focus on other people who succeeded before us (let’s call them “survivors”), instead of focusing on the myriads of people who failed (“casualties”). But this approach fails to take chance into consideration because luck is unquantifiable. So instead we focus on the actual processes the survivors used, which in fact do not give us any guarantees that we will replicate the same result. A better recipe for success would be to focus on all the things the casualties did wrong, and try to improve on those.

Sounds like a pretty neat concept doesn’t it? And the “fallacy of silent evidence” is a nice, smart name for it, isn’t it? But then why would Bacon’s “great observations” on the subject be “rapidly forgotten” (p. 101) until, of course, Mr. Taleb resuscitates them for us, nearly four centuries later? A deeper look into the subject, starting from Mr. Taleb’s own notes, tells us that in fact such observations were NOT forgotten, but were further developed and are now routinely taught and used in the fields of statistics, physics and philosophy. (P. 318, Chapter 8 Notes). For a better understanding of the subject, I recommend reading more on survivorship bias.

Other reviews pointed out that the book shipwrecks on the Yevgenia Krasnova story (Mr. Taleb dedicates a full chapter to this fictional character to exemplify a Black Swan event in real life, until he points out—in a footnote no less!—in the next chapter that he made up the entire story). But I believe the book already starts to sink when Mr. Taleb transposes his Black Swan model from the world of finance to History. Ironically for someone who hates “experts” as much as Mr. Taleb does, his book completely loses steam when he ventures into an area—History—in which he has less expertise than in his main field.

One glaring example among many: Mr. Taleb considers World War II to have been a Black Swan event. By his very definition, a Black Swan is an event that was unpredictable and unpredicted. Mr. Taleb uses only two arguments to advance his claim that the Second World War was such an event. Firstly, he uses the journal of W. Shirer, a radio correspondent in Berlin from 1934-1941 (pp. 12-14) to show that even the people who were in the middle of the “action” had no idea what was taking place. Ironically, this is the only mention of a journalist in the entire book who he is not smeared by Mr. Taleb, who apparently has a visceral disgust for them (remember he no longer reads newspapers). After all, journalists, he tells us, are “industrial producers of the [survivorship bias] distortion” (p. 102). These are vile creatures! So why would Mr. Taleb use the diary of a delusioned falsifier of information in order to prove his point? Oh that’s right, because in this instance it supports his conclusion!

Mr. Taleb’s second argument, based on a historical study, is that no one predicted the beginning of the War because the price of British imperial bonds did not reflect an anticipation of war (Note p. 14). But I ask: “who sets these bond prices?” Investors, usually following the advice of “experts.” Again, why would Mr. Taleb expect experts, whom he derides throughout his book, to have predicted anything? And in fact, in the rest of the book, he is happy to remind us that he does not expect them to ever be right.

I would then argue than an event that was not only predictable, but also predicted could not qualify as a Black Swan. So did anyone predict the Second World War, if the financial experts were not able to do so? Well, there is at least one obscure British politician who made a career out of speaking up against Germany, as early as 1932. His name… Winston Churchill. And there was another politician, who not only predicted the War and the ensuing desolation as early as 1925, but also worked his entire life to bring the conflict to a head. You might have also heard of Adolf Hitler.

While I could agree with him that 9/11 was a Black Swan event, his other historical examples simply do not fit the definition: the fall of the Soviet Union, which “no social scientist saw coming” (p. 151), except this guy, and this guy; even the financial crisis of 2007/2008, which was predicted, ironically, by Mr. Taleb himself!

In conclusion, Black Swan is not only poorly written and full of internal contradictions, but it also manages to drown the gems of truly original thinking in a sea of controversy, mostly manufactured by the author, anecdotes that could be true or false, and historical events of which the author has a poor understanding.

I would humbly suggest to Mr. Taleb to stick to the fields he is familiar with—writing certainly not being one of them— and leave philosophy to those who truly have a vocation for it.

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