Reading The Black Swan [en]

[fr] Notes de lecture de "The Black Swan", sur l'impact des événements hautement improbables.

One of the things I did yesterday during my time offline was read a sizeable chunk of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

It’s a fascinating read. (Thanks again to Adam Hill for saying I should read it.) I just find myself a little frustrated that I can’t effortlessly copy-paste quotes from the book into a text file or my Tumblr as I read. (And no, I wouldn’t want to be reading this online. I like books. They just lack a few features. Like searchability, too.)

Anyway, I’ve been twittering away while I read, and here are a few things I noted. These are not exact quotes, but paraphrases. Consider them “reading notes.” (And then a few me-quotes, hehe…).

  • oh, one quote I did copy to Tumblr (check it, if you’re lucky, you might find more quotes!)
  • Finding Taleb’s concepts of Mediocristan and Extremistan fascinating and insightful.
  • Probably in Extremistan: number of contacts, length of relationships? Not sure.
  • High-impact, low-probability events (Black Swans) are by nature unpredictable. Now apply that to the predator problem.
  • We confuse ‘no evidence of possible Black Swans’ with ‘evidence of no possible Black Swans’ and tend to remember the latter.
  • ‘No evidence of disease’ often interpreted as ‘Evidence of no disease’, for example.
  • Taleb: in testing for a hypothesis, we tend to look for confirmation and ignore what would invalidate it.
  • Interesting: higher dopamine = greater vulnerability to pattern recognition (less suspension of disbelief)
  • So… Seems we overestimate probability of black swans when we talk about them. Terrorism, predators, plane crashes… And ignore others.
  • Anecdotes sway us more than abstract statistical information. (Taleb)
  • That explains why personal recommendations have so much influence on our decisions. Anecdotes, rather than more abstract facts or stats. (That’s from me, not him.)
  • Journalists according to Taleb: ‘industrial producers of the distortion’

Update: Anne Zelenka wrote a blog post taking the last and, unfortunately, quite incomplete citation as a starting-point. Check my clarification comment on her blog. And here’s the complete quote:

Remarkably, historians and other scholars in the humanities who need to understand silent evidence the most do not seem to have a name for it (and I looked hard). As for journalists, fuhgedaboutdit! They are industrial producers of the distortion. (p. 102)

Update 2: Anne edited her post to take into account my comment and our subsequent discussion. Thanks!

4 thoughts on “Reading The Black Swan [en]

  1. I think your quotes are justified from my reading. Taleb pushes buttons. That’s OK. We need to get each other agitated from time to time to make sure we are all speaking plainly.

    No reasonable person disparages whole groups. Doctors are this…journalists are that.

    I think Taleb’s point is that our motivations are what is key. We “sensemake” to use the similar concept from industrial psychologists like Karl Weick and his predecessors. Motivations drive sensemaking. Call it narrative, bias, culture, whatever…the point is that points of view matter. Black swans are all the more randomized because every event is actually thousands of events seen from thousands of perspectives.

    My lesson from all this? Be less certain. Rely on deliberation and tentative conclusions.

    Ryan Lanham

  2. Stephanie,
    Dropped by via Anne’s spot and your Berlin Web 2.0 coverage Super blog!

    At least for me, Taleb’s books help reinforce and remind that the world is a complex place. As humans we tend to seek out models and simpifications. We then end up believing in these models, even when we shouldn’t.

    Taleb is a lot like Karl Popper, but a whole lot easier to read.

    If you liked Black Swan, I’d recommend Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness too.

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