Survival of the Luckiest
In fact, this guy leaves you wanting a little less. He's such an unpleasant personality -- something noted by many amazon reviewers -- that you wish he'd just get to the point and leave out the personal details. He comes across as pompous, self-important, juvenile, and probably clinically narcissistic. But his worst offense is that he violates Godwin's Law throughout the book: that those who aren't funny shouldn't try to be. He's aggressively and repetitively unfunny.
As to the theory itself -- well, it's not so much a theory as an observation: that we are constantly surprised by events because of limitations of our knowledge. The title of the book comes from the idea that it takes the sighting of only a single black swan to disprove the theory that all swans are white, regardless of the millions of white swans that have been observed.
And this speaks to the problem of induction, which we use to guide our lives. We're always generalizing from what happened, and what happens is what usually happens. Thus, we're always surprised by what doesn't usually happen.
Hmm. When you put it that way, it sounds pretty banal, doesn't it? A number of reviewers said that the book could have been condensed into a magazine article, and perhaps they're right.
But as is often the case, I found that I can use a lot of his ideas for my own purposes, in a more encompassing theory of which the author would no doubt disapprove. Again, he gives no indication of being a believer, and indeed, in my experience, most believers would have difficulty accepting his thesis of randomness.
But I would turn this around and say that if not for randomness, evolution, progress, free will, and ultimately spiritual growth would be quite impossible. In other words, if we were wholly constrained by physical law in a deterministic manner, there would be no possibility of the emergence of true novelty. In my view, randomness and uncertainty are where the final causation -- or destiny -- gets in. We do not create our destiny. Rather, it draws us toward it, ultimately into the Great Attractor.
For Taleb, a Black Swan is defined by three properties: rarity, high impact, and retrospective predictability. He uses the example of World War I, and "how little of your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next."
Or, one might cite the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the British Invasion of 1964, or the rise of self-publishing from one's home computer. No one saw these things coming. They are only explained in hindsight. But even then, the explanations tend to be arbitrary or ideological, with this or that scholar "connecting the dots" in a way that comports with their own world view.
But again, thank God for the possibility of Black Swans, for as Taleb points out, "Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify." Indeed, all you have to do is examine your own life for the chance encounters that "changed everything."
But this also applies to science, which is hardly the linear and continuous enterprise it's made out to be. To the contrary, more often than not, the researcher "discovers" something he wasn't even looking for, anything from penicillin to the background radiation that proves the big bang.
This was something discussed by Michael Polanyi, one of our foundational Raccoon thinkers. He observed that science could never be controlled from the top down, but could only emerge from the bottom up, as a spontaneous order. He noticed that leftist governments didn't allow the freedom and spontaneity for true science to emerge.
The left wing abuse of science continues today with everything from "climate change" to "green energy" to their self-defeating economic theories. Most recently, we saw a judge in California using left-wing activists pseudo-science to prove that gender is irrelevant to marriage.
Taleb affirms a principle with which the psychoanalyst would certainly agree, that "what you don't know" is "more relevant than what you do know."
First of all, what we know is just a tiny fraction of what there is to know. But more problematically, so much of what we know just isn't so, which is why Taleb makes the wise crack that reading the New York Times actually decreases one's knowledge of the world. As he points out, what we know can become inconsequential just by virtue of knowing it, especially if competitors and enemies know you know it.
For example, consider those con-men on TV who sell their secret to getting rich. The secret only works because it is one, not because of its intrinsic merits. In a way, this is what caused the recent real estate bubble. Once everyone takes advantage of the "secret" that houses are appreciating, the bubble collapses. The whole thing was generated by people not seeing the illusion at the basis of it.
Since Black Swans are inevitable, how do we take advantage of them? For me, this was the most interesting part, because my whole life has been just one Black Swan after another. Why? Because I've never had a plan. I never know what I'm going to do today, let alone tomorrow, which permits randomness to enter one's life. For some reason, I've always been this way. But if I had consciously set out to invent my life, I'm quite sure I would have blown it. You might say that the Higher Power takes advantage of chaos.
Taleb says that "you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans (of the positive kind) by maximizing your exposure to them.... [C]ontrary to social-science wisdom, almost no discovery, no technologies of note, came from design and planning -- they were just Black Swans."
This leads to the important corollary that one of the reasons the free market is so superior to its alternatives is not that it rewards merit, but that it rewards luck. Only in hindsight do we invent stories of how the successful deserved their success, but more often than not, it's just a matter of luck.
While this might seem unfair -- which it is, but that's life -- the left's misguided attempt to force the system to have outcomes it considers "fair" drains it of the very luck that facilitates so much success and prosperity for all. The reason why the United States is the wealthiest nation is because it is the freest. The more government, the less luck, and with it, the less prosperity.
To be continued....