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438 of 521 people found the following review helpful:
Lost in Extremistan with nothing but a Bell Curve
If, as Socrates would have it, the only true knowledge is knowledge of one's own ignorance, then Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the world's greatest living teacher. In The Black Swan, Taleb's second book for laypeople, he gives a full treatment to concepts briefly explored in his first book "Fooled by Randomness." The Black Swan is basically a sequel to that book, but much more focused, detailed and scholarly. This is a book of serious philosophy that reads like a stand-up comedy routine. (Think Larry David...)
, April 18, 2007
The Black Swan is probably the strongest statement of enlightened empiricism since Ernst Mach refused to acknowledge the existence of the atom. Of course, in theory, everyone today is supposed to be an empiricist - all right-thinking intellectuals claim to base their views solely on positive scientific observation. But very few sincerely confront the implications of rigorous empiricism. Specifically, few confront "the problem of induction," illustrated here by the story of the black swan.
Briefly: observing an event once does not predict it will occur again in the future. This remains true regardless of the number of observations one adds to the pile. Or, as Taleb, recapitulating David Hume, has it: the observation of even a million white swans does not justify the statement "all swans are white." There is no way to know that somewhere out there a black swan is not hiding, disproving the rule and nullifying our "knowledge" of swans. The problem of induction tells us that we cannot really learn from our experiences. It makes knowledge very problematic, if not impossible. And yet, humans do behave -almost without exception- as though they believe that experience teaches us lessons. This is forgivable; there is no better path to knowledge. But before proceeding, one must account for the limits that the problem of induction places on our claims to knowledge. And humans seem, at every turn, to lack this critical self-awareness.
In one of the many humorous anecdotes that seem to comprise this entire book, Taleb recounts how he learned his extreme skepticism from his first boss, a French gentleman trader who insisted that he should not worry about the fluctuating values of economic indicators. (Indeed, Taleb proudly declares that, to this day, he remains blissfully ignorant of supposedly crucial "indicators" like housing starts and consumer spending. This is a shocking statement from a guy whose day job is managing a hedge fund.) Even if these "common knowledge" indicators are predictive of anything (dubious - see above), they are useless to you because everyone else is already accounting for them. They are "white swans," or common sense. Regardless of their magnitude, white swans are basically irrelevant to the trader - they have already been impounded into the market. In this environment, one can only profitably concern oneself with those bets which others are systematically ignoring - bets on those highly unlikely, but highly consequential events that utterly defy the conventional wisdom. What Taleb ought to worry about, the Frenchman warned, was not the prospect of a quarter-percent rise in interest rates, but a plane hitting the World Trade Center!
Yep, the precise facts of 9-11 were actually presaged by this French gentlemen, as a rogue wave that just might be lurking over the horizon. And, to the contemporary American mind, this is THE quintessential Black Swan. Of course, the Frenchman's insight was just a coincidence - the thing with Black Swans is that they cannot be foreseen.
Taleb explains that conventional social scientists use induction to collect data, which is then plotted on the good old Gaussian bellcurve. With characteristic silliness, Taleb dubs the land of the bellcurve "Mediocristan" - and informs us that it is the natural habitat of the white swan. He contrasts Mediocristan with "Extremistan" - where chaos reigns, the wholly unexpected happens, power laws and fractal geometry apply and the bellcurve does not. Taleb's fictional/metaphorical 'stans' share something with the 'stans' of the real world: very ill-defined borders. Indeed, one can never tell whether one is in the relatively safe territory of Mediocristan or if one has wandered into the lawless tribal regions of Extremistan. The bellcurve can only help you in Mediocristan, but you have no way of knowing whether you have strayed into Extremistan - beyond the bellcurve's jurisdiction. This means that bellcurves are of no reliable use, anywhere. The full implications of this take a while to sink in, and are sure to cause huge controversy. In July, Taleb will debate Charles Murray (author of -what else?- the Bell Curve). I'll let you know who wins.
Taleb frames his whole argument much more entertainingly than I could here, and he bolsters it with an astonishing command of both cutting-edge social science and the entire history of philosophy. This is an astonishing work of serious philosophy, and it reads like pulp fiction. Readers who enjoyed FBR will find here the same dry wit, the same literary erudition, and deep sense of the absurd that made that book so much fun. But this is better, by an order of magnitude - easily the best book I have read in 5 years. I smell a timely pop-science bestseller here to rival Gladwell or Surowiecki, but this is also a classic that will be read for decades to come.
342 of 435 people found the following review helpful:
Many important ideas, many flaws that detract from the message
This is an entertaining and enlightening book, and fairly easy to read. It has an important message regarding how the world works; that the world is governed not by the predictable and the average, but by the random, the unknownable, the unpredictable -- big events or discoveries or unusual people that have big consequences. Change comes not uniformly but in unpredictable spurts. These are the Black Swans of the title: completedly unexpected and rare events or novel ideas or technologies that have a huge impact on the world. Indeed, Taleb argues that history itself is primarly driven by these Black Swans.
, April 26, 2007
It is convincing argument, entertainingly presented with plenty of sarcasm, and indeed, anger, by Taleb. For example he rails against the academic community, economists (including specific names), and Nobel Prize committee. Considerable numbers of his arguments "ring true" to me, that is my experience in life confirms that they are more accurate than the traditional approach. Like any important work, 90% of what is in the book is not original; that does not make it less important. Taleb's contribution is in integrating the material together, and showing how these different ideas are tied to the Black Swan.
The themes include: winner-take-all phenonomen, numerous effects of randomness on the world, the invalidity of the Gaussian Bell Curve to most things in world, concepts of scalablity, numerous instabilities in the world, especially the modern world where information travels so quickly, the fallacies about people's inability to predict the future. The importance of these ideas, Taleb's ability to weave them together into a single theory, and the ability of this theory to change the way you look at the world, means the book easily deserves my highest recommendation.
However, the book does have many flaws, unfortunately -- unfortunate because I believe they will take away from the credibility of the message, which is in important one. The are numerous minor flaws such as, for example, the inexplicable invention of a fictional author (disclosed a few pages later), when certainly there must have been some real example that would have worked better. Another example is repeated jabs about the French; these may be amusing but I just don't think they have a place in work like this. There are also diatribes against specific people, including famous economists, which, though amusing, and possibly justified, demonstrate a high level of anger by author and take away from his credibility. Often he also overreaches, for example in saying the usual combination of anti-abortion and pro-death penalty or the opposite combined views of pro-abortion and anti-death penatly cannot be explained logically, when in fact widely known theories such as George Lakoff's (in Moral Politics) have explained hows these groups of views are entirely consistent.
Another flaw is that Taleb seems to go a little toward the extreme of saying that we can predict almost nothing about the future, and though he does not say so explicitly, this seems to imply we have no moral responsibility to the future. This, combined with Taleb's advice to the reader about their behavior based on the "Black Swan" view of world just rubbed me the wrong way, for several reasons. One is that Taleb personally has very little in common with most people; never having as far as I know had a regular career (essentially what he calls non-scalable, e.g. dentist, engineer, baker) he nevertheless recommends that people choose these kinds of careers rather than a scalable career (e.g. financial trader, author, actor which are subject to a few lucky successful people and a lot of failures). This advise is odd first because Taleb is in a non-scalable profession (derivatives trader, then hedge fund manager) -- indeed it appears he is quite wealthy. Even more odd because he says all these types of non-scalable types of work are boring and evens makes sarcastic comments (the book is extremely sarcasm heavy) for example about dentists being able to do well by diligently drilling teeth for 30 years. The second things that bothered me is that Taleb seems be somewhat amoral to me; in this type of book where plenty of his own emotions come through, plenty of his personality, he has plenty of criticism of others for their wrong models and wrong view of the world, and how this has hurt the world, but there remains a lack of moral responsibility to his advice.
Perhaps the best comparison I could make are to other important works that do not suffer from these flaws, for example the Age of Fallibility by George Soros and Irrational Exuberance by Robert Shiller (1st and 2nd editions). But probably Black Swan will sell better than either of these because of it's "edginess," i.e. aggresiveness; I personally have a distaste for this approach.
Despite my criticisms, the main ideas of the book as so important as to merit reading and indeed great consideration.
75 of 146 people found the following review helpful:
Fun to read. Making the mind working
First of all I had fun reading it. I was many times in a non-reading mood, and some of the drafts came to me. I print them out in order to read another time, and suddenly I was finding myself after reading a few pages. Joyful style but with content. Very interesting content. The stuff that make you thinking, thinking, and thinking again.
, April 18, 2007
The principles of the book are quite simple.
The unknown is more frequent than we tend to think.
The effect of unexpected things is rather huge. Much more than we dare to fantasize.
"we know" is in many cases a big illusion. The human mind tends to think it knows, but does not always have solid ground for this dellusion of "I know".
As in the good old medieval days, "experts" are many times empty heads with empty (and expensive) suits. The "truth" behind science, is limited to some areas, and in many areas having a degree and posing scienist, is truth irelevant.
"Narrative falacy" talks about our tendency to build stories around facts. In love it may serve a purpose, but when starting to beleive the stories and accomodating facts to the stories, things become stupid.
Much more is there for the taking.
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