Black Swan, White Swan… Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

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Black Swan

Formal logic might be the blackest of magics (and it makes for the most excruciating of reads). Just try figuring out the Black Swan Problem. Read a ton of obnoxious articles by formal logicians – who I imagine wear capes and brood in towers while they go about their dark art of turning language into math – without pushing your thumbs into your eyeballs until they pop.

Good luck.

I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of contest going on where each of these schmucks tries to outdo the other by taking simple ideas and complicating the hell out of them with the smartest-sounding words they can find in a thesaurus. Whoever can turn a paragraph into 3000 words wins!

So here’s the incredibly easy concept that you won’t find anywhere in plain English:

Black Swan Problem:

  1. Dude sees a swan. Said swan is white.

  2. Dude says, “Oh, snap. I guess all swans are white.”

  3. Everyone agrees. All swans are white.

  4. But then I see a black swan.

  5. Dude looks like a dummy.

Black Swan Solution: Don’t be that dude.

This all apparently happened in real life when a Dutch sailor named Antonie Caen became the first European to catch sight of a black swan in 1636 near Shark Bay, Australia. Up until this point, there had been a common English idiom, “You’ll see a black swan before… ” which had roughly the same meaning as, “It’ll be a cold day in Hell when… ”

Caen’s discovery, and the subsequent scientific legitimacy given by Dr. John Latham in 1790, killed the saying by stabbing it to death with irony. Now, a “black swan” had to be something we thought didn’t exist, but in fact did.

It would be like waking up one morning and being confronted by the front page of the newspaper – Scientists Discover Winged Pig in the Yucatan. I can already imagine the memes crowding Reddit.

Pigs Fly MemeWonderful.

And while combing through a number of soul-numbing, clock-stopping essays on the Black Swan Problem, my concentration surprisingly began to waver, and I accidentally clicked on the wrong link. My bleary eyes were now reading about Black Swan Theory, an idea put forth by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which draws from the problem, but is a bit different in scope and meaning.

In his books, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Taleb refers to “Black Swan Events,” happenstance occurrences that permanently shift the predominant paradigm. He gives us three criteria by which to recognize one of these events:

  1. The event is an outlier, something that exists outside of normalized expectations. A complete surprise that no one sees it coming.

  2. It has a major impact on civilization.

  3. In hindsight, the event is rationalized, and everyone pretends that they could have seen it coming.

9/11, the Fukushima disaster, Gangnam Style. All of these are Black Swans which changed the course of culture after their shocking and unpredictable impact. And in retrospect, it’s hard to figure out how we didn’t expect them.

Taleb is an expert mathematical financial adviser, so his book focuses on being prepared for these Black Swan events and taking economic advantage of them. Being one of the shit-eating-poor means I can’t walk away with too much from it in this sense, but I can apply it to the seemingly daily occurrence of finding new information that utterly destroys some firmly held belief.

See: Black Swan events expose the vulnerability in our current way of thinking. The world is in a constant state of flux around us, but we refuse to let go of the impossible fantasy of an unchanging reality, grasping at our personal Truths like a drowning man holding onto a rock in a raging river. Only the rock is actually a garbage bag full of empty beer cans, and the guy refuses to admit it; instead, he keeps preaching at all the other swimmers..

Criminy. I think I let that metaphor get away with me. Formal logic fatigue.

Let’s scoot on back to reality, that place where letters turn into numbers, sometimes– and black swans are actually quite common (world population: 500,000).

Black Swan events are starting to become just as common. Our beautiful internet is letting us see them all the time; taking our old ideas and putting them on trial. Massive social changes happen in a relatively teensy tiny sliver of time, these days.

Yet here we are, holding onto the silly idea that we’ve figured it all out and know what’s going to happen around the next corner.

Purple Swan