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Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan January 8, 2008

Posted by David Gillespie in philosophy.
Tags: , ,

I had thought that when I got to the end of the afore-mentioned book I would review it and post my thoughts on it, however it seems every few pages there are a raft of new ideas, ones that suggest new trains of thought, undo previous ones, and generally beat you over the head should you be caught sleeping. The book itself is more essay than anything else, but I mean that in the best possible way. Personally I had never heard the word vitiate before (it means to reduce or impair the quality of, just FYI…), which is a challenge in itself, but it certainly isn’t the kind of book you start reading if you’re not up for an exchange of big ideas. 

So, rather than wait until the end and try to disseminate what I’ve learned, I thought I would use this blog as a place where I could dump my thoughts for the day, a reading diary and would serve as the notes I’ve taken along the way. I’m not quite half way through, a page into chapter 9. If you haven’t read it yet don’t worry, there aren’t spoilers to be had, and I welcome the thoughts of anyone who cares to share, whether you’ve read the book or not.

The idea that is sticking with me most right now (and that could be because I just finished a chapter on it) is referred to as silent evidence. Taleb uses a myriad of examples of this throughout the chapter, I’ll relay a summation of what gamblers refer to as “beginner’s luck”. Simply put, if a thousand people sit down and start gambling, odds are that one among them will strike it better than any other because of the unpredictability of games like roulette. There will be no rhyme or reason, and 999 people may go back to what they were doing.

That one person though will continue to gamble, convinced their success has been preordained, the silent evidence of the other 999 you won’t find out about, because their experience gave them nothing to share. The notion of beginner’s luck exists because you only hear about it from people who experience it, not the vast majority who lose their money and leave, thus giving the false impression that all people who start gambling kick it off with a string of lucky breaks.

In the book, Taleb warns against forming opinions on events based on the evidence directly presented. He is far more concerned with the statistics that aren’t being told. If a drug came out that cured cancer but potentially also killed 1 in 10 people, a doctor would never prescribe it; the potential law suits would make it an untenable position.

A life saved is a statistic; a person hurt is an anecdote.” (pg. 112)

A previous point he had made along those lines was a fictional account of two men flying to New York, one a local, one planning to visit Central Park for the first time. The local gets drunk and regales the visitor with a stor about how his wife’s brother’s co-worker’s 2nd cousin’s nephew had a friend who was mugged and killed in the park, leaving behind a wife and two young children. The visitor could be greeted with a myriad of statistics espousing the safety of walking through the park, but in all likelihood would be consumed with the image of a man lying in the park, bleeding to death, and a family with no husband or father.

As in the cancer-curing drug example above, anecdotes are much more powerful than statistics.

I could cite a dozen more pieces from the book where Taleb paints a compelling argument for the Black Swans, however it really is worth your time reading it yourself. If you want an overview, stay with me over the coming week or so as I move through the rest of it. As I said above you need not have read the book to share your thoughts on the ideas; one of the first points he makes early on is the best and most disruptive ideas often come from people unaware of the rules of the game.

More as it arrives…



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