Shattering the Bell Curve

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

In Shattering the Bell Curve, David Shaywitz reviews Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan and notes that “the power law rules”:

Mr. Taleb is fascinated by the rare but pivotal events that characterize life in the power-law world. He calls them Black Swans, after the philosopher Karl Popper’s observation that only a single black swan is required to falsify the theory that “all swans are white” even when there are thousands of white swans in evidence. Provocatively, Mr. Taleb defines Black Swans as events (such as the rise of the Internet or the fall of LTCM) that are not only rare and consequential but also predictable only in retrospect. We never see them coming, but we have no trouble concocting post hoc explanations for why they should have been obvious. Surely, Mr. Taleb taunts, we won’t get fooled again. But of course we will.

Writing in a style that owes as much to Stephen Colbert as it does to Michel de Montaigne, Mr. Taleb divides the world into those who “get it” and everyone else, a world partitioned into heroes (Popper, Hayek, Yogi Berra), those on notice (Harold Bloom, necktie wearers, personal-finance advisers) and entities that are dead to him (the bell curve, newspapers, the Nobel Prize in Economics).

A humanist at heart, Mr. Taleb ponders not only the effect of Black Swans but also the reason we have so much trouble acknowledging their existence. And this is where he hits his stride. We eagerly romp with him through the follies of confirmation bias (our tendency to reaffirm our beliefs rather than contradict them), narrative fallacy (our weakness for compelling stories), silent evidence (our failure to account for what we don’t see), ludic fallacy (our willingness to oversimplify and take games or models too seriously), and epistemic arrogance (our habit of overestimating our knowledge and underestimating our ignorance).

Leave a Reply