The Black Swan

I read the Black Swan largely at the result of Jerry Hoffman, an emergency doc who helps run my favourite medical podcast.

He’s a smart guy so i trust his book recommendations.

As a brief outline it’s about unpredictability and not how to predict it but how to at least think seriously about it and take it into your decision making.

It’s the kind of thing that should be bread and butter to all emergency docs. For example:

If you work in a randomness-laden profession as we see, you are likely to suffer burn out effects from the constant second guessing of your past actions in terms of what played out subsequently

That fairly accurately describes the weight on my shoulders that I feel as I walk out of work.

The idea of “the Black Swan” refers to the fact that the western world wasn’t aware of the existence of black swans till the discovery of the Antipodes. Centuries of empirical evidence proclaiming that all swans are white was destroyed by the discovery of black swans.

Incidentally I was once attacked by a black swan while on a kayak in NZ. It’s probably funnier than this blog so go read it if you want.

The same thing happens with the turkey who is well fed and looked after every day. Each new day brings positive reinforcement to the idea that its life is sound. Until one day near thanksgiving.

Taleb is understandably a skeptic.

I am most often irritated by those who exercise their skepticism against religion but not against economists, social scientists and phony statisticians. We no longer believe in papal infallibility but we seem to believe in the infallibility of the Nobel

and this one

Physics has been successful but it is a narrow field of hard science in which we have been successful. And people tend to generalise that success to all science. It would be preferable if we were better at understanding cancer or the (highly non-linear) weather than the origin of the universe.

It’s always nice to find a book to confirm your biases – that life is full of unpredictable events and that we’d be wise not to be sure of what we think we know.

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September 2010
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