The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

There are so many things we can do if we focus on antiknowledge, or what we do not know.

Definition of a Black Swan:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concot explanations for its occurrence AFTER the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

Our inability to predict in environments subjected to the Black Swan, coupled with a general lack of the awareness of this state of affairs, means that certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not.

We need to principally study the rare and extreme events in order to figure out common ones. There are two possible ways to approach phenomena. The first is to rule out the extraordinary and focus on the "normal." The second approach is to consider that in order to understand a phenomenon, one needs first to consider the extremes.

I don't particularly care about the usual. If you want to get an idea of a friend's temperament, ethics, and personal elegance, you need to look at him under the tests of severe circumstances, not under the regular rosy glow of daily life.

The Platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide. It it here that the Black Swan is produced.

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the TRIPLET OF OPACITY. They are:

a. the illusion of understanding, or how everyone things he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated or random than they realize;

b. the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and

c. the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories - when they "Platonify."

The studious examination of the past in the greatest of detail does not teach you much about the mind of History; it only gives you the illusion of understanding it.

It was a few years after the beginning of the Lebanese war, as I was attending the Wharton School, at the age of twenty-two, that I was hit with the idea of efficient markets - an idea that holds that there is no way to derive profits from traded securities since these instruments have automatically incorporated all the available information. Public information can therefore be useless, particularly to a businessman, since prices can already "include" all such information, and news shared with millions gives you no real advantage. Odds are that one or more of the hundreds of millions of other readers of such information will already have bought the security, thus pushing up the price. I then completely gave up reading newspapers and watching television, which freed up a considerable amount of time (say one hour or more per day, enough time to read more than a hundred additional books per year, which, after a couple of decades, starts mounting).

So I stayed in the quant and trading business, but organized myself to do minimal but intense (and entertaining) work, focus only on the most technical aspects, never attend business "meetings," avoid the company of "achievers" and people in suits who don't read books, and take a sabbatical year for every three on average fill up gaps in my scientific and philosophical culture. To slowly distill my single idea, I wanted to become a flaneur, a professional meditator, sit in cafes, lounge, unglued to desks and organization structures, sleep as long as I needed, read voraciously, and not owe any explanation to anybody. I wanted to be left alone in order to build, small steps at a time, an entire system of thought based on my Black Swan idea.

By a mental mechanism I call naive empiricism, we have a natural tendency to look for instances that confirm our story and our vision of the world - these instances are always easy to find.

I know what statement is wrong, but not necessarily what statement is correct. If I see a black swan I can certify that ALL SWANS ARE NOT WHITE! If I see someone kill, then I can be practically certain that he is a criminal. If I don't see him kill, I cannot be certain that he is innocent. The same applies to cancer detection: the finding of a single malignant tumor proves that you have cancer, but the absence of such a finding cannot allow you to say with certainty that you are cancer-free.

We can get closer to the truth by negative instances, not by verification. It is misleading to build a general rule from observed facts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our body of knowledge does not increase from a series of confirmatory observations, like the turkey's.

Cognitive scientists have studies our natural tendency to look only for corroboration (bekrachtiging); they call this vulnerability to the corroboration error the CONFIRMATION BIAS.

Scientists believe that it is the search for their own weaknesses that makes them good chess players, not the practice of chess that turns them into skeptics.

This, perhaps, is true self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to find signs that stroke one's ego.

Once your mind is inhabited with a certain view of the world, you will tend to only consider instances proving you to be right. Paradoxically, the more information you have, the more justified you will feel in your views.