Don’t Be Fooled By Black Swans

Last night Wen, Rich and I went and listened to Nassim Nicholas Taleb be interviewed at the powerHouse Arena. I’ve been a big fan of his books for years, but this was the first time I’d seen him speak. The interview started on a couple of false notes (he spent a few minutes telling us that they’d all just been out for drinks; the interviewer apologized for her French-accented English), but he had a couple of quotable points:

  • The difference between a fool and a saint is timing
  • If a problem is too hard to compute, the outcome is essentially random
  • Black swans are not black swans for everyone: only for ‘suckers’. To be crass, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a black swan for Americans; for the terrorists were exactly what they were expecting
  • Debt levels map one-to-one with forecasting overconfidence
  • If I told you that you have a 3.4% chance of losing everything on a trade, you probably wouldn’t take it. If I told you that a catastrophic failure only occurs every 30 years, you would
  • Religion is not about beliefs, it’s about creating heuristics for people who otherwise couldn’t think them up themselves
  • The best science is done by independents (Einstein, Darwin), not by people associated with institutions – those people try to please the tenure committee. There probably isn’t a perfect institution for creating better science, but abolishing tenure is likely a good start. (This feels very akin to how innovation in business occurs)
  • ‘Forecast’ is ‘prophesize’ in Arabic – but how would you feel about next year’s business ‘prophecy’?

Basically, everything he said could boil down to the following:

  • Almost everything that’s interesting in the world is nonlinear
  • And no one really understands how nonlinear dynamics work
  • So if anyone tells you they do, don’t believe them
  • Instead, always compute the likelihood that something will happen…
  • …and make sure that you’re never the ‘sucker’ based on those probabilities

He closed with an interesting comment that he wants to move from a world of true/false to sucker/non-sucker. An interesting thought; if you get a chance to see him speak, do so.