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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Book Review: The Black Swan

Over the Christmas break I started reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It is a fairly interesting book, which I unfortunately had to return to its owner before I had a chance to finish it. The basic premise of the book is to discuss "black swan" events, which are essentially a completely unexpected occurrence (Taleb outlines three characteristics of the events, but without the text available for consultation I don't want to attempt to reiterate them for fear of fouling it up). He gets the name from the formerly widespread belief that a black swan was an impossible thing (owing to the fact that they had not been observed outside of their native Australia) until someone actually went to Australia and spotted one. While the existence of black swans might not have been an earth-shattering event, Taleb uses it as a metaphor for many things that do profoundly effect the lives of large portions of the world population. For example, there are many historical events (like the stock market crash of 1929) which no one saw coming until they had happened. One very interesting aspect of the book was its discussion of the narrative fallacy that is so common in the study of history. For example, in the case of the outbreak of World War I students learn that is was a fragile system of alliances built upon unstable relationships which inevitably led to war. While this sounds fine and dandy in retrospect, prior to 1914 and the horrible subsequent years people would be hard pressed to make those "obvious" predictions (if it had been possible, wouldn't there have been a more concerted effort to prevent such a catostrophic outcome?).

I quite enjoyed Taleb's demonstration of the psychology of confirmation bias and false narrative. However, I did find his style occasionally irksome. He writes in a fairly erratic fashion (which in and of itself is not so bad) with very little reference to where some of his claims are coming from. When he makes counter-intuitve or seemingly false claims, this can sometimes be frustrating. One that jumped out at me rather blatantly was his claim that "national character" is a complete myth. Unfortunately, he never quite defined what national character means (beyond it not being a physical thing), but he makes the claim that a man from Sweden will be more similar to man from another country (I forget which country he specified) than he will be to a woman from Sweden. I thought that seemed to be a fairly arbitrary claim, since there are many aspects of one's character which are widely influenced by the environment in which one is raised. This includes such national things as public education and predominant national or regional culture. That does not mean that one cannot find the full gamut of personalities within a single nation, but rather it seems that there is a predisposition for a person to have certain personality features that are more common to a given nation or geographical region. Perhaps, though, this is just my own predisposed idea that there exists such things as a national character selectively filtering ideas to confirm my belief that it exists.

Anyway, I plan to try and track down a copy of the book from the library to finish it off, but judging from the first third of it, I would recommend reading it. The book has widespread appeal, touching on subjects from economics to psychology and sociology to science and knowledge. Though I would recommend maintaining a skeptical eye during the reading, it is a good book for kick starting one's own mind into mental introspection (and that is something that is rarely a bad thing).

2 comments:

cornucrapia said...

regarding the national character assertion, while I agree with the point you were making about it (I was also frustrated by some of his claims) I don't know if I agree with that particular example. I recall he was more specific in his comparisons, I remember the example he gave being a Swedish wrestler who had a temper tantrum. He commented that it was odd how surprised everyone was by a Swede acting in such a hostile manner when really they should have thought of it as a wrestler acting aggressively. I think we could all agree that combined gender, religion, economic wellbeing and career probably do account more for personality than nationality.

Mozglubov said...

That must have been later in the book, because the part I was referring to he only mentioned the nationality (as far as I remember). Once I get a copy of the text again I'll try to provide page numbers for reference.