The Black Swan

December 21, 2011 non-fiction 0

From the beginning, I could tell this book was going to be tough going.  I’ve read several similar books attacking conventional wisdom, including Freakonomics (right before starting this project) and Wrong (reviewed here).  Of the three, this book was by far the least conversational and most intellectual (ie most difficult to read!).    The book took a lot of time to make a few simple points.  There were also many chapters that started with anecdotes not clearly related to the subject of the book.  This gives the disorienting sensation of having walked into a room and realizing you don’t remember why you decided to head to that room in the first place!

In some cases, the author does do a very good job of giving examples to explain the ideas he presents.  For instance, he defines a black swan as any event which is rare, high impact and unpredictable.  A fun example he gives to illustrate the problem with predictions based on the past is that of a turkey.  In the first few years of its life, the turkey will be fed every day and decide that people have its best interests at heart.  The day before Thanksgiving is for the turkey a black swan event, as the poor thing never sees it coming.

Overall, the author makes some really good points.  Interesting logical mistakes he suggests we avoid include:

  • focusing on evidence supporting our current beliefs
  • categorizing and simplifying events, which causes us to lose information and be even more surprised by black swans
  • believing we can predict the next big thing – if it’s predictable that something is going to be a success someone would already have done it
  • ignoring negative evidence – an example in the book tells of a philosopher who hears a story about a miracle, where a bunch of men prayed and where thus saved from drowning.  He asks, “but where are the men who prayed and drowned?” – that is, we only get evidence from successes/survivors
For me, all these good points were outweighed by the author’s tone.  He seems very bitter and belligerent, insulting nearly every profession which does anything computational. He also randomly uses Italian, Latin and French words (annoying) and even the odd casual phrase like “fuhgedaboudit” (it pains me to even repeat that!).    By the end of the book, I was very glad to be done and skipped the extra essay added to my paperback version.

Connections – First of all, to give credit where credit is due, I would absolutely follow the author’s investment advice.  He suggests investing the majority of your money in safe, tame ventures with just enough in riskier places that you can benefit from positive black swans and not suffer too much from negative black swans.  Sounds reasonable to me!

One of the many professions the author attacks is the scientist, presenting this profession as one where success is obtained by a few researchers who experience positive black swan events.  He paints a dismal portrait of the poor, unsuccessful scientist, scorned by his family for lack of obvious results.  Fortunately, my experience in the sciences has so far been the opposite – no one outside the sciences asks why you haven’t cured cancer yet!  They have no idea how mundane the day-to-day can be.  Instead they tend to think you must be pretty smart to be working on the problem at all.

The author also criticized the use of bell curves and the assumption that predictions based on averages will hold.  Since I would like to go into machine learning and the creation of statistical models (ie making predictions), I wondered if this was a potential problem in my work.  Fortunately, I work on biology, where we mostly just want to rule out as many false positives as possible, so people in the lab will have less work.  For me, being mostly right is enough and when we find black swans, we can learn about them with minimal negative consequences.

Summary

The Black Swan – 2 stars –  I hate to rate this book as poorly as The Secret when it makes so much better points.  However, I found it equally difficult to get through because of the tone and the wandering anecdotes.

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