Guest Post by Kenneth Watman
Deputy Director, Systems Analysis
Office of Director of National Intelligence
Like so many people, I was fascinated and exasperated by Taleb’s book. But, when the book is summed up, I do not believe Taleb has defined “Black Swan” as anything special or remarkable.
Near as I can tell, a “Black Swan” is an especially rare event, perhaps completely unanticipated with very large consequences. Well, had we discussed this question before 9/11 and the financial crash, I think we would have said, “Of, course.” If there are 100-year hurricanes, there probably are 500-year hurricanes. A relatively small asteroid has a 1-in-250 chance of hitting earth over some time period with unprecedented effects. So, if you want to label those “Black Swans,” why not?
There are two issues of consequence that Taleb doesn’t or cannot answer.
1. First, is there a systematic reason to believe we are underestimating risk and or consequences? That’s a matter of data and analytical methods, and there are lots of people trying to find out. We know that when disaster models are misused, like the financial models, they will tell us garbage with results that may shock us. Again, where’s the news in that. Don’t misuse the models and put into place precautions against doing so.
2. Second, even if the data suggest we need fatter tails (long-standing procedures exist to do that), there’s a policy/greed question. Will finance and insurance companies put enough in their reserves to reflect the risks they face? Or, as a matter of policy, lack of regulation, competitive market pressures, and self-deception, will they simply close their eyes, cross their fingers, and discount cognitively what low risk means, e.g. non-zero risk?
Reminding us of rare, high consequence events is fine. Calling them “Black Swans” doesn’t add anything substantively, although it’s an effective metaphor. But the greatest contribution is in answering the latter two questions I’ve posed.
Have a look at my recent posts on Black Swans, strategy, and business rules … Search on “Black Swans”