I’ve recently been reading a book called The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and it got me thinking about our confirmed way of thinking. The book focuses on the extreme impact of certain kinds of rare and unpredictable events and how we strive to find simplistic explanations for these events later on. The problem, as Nassim explains, is that we place odds on past events repeating themselves even if they are rare, unpredictable, and — most of all — unrepeatable.
He calls these events Black Swans, a reference to a 17th century philosophical thought experiment. In Europe, anyone could have told you the ‘fact’ that “all swans are white” since that is all they’d seen. So what was the chance of seeing a black one? Zero? Just like imagining a green swan today, seeing black swans were beyond rare events until 1697 when explorers found black swans in Australia.
Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s practically useless. September 11th is one such example, and stock market crashes are another. Or, as he puts it, “History does not crawl, it jumps.”Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon warned that our minds are wired to deceive us. “Beware the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall–they are the real distorting prisms of human nature.” Chief among them: “Assuming more order than exists in chaotic nature.” Now consider the typical stock market report: “Today investors bid shares down out of concern over Iranian oil production.” Sigh. We’re still doing it.
Forecasting is not just at the heart of Wall Street, but it’s something each of us does every time we make an insurance payment or strap on a seat belt.
— Chris Anderson
I’m fascinated by this line of thought and try to view it through the lens of my daily work. What black swans are hidden in the work we do? Perhaps because of the fact that digital products have evolved so quickly, we are even more prone to accept ‘facts’ that are in front of us. You and I need to accept our lives are loaded with confirmation biases.
People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for. — Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird