On Black Swans and Related Matters

The first time I read anything by John Ralston Saul was at the behest of a 40-something Mexican-American school teacher I met in Argentina. Hernando, as we’ll call him, was one of the most well-read people that I met in my travels and he had with him a number of books on philosophy. This was very lucky for me since they were all in English and he was eager to offload them as part of his plan to shed many of his possessions and buy an isolated parcel of land to call home.

When I met Hernando it was early enough in my trip that I not yet begun to read in Spanish, but late enough that my supply of English books was running low. It’s at moments like these when the planned route has almost run its course and the future path is contingent on chance events that the mind is most ripe for exposure to new ideas. As he showed me his collection of books, he recommended to me above all his copy of The Unconscious Civilization. When I recognized the name and told him that Saul was (at the time) the husband of Canada’s Governor General, he seemed surprised and quite pleased. Now that I am more familiar with Saul’s philosophy I can see why such an honorific, institutional, anachronistic day job clashes (and yet strangely complements) his thoughts on power, modernity, and the principles of the Enlightenment.

The Unconscious Civilization by John Ralston Saul (the edition with the best cover!)

In any case, thanks to my new friend’s flight from civilization, I had the wonderful occasion to read Saul’s Massey Lecture as well as a book on fuzzy logic and some of Bertrand Russell’s greatest hits in the blistering sun of the Southern summer (and my first ‘winter’ without so much as a flake of snow). In return I (vaguely) recall proffering a few liters of beer and a couple of cheap Spanish translations of Nietzsche.

Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralston Saul. Do not ingest.

When I returned to Canada I was eager to return to the stuff of Hernando’s serendipitous book collection, not least of which was what Saul had to say about rampant corporatism

And so I picked up Voltaire’s Bastards (VB) on Hernando’s emphatic advice.
I will be mercifully brief in my thoughts about VB. First, at over 650 pages, it is a monster of a book. Thanks to my abortive attempt to read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, VB easily clocks in as the longest book that I’ve ever actually read and finished. Second, it is an unusual book of philosophy in the sense that Saul’s arguments are not particularly rigorous or logical. He doesn’t set up tidy syllogisms nor find logical flaws in the reasoning of other philosophers. Instead, from what I can gather, he seems to be trying to give a sense of a trend in the Western world from multiple, apparently unrelated avenues. It’s as though he’s trying to give the reader an aesthetic sense of the corruption of the true ideals of the Enlightenment at the hands of modern Western technocrats. There are no smoking guns so much as there are cumulative tell-tale signs of the wresting of power by the ever-more specialized elites in the bastardized name of Reason. Third, it is an imperfect, wandering book, but its charm lies in its style and its highly interpreted portraits of key historical figures and events.

Long story short: it is an ambitious book that fleshed out my nascent sense that the official line was borderline conspiratorial, even if the conspirators were almost as unwitting as those of us who they rule over.

And now I come to The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I came across this book in a far less interesting way; I’d been hearing the buzz about it for some time so I bought it at the bookstore where I work. Unfortunately I had difficulty contributing to the well-earned buzz surrounding Taleb’s book because of the movie by the same name that had just been released. This book is mercifully unrelated to ballet.

I have a  few general thoughts on The Black Swan (which I won’t abbreviate to BS out of consideration to Taleb!). I grew to enjoy Taleb as a character in his own book. Although he comes across as a somewhat arrogant and particular man (he loves walking and talking at a very specific pace in urban locations), it grows endearing. He is not worried about making friends – as he says in his book, he’s already earned enough money to say a big “Fuck You” to all those who would pretend to tell him what to do. He is very cognizant of his image as an iconoclast in his profession – a financial trader.

In short, he is rebuking who Saul aptly called Voltaire’s bastards in one of their most pernicious and sophisticated manifestations: the modern financial sector. To put it crudely, he gives straightforward and clear arguments why those who pretend to model and forecast future financial and economic events are full of shit. The statistical models that such ‘experts’ use, Taleb says, are deeply flawed and based on fallacies like the tendency to ascribe a narrative structure to events, or to view systems according to clear rules where no such rules exist (the narrative and ludic fallacies, respectively).  The Black Swan is a type of event that is massively significant and almost impossible to predict accurately.  They are revolutionary, unanticipated, emergent events that destroy the unsophisticated (but deceptively certain) models of prediction. The best we can do is prepare ourselves to be receptive to the good ones and shielded from the bad ones. We can build systems that are flexible in the face of the inevitable Black Swan, but we cannot preemptively build anything that encompasses them or successfully resists them rigidly. Even when we can get a flavour of the types of Black Swans that are more or less likely, the consequences of such events by definition defy prediction. They are epistemologically inaccessible and we need to deal with that unpleasant reality.

Taleb is not writing just a business book – he is offering a wider epistemological critique which I consider to be anchored squarely in a number of psychological heuristics that I’ve discussed elsewhere in this blog.

In the same family as Wrong by David H. Freedman and Risk by Dan Gardner, Taleb’s book is the antithesis of most business books. It is a well-aimed barb in the same category of the nebulous Voltaire’s Bastards and well worth a reader’s time.

Thar She Blows In All Her Glory.

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One Response to On Black Swans and Related Matters

  1. Neil H says:

    I’ve actually been meaning to read The Black Swan since I found out he was a mathematician who predicted the financial crisis. Awesome. Still haven’t gotten around to it, though.

    Side note: How many people do you think will be buying this book thinking it’s the inspiration of the Aronofsky film of the same name?

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