Laughing at Black Swans

No doubt readers have noticed the trend, which I find highly disturbing, in modern populist business books: find a really, really simple idea, not original, give it a flashy name, and write an entire book about it, as though you were some kind of insightful genius.

I’ll offer as examples: Blink, a whole book suggesting that intuition is useful.  Wow.

And, The Tipping Point, a whole book that basically says, things are this way, until one day they are that way, and the place where they change is, ah, the place where they change.  Yow.

But the books that REALLY drive me nuts are the ones written by people who are just not very good at something, and manage to make it seem like a) a problem we all have, and b) something admirable or useful.

And in this category, I would offer up the very popular “Black Swan,” Nassim Taleb’s 2007 book, which says that the future is full of surprises; it could also be described as, “things keep happening the same way for awhile, and then they don’t.”

Of course, since all of this is completely in the eye of the author, the best title for this work would have been: “Why I am unable to predict the future.”

Taleb was on PBS tonight trying to scare the bejesus out of the world at large, accompanied by his mentor and friend Benoit Mandelbrot, founder of fractals and contributor to Chaos Theory.  Benoit did his job by mumbling a few things about butterflies and turbulence, and staying out of the shaky line of Taleb’s reasoning, or rather, warning.  Because that is all he had: the end is near, we are all doomed, cut for commercial.

Two aspects of this circus bothered me.  First, at a time when confidence and trust in the system may be the determining parameters in how dour things really become, why would ANY broadcaster put this act on the air?  (Please keep in mind, I have a lot of respect, I think, for Taleb’s Wall St. experience, none of which was drawn upon for this show.)

A word to all media folks: please keep the scaremongers, no matter how popular their books, off the air for a little while. You really have no idea the damage you and they can cause.

And, second, why ask someone who has just written a book celebrating the fact that he cannot predict the future, what is in the future?

People should do what they’re good at, and not be questioned about what is beyond them.

To an Alzheimer’s patient, the future is always new.  To others, it is always inscrutable.

To SNS members, it’s something we get right about 93.5% of the time.  And predicting the “black swan” events is the most interesting, and valuable, part of the exercise.