It was once thought in the Old World that only white swans existed. Then from Australia came the realization that there were black swans. And no, they were not white swans made black by bootblack or any other artificial coloring medium. After millennia of observations in the West of millions of white swans, the sighting of one black swan was enough to invalidate this long and firmly held belief. In a broader sense then A Black Swan is a sudden, monumental, and completely unexpected event. WWI, WWII, and 9/11 were Black Swans. If one were to win a multi-million dollars lottery that would be a personal Black Swan (Black Swans are not all negative, although given the troubles experienced by some of these huge lottery winners, this might also be negative).
But a Black Swan is more than this – it goes to the heart of and challenges the putative acceptance of Gaussian probabilities. Least you think Gaussian or bell shaped probability functions are theoretical only and not important in real life, then consider that not only mathematics, but engineering, medicine, social sciences, economomics, the insurance industry, Wall Street, and other fields of science and the arts use Gaussian probabilities in their calculations and predictions. I will get much deeper into this later in the essay.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an odd name to the Western ear. In fact he grew up in a family from the Greco-Syrian community from what was the last Byzantine outpost in northern Syria and which was incorporated into the country of Lebanon after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This part of the Middle East was relatively stable until the last quarter of the 20th century. The mosaic of cultures and religions in this region consisted of Christians of all varieties – Maronites (The father of the reputed richest man in the world, Mexican Carlos Slim Helú, was a Maronite Christian who emigrated from Lebanon to Mexico), Armenians, Greco-Syrian Byzantine Orthodox, Byzantine Catholics, in addition to a few Roman Catholics left over from the Crusades; Muslims (Shiites and Sunnis); Druzes; and a few Jews. The Taleb family had been successful for generations. On his mother’s side both his grandfather and great-grandfather were deputy prime ministers of Lebanon and on his father’s side (his father was an oncologist) his grandfather was a Supreme Court Justice. In 1861 his four times great grandfather was a governor of the Ottoman semi-autonomous province of Mount Lebanon.
The Civil War between Christians and Muslims which began in 1975 came completely out of the blue and, although Taleb did not realize it at the time, would later contribute to his philosophy of the Black Swan. At that time people would say with seeming confidence that the war would last at most just a few weeks. It went on for 15 years.
Taleb holds an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D in management science from the University of Paris.
It is difficult to define the métier of Taleb. Clearly he is a polymath. He has worked as a securities analysis on Wall Street, a Visiting Professor of Marketing at the London Business School, the Dean’s Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at the Courant Institute of New York University, and affiliated faculty member at the Wharton Business School Financial Institutions Center. He previously authored a best selling book titled Fooled by Randomness which has been published in 20 languages.
Predicting the future based upon the…