Monday, 5 August 2013

black swan

I've never liked birds. It's their cold, beady eyes. I just don't trust them.

Black swans are the worst. Their beaks and eyes are bright red. To me, they seem like messengers from hell. I know, I know. I am being species-est. It's not good. I'm not proud of it. But I have to say, I am a little scared of black swans.

On two occasions, I have felt threatened by an encounter with a pair of black swans. On both occasions, they diverted their path to walk purposefully up to me, looking me in the eye the whole time, and, well, they were menacing. Yes, I'm bigger than them. No, they didn't attack me. But have you seen those eyes?

It turns out, black swans are fascinating. And lately they seem to keep turning up on my radar. So perhaps they are worth investigating.

Black swans are largely monogamous, with apparently a 6% divorce rate. (How do They know this??) A quarter of all swan pairs are homosexual and, of these, they are largely male couplings. These couples will scare a nesting female off her nest and claim her egg as their own. But anyway, homosexual or heterosexual swan couples take turns incubating the nest, doing shifts on warming duty. The shift handover involves an elaborate 'dance' and 'song' between the couple which is apparently very touching to witness and some say they do some sort of fancy move with their necks to form a heart shape. Whatever.

Black swans are specific to Australia and New Zealand, and were first sighted by Europeans in 1697 when Willem de Vlamingh's expedition sailed up the Swan River in Perth. There are a lot of them on the lake in Albert Park in Melbourne. It is those Albert Park swans which have allowed zoologists to study their nomadic and reproductive habits through their tagging project. That is, the swans have numbered neck tags, not some kind of handstyle graffiti.  

Before the discovery of Australia, Europeans had no reason to believe that swans could be any other colour but white. Which is how the whole Black Swan metaphor came into play.

Lebanese American essayist and statistician, Nassim Taleb has written two books which explore this idea of the black swan, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. In his hands, the black swan becomes a metaphor for the impact of a hard to predict event or surprise in financial terms or in society. But he wasn't the first to see black swans as symbolic of our very human approach or observation of life.

Taleb's Theory is different to the earlier Black Swan Problem propounded by Karl Popper, who, himself referenced the 18th century empiricist, David Hume.

The Urban Dictionary describes the Black Swan Problem as "A strange and out-of-control hairstyle which has literally taken on a life of its own. Results from too long without having a haircut, characterized by unsettling feeling overcoming bystanders. A Black Swan Problem may or may not have the ability to exercise mind control over the "wearer" and invariably causes a vacant and confused look in the eyes. Although difficult to describe, one is immediately aware when they are in the presence of a Black Swan Problem."

That's not what Karl Popper was talking about though.

I understand that my train of thought may be hard to follow in this entry. I have become, at once, obsessed with black swan events and with inductive reasoning. It really seems as though you cannot have one without the other.

But inductive reasoning is tricky.

Back to Karl Popper. Who incidentally, was born in Vienna but lectured at Canterbury University between 1937 and 1945!!! Small world, considering I went to Canterbury University. Although not at the same time. Not at all at the same time...But I digress...

Now, Karl Popper had a problem with induction. As did David Hume. Although David Hume was a couple of centuries earlier. Hume was frustrated by the fact that scientists often make a general rule from observing particular incidents when really we are unable to observe the universe at all times and in all places in a way that would allow this. It was David Hume who made the statement that "No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion." Europeans for thousands of years had observed millions of white swans. Using inductive evidence, they came up with the theory that all swans are white. But, as I have recently discovered, exploration of Australasia introduced Europeans to black swans. So, Popper's and Hume's point is this: no matter how many observations are made which confirm a theory there is always the possibility that a future observation could refute it. Induction cannot yield certainty. 

The fact that induction seems to get a bad rap is best summed up by English epistemologist, Charlie Dunbar Broad when he said, "Induction is the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy."

But is reasoning through induction really so bad? I wonder whether inductive reasoning is good for people like entrepreneurs because they have to imagine and rationalise opportunities. Someone far cleverer than me pulled out all the poetic stops to agree that, maybe that is true because induction forces you to find a harmony between imagination and reality.

But back to Taleb's black swans. He defines a Black Swan as any event having these three properties:
  1. difficult to predict
  2. high consequence
  3. seems predictable afterward
What would it look like if one lived life for black swan events? If one were to wait for or expect a particular coincidence of action and then embrace it? Is that being pessimistic, or realistic?

Because we are hurt most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything, we should perhaps expect the most terrible events all the time. Clearly none of us should invest money, take a financial risk or embark on romantic or personal adventures without an awareness that it could all go horribly wrong. For whatever reason, we do seem to see ourselves as in control of our destiny. For a gloomy generation, we hold ourselves in high esteem. Our optimisim and self-belief is on a high. My favourite swiss philosopher, Alain de Botton sees that modern bourgeois philosophy pins its hopes firmly on two great presumed ingredients of happiness, love and work. It is tricky to be satisfied by these. It is not that love and work cannot be fulfilling, it's just that they don't seem to do so for long.

So, perhaps it is not so much about expecting or anticipating black swan events, but about building a resilience that helps us deal with them when they occur. Because they inductively will. They will occur, they will have an impact, we will reflect, and then we will move on. Hopefully wiser and stronger and with another story to tell.

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