Black Swan

Black swan event, high-impact event that is difficult to predict under normal circumstances but that in retrospect appears to have been inevitable. A black swan event is unexpected and therefore

IShimwe Emile

March 27, 2024

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  • Historical
Black swan event, high-impact event that is difficult to predict under normal circumstances but that in retrospect appears to have been inevitable. A black swan event is unexpected and therefore difficult to prepare for but is often rationalized with the benefit of hindsight as having been unavoidable.

The earliest known reference to the term black swan occurs in the Roman poet Juvenal’s poem Satire VI, in which he describes potential qualities of a woman worthy of marriage. His line “rara avis in terris, nigroque simillima cygno” translates to “a rare bird in the world, very similar to the black swan.” At the time, black swans were presumed not to exist. All swans were presumed to be white because all historical records of swans showed them with white feathers. The term black swan was thus used to describe any impossible event or circumstance. But in 1697 the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh encountered swans with dark plumage in Australia, a land largely unexplored by Europeans at that time. The black swan thus came to be a metaphor for the reality that just because something has not happened does not mean that it cannot occur in the future. The metaphor is analogous to the fragility of any system of thought and a testament to the fallacy of assumption. A set of conclusions can be undone once any of its fundamentals is proved false. In this case, the observation of a single black swan negated the long-held presumption about the species. Any logic that followed the assumption that swans must be white was also invalidated by the discovery.

The term black swan was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a professor, economist, and writer. He initially explored black swan events in the context of financial markets in the early 21st century and then expanded his scope to include historical, scientific, and other events. Taleb argues that, while human beings are good at turning environmental stimuli into meaningful information, they tend to be narrow-minded in their beliefs about the world. Being dogmatic about beliefs makes humans blind to concepts that fall outside what is accepted as true. This creates a vulnerability to surprise events called black swans, which necessitate a change in worldview. Black swan events impact people differently based on the extent of their access to relevant information about such events: the more the information, the less the impact.

It is an outlier—i.e., it is so rare that even the possibility that it might occur is unknown.
It has an extreme impact when it occurs.
In spite of its outlier status, explanations are created for it after the fact, making it predictable in the future.
Such events can be classified as positive, as in the case of the sharp rise of the Internet, or negative, as in the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007–08. Once such seemingly unpredictable events occur, they tend to get absorbed into the common body of knowledge, so it is very rare that they repeat. For example, the aforementioned financial crisis had an impact on financial markets across the globe. But financial controls put in place in its wake make the chances of a similar event happening again very low. In stock markets black swan events are described as market crashes that exceed six standard deviations. Indeed, most financial markets tend to widely use the normal distribution model, or the bell curve, to model data. This treats outliers as rare cases to be ignored in modeling. Black swan logic, on the other hand, suggests that these outliers are what need to be studied more closely.

Two tendencies cause humans to be particularly susceptible to black swan events. The first is creating narratives based on what is known of the past, and the second is the notion that the past is a reliable predictor of the future. Humans tend to search for evidence based on already-formed beliefs, a fallacy called confirmation bias. All evidence that contradicts those biases tends to be ignored. This can lead to an inaccurate assessment of risks involved in what humans do, leaving the door open for a potential black swan event. Black swan logic thus makes what is not known more relevant than what is known. Consider the case of a turkey that has been fed daily since birth. Being killed to provide a Thanksgiving dinner would be a black swan event for that turkey, but such is not the case for the butcher who does the killing. The theory of black swan logic calls on people to gather as much information about the world as possible, to train themselves to review the information rigorously, and to be aware of their biases.