Monday, 1 August 2016

Book Review: The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb

The central premise of the Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb, is that rare outlying events have a greater influence on the world than do statistically predictable ones, but whilst our planning and analysis systems deal with the latter reasonably well, they are completely inadequate for the former.

Examples of rare outlying events that have had a significant event on our world include 9/11, the 2008/9 stock market crash, and, more recently, the UK #Brexit referendum.

Taleb does a reasonably good job of pointing out the flaws in what he terms the Gaussian model (most notably the normal distribution). He also does a good job in demonstrating our tendency to want to try to describe everything in these terms, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate, and therefore to tend to ignore everything that falls outside of this model.

However, he does err towards throwing the baby out with the bath water. The normal distribution (and indeed the other distributions he criticises) are useful in many applications. And that should be the real measure of any theory. All theories have limitations and domains beyond which they should be used, and yet remain useful if appropriately applied, and statistical distributions are not different in this regard.

He also fails to present any useful alternatives, and so does not really take us forward in any meaningful way. Thinking about it from my own perspective, scenario planning does provide one useful alternative which can help us to escape the confines and flaws of the so-called Gaussian model.

The Black Swan is a fascinating and eclectic read which may challenge many of our assumptions about the world and the way we analyse it. However, if you're looking for practical alternative solutions, you may be disappointed.