“On the eve of the 2006 hurricane season, the National Hurricane Center forecast a “hyperactive” summer and fall, with eight to 10 Atlantic cyclones; instead there were five, smack on the 20th-century average. At the beginning of 2006, The Wall Street Journal forecast a bad year for stocks; the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 16 percent that year. (Disturbingly, The Journal has forecast a good year for 2007.) The British government recently said climate change could reduce global G.D.P. by 13.8 percent in the first year of the 23rd century. Not by 13.7 percent, not by 13.9 percent — by 13.8 percent. In response to an astronomer’s discovery, The New York Times in 2004 declared that the universe might have a “peaceful end” in “tens of billions of years,” but cautioned that it could not rule out the cosmos’s exploding in a few billion years. Writing of the same discovery, The Washington Post predicted that the demise of the cosmos would require 30 billion years, adding this vital caveat: “It remains impossible to predict the fate of the universe with certainty.” Oh, so we can’t be certain what will happen 30 billion years from now!
The hubris of predictions — and our perpetual surprise when the not-predicted happens — are themes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s engaging new book, “The Black Swan.” It concerns the occurrence of the improbable, the power of rare events and the author’s lament that “in spite of the empirical record we continue to project into the future as if we were good at it.” We expect all swans to be white and are shocked when a black swan swims by.
Born in Lebanon in 1960, Taleb lived through a “black swan” when his serene homeland was cast into the chaos of civil war in 1975. After emigrating to the United States, he attended Wharton, then worked on Wall Street; today he is a professor at the University of Massachusetts. Black Monday in 1987, when Wall Street suffered its worst single-day decline in modern history — in a drop that started for no clear reason — was his epiphany. Chance, he realized, has far more influence than we care to admit.