Getting To Know The Unknowable-actv

At the London School of Economics in October, the Queen described the credit crunch as "awful" and asked a group of eminent economists the question that everyone wants the answer to: "Why did no one see it .ing?" One flustered economist apparently replied: "Someone was relying on somebody else, and everyone thought they were doing the right thing." It was clearly an inadequate response, but one that would have .e as no surprise to Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Indeed, Her Majesty might have been better off asking Taleb, because the trader-turned-author has emerged as the guru of the global financial meltdown. Dubbed the new sage of Wall Street, Talebs recent book, The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable, is riding high in the bestseller lists and his theory of black swan events has be.e one of the most appealing guides to the crisis in market capitalism. A black swan was the medieval metaphor for something that could not exist. But when black swans were discovered in the 17th century, the term became a metaphor for a perceived impossibility. In Talebs view, unpredictable and seemingly unusual black swan events such as 9/11, the dot. bubble and the current financial implosion, are more predictable than we think. But most people, he says, live in Mediocristan, a fake model of reality where no rare events occur, and not in Extremistan, the .plex real world where unpredictable and devastating events are par for the course. Black swans are unexpected events that end up controlling our lives, the world, the economy, history, everything, he says. They are rare, but their impact is monstrous. My main problem is that we dont know that these events play such a large role. Why are we blind to them? He continues: The world we live in is vastly different from the world we think we live in, and accuses economists and financial analysts of being the most deluded of all. He explains: Black Swan .es from the overestimation of our skills in mapping the world. But I was only able to express my idea after I started working in the City and in Wall Street. It seemed so obvious that people in the City didnt know what was going on, yet they thought they did. I kept a tally of predictions and realised they cant predict but they somehow manage to convince themselves they can. The apparent unpredictability of recent events would have been less unpredictable had we had the right tools to understand them, continues Taleb. Just as a turkey has a false sense of security by being regularly fed and watered in the run-up to Christmas or Thanksgiving, only to suffer a revision of belief on the day it is slaughtered, so Mediocristan economists and financial analysts are reassured by .puter models that dont account for rare devastating events. We need new tools, he says. We will have to finance the losses [which he estimates to be over $1 trillion more than was ever made in the history of banking] because of a huge misunderstanding. Its important to understand just how much we will never understand, says Taleb, a view expounded in his first book, Fooled by Randomness, and which found its way into the famously gnomic pronouncement of then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 that There are things that we know we know.There are things that we know we dont knowThere are things we do not know we dont know. Talebs credentials as the sage of our current predicament are reinforced by his prediction back in 2003 that US insurance giant Fannie Mae had underestimated the risk of a rise in interest rates that would destroy the value of its portfolios. In an article in the New York Times he wrote: The fact that they have not blown up in the past doesnt mean that theyre not going to blow up in the future. The math is bogus. Fannie Mae was taken over by the US government in August 2008. Talebs personal black swan came when his native Lebanon was engulfed by civil war in 1975. He spent several war years studying in the basement of the family home. The son of wealthy, highly educated Greek Orthodox parents, he received degrees at Wharton, Pennsylvania and the University of Paris before a Wall Street trader. Black Monday 19th October 1987 reinforced his belief in chance events. This sizeable black swan had vastly more influence on my thought than every other event in history, he says. Shorting the market made him nearly $40 million. You can take advantage of uncertainty if you know how to look it in the eye, he concludes. While Taleb talks about black swans to describe unlikely and unusual events, Malcolm Gladwell uses the term outliers to describe things that lie outside normal experience. In his new book, Outliers: The story of success, he examines people who are outliers the kind of people, he explains who are so ac.plished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a [freezing day in Paris] in August. The thesis he expounds in his book is that the brilliance of outliers such as Bill Gates and the Beatles, for example, owes just as much to their circumstances as to their considerable natural gifts. Gates, for instance, had almost unique access as a schoolboy to a mainframe .puter that the parents association of his local school invested in. The Beatles spent their early career in Hamburg clubs, where they devoted more time to pop music than any of their peers. Whats more, believes Gladwell, genius or even simple success requires a lot of hard work 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, by his calculation before it can blossom, even in the most gifted individuals. Among the examples of the so-called 10,000-hour rule are the late-blooming painter Czanne and the mathematician Andrew Wiles, who solved Fermats theorem in 1995. I think that we vastly underestimate the extent to which success happens because of things the individual has nothing to do with, says Gladwell. Its remarkable how many patterns you can find in the lives of successful people, and circumstances, when you look closely. Gladwell believes that understanding that an individuals success is very much a group project, depending not just on their own efforts, but also on the contributions of lots of different people, would give society much more control over who succeeds and how many people succeed. Both Taleb and Gladwell offer lessons in how to understand things that may appear to defy understanding. As Donald Rumsfeld might have said, its about knowing that the unknowable is knowable and knowing how to know it. 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