Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The Future Has Always Been Crazier Than We Thought”

Posted on Thursday, February 7th, 02008 by Stewart Brand
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Nassim Taleb

Dispatches from Extremistan

A “black swan,” Taleb explained, is an event which is 1) Hard to predict; 2) Highly consequential; 3) Wrongly retro-predicted. We pretend we know why the big event happened, and so entrench our inability to deal with the next world-changing improbable event.

Examples: Viagra, 9/11, Harry Potter, First World War, Beatles, the PC, Google, and the rise of any successful religion. History is dominated by sudden, lasting changes wrought by deeply unexpected events.

Part of the problem is that we ignore the “silent evidence” of the nonobserved and nonobservable…

Read the rest of Stewart Brand’s Summary

  • Jim

    Fun fact: Arthur C. Clarke actually wrote an essay entitled “How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time”, about neglecting to patent the concept of the geosynchronous telecommunications satellite.

  • Tom

    Brilliant! Great talk that was extremely insightful and very entertaining. It’s given me loads to think about.

  • Ahmed Fasih

    Actually, Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan wrote a book called “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars” in 1994. An Amazon search for the title returns The Black Swan at #3.

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  • “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars” is actually reference in “The Black Swan”, on page 105. The book is available at

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  • Craig Overend

    It would be nice if these blog entries link back to the recordings.

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  • Stephen Marino

    Just finished reading The Black Swan the recorded (chandler) version and found it very insightful.
    I only wish I had read something like it during my 47 years with the Bell System. Many of the stories he referred to I experienced. Including the Long Term Capital Management meltdown that occurred in my home town (Greenwich) where I trapped muskrats in a pond where their headquarters was built.

  • Newbie

    Though very, very interesting, the above entry contains a fallacy.

    + “Mediocristan is dominated by the average— one new observation won’t change much.” (Par. 5)

    + “Extremistan is dominated by extremes.” (Par. 6)

    ≠ “Benoit Mandelbrot convinced Taleb that the main dynamic of Mediocristan is energy, and the main dynamic of Extremistan is information.” (Par. 7)

    Shouldn’t energy be Extremistan’s dynamic, and information be Mediocristan’s dynamic?

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  • Pcllefebvre

    Can you explain me a quote in the book :
    In a gaussian world, the probability of exceeding one standard deviation is around 16 percent. What are the odds of exceeding it under a distribution of fatter tails with the same mean and variance? The answer is Lower ! I don’t understand, I would like to understand with a SAMPLE of two distribution data : one in normal and another with father tail (same variance).
    my Email is Thanks.

  • Cristian Merce

    Even if this seems to be unusual, a bell shape distribution with finite mean and infinite variance exist ! Think on the consequences … 

  • Luiz Bernardi

    A true Black Swan amazing, sad, and recently (two years) when the flight of the Airbus A 330 Air France AF 447 from Brazil towards Paris fell into the Atlantic Ocean. Amid high-tech, successive events and errors (information, data and interpretations-brains to think), the report of the BEA released the report of an accident of the most unlikely and avoidable, because the plane was flying at altitude and speed cruise at more than 11,000 meters and 900 km / hour, in which “statistically” occur less than 0.5% of accidents; an incredible succession of events to the total loss of sense of what was happening.

  • Yora

    I am reading the Black Swan now. Have gr8 respect for Taleb and this is my 2nd book by him. Whats odd or perhaps not so odd, is that these Black Swans are actually not Black Swans. The fact that they happened (with the exception of tragic crashes) means that someone did think about them and hence, they happened. I can talk about the medical field where there are a lot of Black Swans, that happened on the spur of the moment, but there were thought processes leading to that “unexpected” spur. The bottomline is, what are we supposed to do? Ignore the knowledge as useless material and focus on unknown? Theres a rule in surgery that we always follow: Go from known to unknown. At this juncture I dont think we should ignore the known.
    I really hope Taleb offers some unexpected way of predicting the Black Swan in his book, which at this point to me seems improbable.

  • Gabe Saravia

    A friend and I had a discussion regarding the following assertion that seems to us intimately tied to your idea of the black swan. The assertion is “A Society will be be better off if it institutes policies that prioritizes the health and treatment of young people over that of old people.” I agreed with the assertion, positing that the younger person has much more time ahead of them to contribute to society, and also much more time to create possible black-swan-like benefits for society. My friend disagreed saying that the nature of black-swan-like events was such that you could not actually say that the average old person with their likely shorter life-span would be less valuable to society than the average young person. I was wondering if you could shine any light on the debate!


  • Thom Rudegeair

    I am a psychiatrist and it strikes me that Taleb’s concept of the Black Swan can be applied to an individual suicide – that is, it is a fundamentally unpredictable event with huge impact that gets analyzed to determine “the cause” retrospectively (to the potential detriment of friends, family and the health care providers who were woking with the person. I’d be interested in comments about this.

  • Mars

    I’m not sure if you have followed the events in the double attacks in Oslo (bombing of the Governmental complex and the shooting of innocent youth attending a gathering on an island). I am very interested to know if you think that the event was a black swan.

  • Just Visiting, Thanks

    I tend to agree with your premise to give priority to medical care for a young person, for ethical reasons, but I don’t know that you can cite Taleb for the principle. In his new book, he often talks about the wisdom of grandmothers. Given that (a least at this juncture) we live in a society that fails to value the wisdom of grandmothers (obviously an actual phenomenon, and a metaphor as well), we probably don’t want to do anything more to denigrate the perspective they are able to bring by overtly devaluing their lives. Only real, lived experience can teach you certain things. The young don’t have that. Those who do have it are valuable. We don’t know when we may need their experience, and flounder without it.

    We don’t respect the elderly enough. And if we did respect them, perhaps they themselves would do the right thing and refuse further medical treatment at the right time, without anyone shoving them down that road.

    Also, there seems to be a serious problem with your premise. According to Taleb, we have NO idea who is likely to create “black swan-like benefits” for society. In principle, we have NO idea how to make a radically unpredictable positive event more likely. The past is no guide. It gives us the illusion of knowledge, not knowledge. The event itself is so radically unusual that there is no reason at all to think it’s more likely to come from a person of this or that age, race, gender, you name it.

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  • audiracmichelle

    That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

    Friedrich Nietzsche


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