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The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility"
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The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility" [Format Kindle]

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
4.0 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (20 commentaires client)

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Bestselling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb continues his exploration of randomness in his fascinating new book, The Black Swan, in which he examines the influence of highly improbable and unpredictable events that have massive impact. Engaging and enlightening, The Black Swan is a book that may change the way you think about the world, a book that Chris Anderson calls, "a delightful romp through history, economics, and the frailties of human nature." See Anderson's entire guest review below.

Guest Reviewer: Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and the author of The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.

Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon warned that our minds are wired to deceive us. "Beware the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall--they are the real distorting prisms of human nature." Chief among them: "Assuming more order than exists in chaotic nature." Now consider the typical stock market report: "Today investors bid shares down out of concern over Iranian oil production." Sigh. We're still doing it.

Our brains are wired for narrative, not statistical uncertainty. And so we tell ourselves simple stories to explain complex thing we don't--and, most importantly, can't--know. The truth is that we have no idea why stock markets go up or down on any given day, and whatever reason we give is sure to be grossly simplified, if not flat out wrong.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb first made this argument in Fooled by Randomness, an engaging look at the history and reasons for our predilection for self-deception when it comes to statistics. Now, in The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, he focuses on that most dismal of sciences, predicting the future. Forecasting is not just at the heart of Wall Street, but it’s something each of us does every time we make an insurance payment or strap on a seat belt.

The problem, Nassim explains, is that we place too much weight on the odds that past events will repeat (diligently trying to follow the path of the "millionaire next door," when unrepeatable chance is a better explanation). Instead, the really important events are rare and unpredictable. He calls them Black Swans, which is a reference to a 17th century philosophical thought experiment. In Europe all anyone had ever seen were white swans; indeed, "all swans are white" had long been used as the standard example of a scientific truth. So what was the chance of seeing a black one? Impossible to calculate, or at least they were until 1697, when explorers found Cygnus atratus in Australia.

Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it's practically useless. September 11th is one such example, and stock market crashes are another. Or, as he puts it, "History does not crawl, it jumps." Our assumptions grow out of the bell-curve predictability of what he calls "Mediocristan," while our world is really shaped by the wild powerlaw swings of "Extremistan."

In full disclosure, I'm a long admirer of Taleb's work and a few of my comments on drafts found their way into the book. I, too, look at the world through the powerlaw lens, and I too find that it reveals how many of our assumptions are wrong. But Taleb takes this to a new level with a delightful romp through history, economics, and the frailties of human nature. --Chris Anderson




Before the discovery of Australia, people in the old world were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.*

I push one step beyond this philosophical-logical question into an empirical reality, and one that has obsessed me since childhood. What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.* A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives. Ever since we left the Pleistocene, some ten millennia ago, the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events, the ones we study and discuss and try to predict from reading the newspapers, have become increasingly inconsequential.

Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next. (Don’t cheat by using the explanations drilled into your cranium by your dull high school teacher). How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet bloc? How about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.

This combination of low predictability and large impact makes the Black Swan a great puzzle; but that is not yet the core concern of this book. Add to this phenomenon the fact that we tend to act as if it does not exist! I don’t mean just you, your cousin Joey, and me, but almost all “social scientists” who, for over a century, have operated under the false belief that their tools could measure uncertainty. For the applications of the sciences of uncertainty to real-world problems has had ridiculous effects; I have been privileged to see it in finance and economics. Go ask your portfolio manager for his definition of “risk,” and odds are that he will supply you with a measure that excludes the possibility of the Black Swan–hence one that has no better predictive value for assessing the total risks than astrology (we will see how they dress up the intellectual fraud with mathematics). This problem is endemic in social matters.

The central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly the large deviations: Why do we, scientists or nonscientists, hotshots or regular Joes, tend to see the pennies instead of the dollars? Why do we keep focusing on the minutiae, not the possible significant large events, in spite of the obvious evidence of their huge influence? And, if you follow my argument, why does reading the newspaper actually decrease your knowledge of the world?

It is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks. It is not so hard to identify the role of Black Swans, from your armchair (or bar stool). Go through the following exercise. Look into your own existence. Count the significant events, the technological changes, and the inventions that have taken place in our environment since you were born and compare them to what was expected before their advent. How many of them came on a schedule? Look into your own personal life, to your choice of profession, say, or meeting your mate, your exile from your country of origin, the betrayals you faced, your sudden enrichment or impoverishment. How often did these things occur according to plan?

* The spread of camera cell phones has afforded me a large collection of pictures of black swans sent by traveling readers. Last Christmas I also got a case of Black Swan Wine (not my favorite), a videotape (I don’t watch videos), and two books. I prefer the pictures.

* The highly expected not happening is also a Black Swan. Note that, by symmetry the occurrence of a highly improbable event is the equivalent of the nonoccurrence of a highly probable one.

What You Do Not Know

Black Swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.

Think of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001: had the risk been reasonably conceivable on September 10, it would not have happened. If such a possibility were deemed worthy of attention, fighter planes would have circled the sky above the twin towers, airplanes would have had locked bulletproof doors, and the attack would not have taken place, period. Something else might have taken place. What? I don’t know. Isn’t it strange to see an event happening precisely because it was not supposed to happen? What kind of defense do we have against that? Whatever you come to know (that New York is an easy terrorist target, for instance) may become inconsequential if your enemy knows that you know it. It may be odd to realize that, in such a strategic game, what you know can be truly inconsequential.

This extends to all businesses. Think about the “secret recipe” to making a killing in the restaurant business. If it were known and obvious then someone next door would have already come up with the idea and it would have become generic. The next killing in the restaurant industry needs to be an idea that is not easily conceived of by the current population of restaurateurs. It has to be at some distance from expectations. The more unexpected the success of such a venture, the smaller the number of competitors, and the more successful the entrepreneur who implements the idea. The same applies to the shoe and the book businesses–or any kind of entrepreneurship. The same applies to scientific theories–nobody has interest in listening to trivialities. The payoff of a human venture is, in general, inversely proportional to what it is expected to be.

Consider the Pacific tsunami of December 2004. Had it been expected, it would not have caused the damage it did–the areas affected would have been less populated, an early warning system would have been put in place. What you know cannot really hurt you.

Experts and “Empty Suits”

The inability to predict outliers implies the inability to predict the course of history, given the share of these events in the dynamics of events.

But we act as though we are able to predict historical events, or, even wore, as if we are able to change the course of history. We produce thirty year projections of social security deficits and oil prices without realizing that we cannot even predict these for next summer–our cumulative prediction errors for political and economic events are so monstrous that every time I look at the empirical record I have to pinch myself to verify that I am not dreaming. What is surprising is not the magnitude of our forecast errors, but our absence of awareness of it. This is all the more worrisome when we engage in deadly conflicts: wars are fundamentally unpredictable (and we do not know it). Owing to this misunderstanding of the casual chains between policy and actions, we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance–like a child playing with a chemistry kit.

Our inability to predict in environments subjected to the Black Swan, coupled with a general lack of the awareness of this state of affairs, means that certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not. based on their empirical record, they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better at narrating–or, worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models. They are also more likely to wear a tie.

Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naïvely try to predict them). There are so many things we can do if we focus on anti knowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans by maximizing your exposure to them.

Learning to Learn

Another related human impediment comes from excessive focus on what we do know: we tend to learn the precise, not the general.

What did people learn from the 9/11 episode? Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding Islamic prototerrorists and tall buildings. Many keep reminding me that it is important...

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12 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Arrogant, mais très lucide 17 novembre 2009
Je suis totalement d'accord avec le commentaire de Yannick: l'arrogance de l'auteur est exagérée (j'ai failli de le jeter pendant les premiers chapitres). Mais si on arrive à le supporter (pas facile, j'avoue) le livre est vivement recommandable:

1. L'auteur est cohérent avec lui-même tout le temps: Il prend des positions courageuses et les défend, soit en argumentant, soit avec des blagues très fortes. Mais quand même il assume.

2. L'écriture est légère et amicale, plein de couleur et d'anecdotes. Les explications sont claires, avec plusieurs exemples pour illustrer le point.

3. Et le plus important: le livre fait penser. Il donne aussi des pistes pour continuer la lecture sur les limitations des modèles dans l'Economie et la Finance.

Certes, ses positions sont fortement contestables, en particulier celles sur les économistes et les mathématiciens, mais son point est très crucial: tant que scientifique, on ne peut pas se considérer comme détenteur de la vérité, et pourtant on agit comme si c'était le cas.

Douter de tout, avoir un esprit ouvert, être humble, faire de la vrai science, être honnête, accepter qu'on se trompe: c'est cela le message. Et de temps en temps il faut vraiment quelqu'un avec la plume de vipère pour nous le faire entendre.
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6 internautes sur 6 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Du bon et du moins bon 1 octobre 2009
Par Pik
NTT écrit quelque chose d'intéressant, un point de vue original, mais mal vendu et peu abouti. Les précédents commentaires concernant la loi normale comme loi stable ou sur les phénomènes de masse ne sont pas valides. Taleb pense justement que les phénomènes sociaux n'obéissent justement pas à ces conditions là : pas de variance finie, queues épaisses, et donc pas de théorème centrale limite ou de fondu dans la masse. Les "black swans" sont des évènements qui sortent du lot et individuellement influencent la masse. Et enfin proposer le changement de régime comme porte de sortie n'est pas plus légitime que de dire qu'on n'utilise pas les bonnes lois au départ. C'est d'ailleurs une question de point de vue, les mélanges de loi pouvant faire le lien entre les deux.

NNT dirige donc son pamphlet vers les prévisionnistes, les mathématiciens de la finance (et donc les français), les théoriciens (et donc surtout les français). Il y a peut être quelque chose de salutaire de faire la critique notamment du monde financier par les modèles quants, dont les impacts concernent le monde. C'est à lire, pour une approche du hasard avec les mains, selon un point de vue "assez" (mais pas trop) original, et empirique, pour débuter.
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17 internautes sur 19 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Par Yannick
L'arrogance de l'auteur est très difficilement supportable. Ce livre contient de nombreuses bonnes idées, notamment sur des variables "à queues épaisses", sur les problèmes de prédictibilité des événements extrêmes et des variables économiques, sur les biais psychologiques de la décision dans le risque et dans l'incertain...

Les vannes répétées à l'encontre des français sont amusantes, le massacre à l'égard des économistes alors qu'il les confond avec les conjoncturistes l'est beaucoup moins. Il ne semble pas non plus au fait de l'argument bien connu des économistes selon lequel la prédiction est inutile à l'échelle individuelle mais utile au niveau collectif (cf. théorèmes d'efficience des marchés financiers).

Alors qu'il pointe des éléments intéressants, il tombe dans la critique facile ce qui fait perdre une partie de sa substance au livre. Ceci est d'autant plus exaspérant que l'auteur a une connaissance parfois très limitée des domaines qu'il aborde et de l'avancement de la recherche.
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23 internautes sur 27 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
1.0 étoiles sur 5 Atterrant de fatuité!!! 8 février 2009
Par xi'an
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
Ce livre est bourré de contresens et de paradoxes, en particulier sur la nature de l'aléatoire et de la prévision. L'auteur souffre visiblement d'un égo démesuré que reflète son style "moi, je..." et sa tendance à abuser du "name dropping". La répétition des blagues anti-francaises peut sans doute faire rire outre-Atlantique, mais elle finit par peser. Du point de vue scientifique, Mr Taleb (étudiant en arabe) devrait approfondir sa compréhension de la modélisation statistique avant de mettre au pilori la loi de Gauss (qui demeure la loi limite de tous les phénomènes à variance finie) et surtout réaliser que le problème fondamental éludé par son livre est celui du changement de régime (shift of paradigm), c'est à dire le manque d'homogénéité temporelle des phénomènes économiques et sociaux. Les extrêmes relevées dans le livre ne sont ni prévus, ni prévisibles par les modèles existants parce qu'ils signalent un nouveau modèle. En conclusion, le livre témoigne d'un déterminisme assez primaire, doublé d'un anti-intellectualisme populiste et cynique (puisque l'auteur enseigne à présent dans une université américaine). Dixit George Box Bayesian Inference in Statistical Analysis: "All models are wrong, but some are more useful than others"
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 un cygne noir
Un cygne noir, événement qui a moins d'une chance sur 1 million d'arriver : le livre traite de ce genre d'événements qui malgré sa faible... Lire la suite
Publié il y a 8 jours par sneaky13
4.0 étoiles sur 5 very interesting
this book is a new approach for users of finance intruments. needful for people who whishes to understand some mechanisms and biaises in human spirit
Publié il y a 15 mois par TOURNIER
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Pour les intellos de la théorie des risques
Ce livre n'est pas à mettre entre toutes les mains. Le polytechnicien Français moyen déteste en effet toute entorse aux certitudes qui nous animent. Lire la suite
Publié le 3 mars 2012 par Michelangelo
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Un essai bruyant mais pas très scrupuleux
D'habitude, les essais se lisent facilement, mais il est difficile d'adhérer à un discours imprécis, vraiment peu scrupuleux, sans références ni... Lire la suite
Publié le 16 janvier 2012 par S. Schmit
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Improbable chef d'oeuvre
Ah, ça fait du bien. Voilà quelqu'un qui se présente comme un philosophe du dimanche, et qui colle une raclée aux banquiers, politiciens et prix Nobel... Lire la suite
Publié le 18 décembre 2011 par Veloce
1.0 étoiles sur 5 Livre d'un bavard
Pouring verbal sauce : c'est la seule manière correcte de résumer ce livre. Le lire est une perte de temps !
Publié le 13 décembre 2011 par jean
5.0 étoiles sur 5 An extraordinary eye-opener
The great book to which I owe everyday because now, I can explain to my boss why it is useless to make my forecast for next year! Lire la suite
Publié le 23 juin 2011 par anne-sophie
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Une autre approche
Très intéressants malgré comme d'autre internautes l'ont signalé l'arrogance de l'auteur. Lire la suite
Publié le 2 juin 2011 par Hadrien
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Incroyable
Un livre passionant, bien écrit... Bref, superbe! Je ne regrette pas une seconde cet achat :)
Publié le 29 septembre 2010 par Xouif
5.0 étoiles sur 5 De la mauvaise perception du hasard
C'est une ouvrage indispensable, qui met en lumière la manière dont au quotidien nous sommes incapables d'évaluer correctement les causes et... Lire la suite
Publié le 31 août 2010 par Alexis
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First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. &quote;
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In Extremistan, inequalities are such that one single observation can disproportionately impact the aggregate, or the total. &quote;
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Mistaking a naïve observation of the past as something definitive or representative of the future is the one and only cause of our inability to understand the Black Swan. &quote;
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