CSometimes it's interesting to tilt back and ponder - to think about things. Recently a book we read has caused us to have interesting discussions while swinging on the hook in some secluded cove, surrounded by the quietness of a summer evening broken only be the splash of a fish or the cry of a gull.

CWe thought you might enjoy sharing some of this pondering.


CWhen we first traveled to Western Australia, I remember the shock El and I had when out in far Western Australia. We saw Black Swans. The first one we saw we thought was coated with oil - and then we saw a whole fleet cruising down the Swan River.

CPrior to the discovery of Australia, it was generally understood that all swans are white - certainly all the swans ever seen by a European were white. The discovery of Black Swans, for us and for European scientists and philosophers, suddenly revealed the limit of our knowledge, based on observation. We had seen thousands of white swans, and suddenly our knowledge that there was no such thing as a Black Swan disappeared with our observation of a single Black Swan.

CA recent book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, titled The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable has forced scientists, social scientists, and economists to revise their ideas of knowledge. Taleb uses the Black Swan as a metaphor to describe his view of the way things work. A Black Swan, according to Taleb, has three characteristics:

CC1. It is rare. It lies outside our expectations (or the bell curve of probability) since nothing in the past indicates that it can or will occur.

CC2. It carries an extreme impact.

CC3. It has retrospective probability. After the event, using hindsight, we can create explanations and suggest that it could have been predicted.

CThink of 9/11 as a Black Swan. Something on that scale, on the continental mainland, had never occurred to America before, it changed the world abruptly overnight, and now we hear lots of explanations of how we could have predicted the event.

CAccordingly, very few events (Black Swans) have perhaps been the force to shape human history, from religions to ideas to historical events. Since the evolution of human kind, the effects and acceleration rate of the occurrence of Black Swans has perhaps been forming our existence. Ordinary events, like we read in the newspapers or watch in the evening news, have become increasingly unimportant in shaping our lives or history and most folks don't recognize the insignificance of 'news.' - in fact, our ignorance of what constitutes real news might cause some economic or political Black Swans.

CThink of your life and count the few significant events that have shaped your past. I could not have foreseen my college major (I thought I would be in the health sciences), my career, after I studied geology (I thought I would be a glaciologist and even minored in Polar studies), my wife (never thought I'd be married - how do you find a compatible woman while working on a glacier), my early retirement (on a teacher's salary? - impossible), a stroke that could have killed me (no family history, and healthy as a horse). Now you think of your life - see how few events made all the real differences? Thinking backward, you can give rational explanations for each but (honestly now) could you have logically foreseen any of them? I couldn't have. They were personal Black Swans.

CHow about Hurricane Katrina if you lived in New Orleans 5 years ago? Oh sure, there were warnings but it was outside the bell curve. "Won't happen in my lifetime." Don't believe that Katrina was a Black Swan? You say it was predictable.
Do you know anyone living in San Francisco? Or on the Oregon coast? Or near Mt. Baker or Rainier? Anyone living in those areas could be snuffed out in an instant due to a 'predictable' geologic event. Outside the bell curve? - Sure, but that's how we define Black Swans.

CHow about geologists? They're professional experts, many displaying PhDs on their walls. Don't they know the odds? No, not really, and remember, I am one. The Black Swan is so improbable that we don't know any more about the possibility of a Black Swan tsunami inundating the Oregon Coast for thirty miles inland than you do. A geologist died in the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, manning a US Geological Survey observation post - a Black Swan (for him, for sure). Geologists located that observation station - its destruction wasn't foreseen by any of those expert volcanologists and their (and his) ignorance ended his life.

CHere are some ideas to ponder:

CC1. Perhaps we need to relearn the rules of life.

CC2. We don't learn rules that govern life - only facts. We don't think about the abstract. We should think and ponder, even though we fool ourselves into believing we do.CC

CC3. Perhaps, we should disdain most of the predictive claims of the experts. They don't know any more about the future than we do.
CLife is uncertain. We all know that. Perhaps there are two ways to prepare ourselves for the future. Or another way to put it is that there are two approaches to the prediction of the future.

CC1. One is to concentrate on the known observations and prepare for the normally expected results from those observations. Forget the improbable and never observed possibilities. This is the usual approach we all use for prediction. If one is planning an open ocean passage for next month you need to predict the weather for the passage. The usual approach is to look at the averages for that month over the past 100 years and assume that this year will fall within the range of that bell-shaped curve of probability, and this year will most likely be near 'the norm.' We are confident that we have tamed uncertainty. The author of this book, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, calls that a G.I.F - a Great Intellectual Fraud.

CC2. Conversely, one can first study the extremes, especially if a Black Swan could result in an extraordinary effect, like the storm sinking your boat and you losing your life. This approach of studying extremes is rarely used. To do this, you start with the understanding that the usual will have little effect, so is really of little interest. The most catastrophic weather one can imagine is all that's really important, and requires intense study and consideration.

CI used to lead rafting trips through the Grand Canyon, introducing the natural history of the area to lay persons. We held evening lectures and discussion sessions for several months before our departure. During those sessions we would become familiar with participants, and, as a trip leader, I would attempt to predict (for myself) how individuals would react under stress or duress. Who could I count on for assistance and leadership should there be difficult conditions during the trip? I carefully observed the participants, understood their occupations, and some of their past experiences. My conclusions from observations under the 'normal' conditions of a classroom and everyday life were often diametrically opposed to their reactions to reality, facing an extreme situation over the roar of rapids in the depths of the Grand Canyon. I learned to refrain from any judgments about the reality of individuals until I had observed the individual in more extreme circumstances, usually after at least three days on the river, when they were closer to severe conditions.

CIn Geology Graduate School, a world-renowned Professor asked me to go to the extremes. In opposition to everything he had taught us in our seminar, he asked me if I was willing to conduct a seminar in support of the extremist concept of Continental Drift. This was in 1958 when ideas of drifting continents were somewhere to the right of the loony bin. Any geologist foolish enough to attempt a publication supporting drifting continents was refused publication and basically ostracized from the profession. The Prof. said that he wanted to hear a geologic discussion based on facts for him to decide if there was any validity to the concept. He promised he would judge my paper only on the soundness of the arguments and the geologic defense of data. So I did, and it was an interesting experience for me to test geologists to the extreme edges of the science. It was interesting to see them squirm when I had proven data to show the connections of strata and fossils across continental margins - they couldn't refute or countermand the evidence with facts. I was arguing for a Black Swan in the science, and all were unwilling to accept the extreme, even backed up with evidence.

CSince that time the concept of drifting continents (now called the Theory of Plate Tectonics) has been irrefutably proven and accepted. The Theory has unexpectedly changed geology so totally that much of what we had been taught in years of schooling was worthless. And, by the way, the professor gave me an A in the seminar and, although he couldn't accept the concept, he thought it was the most interesting discussion of the semester.

CAfter that seminar, another Prof. in the Dept., teaching a course in classic concepts in geology, asked if I would challenge his students the same way, defending an extreme idea that was far from the norm. So I attacked Uniformitarianism - the foundation of geology as a science. This concept states briefly that the processes around us were active in the past and formed the geology we see - basic, eh? So, "all the known observations and the normally expected results from those observations explain geologic processes. Forget the improbable and never observed possibilities." I argued that the rocks around us were not the result of processes observed by any of the students (probably).They attempted to say that what they observed was the result of the slow drip-drop of raindrops and gradual movement of ice down mountain slopes or drifting of sand by the wind. It simply required lots of geologic time, they said, to get the observed results. They had little evidence to support their idea (and therefore that of classical geology). I argued for Catastrophism - the rocks around us preserved only geologic Black Swans - the geologic catastrophes -- massive floods, huge sequences of volcanic activity, collision with asteroids, flooding of continents by the sea - and had heaps of evidence to support my arguments. At the end of the class, the students were so shaken they kept asking the Prof."Is he right?" The Prof., thankfully for me, only grinned.

CThe next class period the Prof. focused on the importance of improbable events, and the fact that so many major discoveries in science and technology are the result of catastrophic events - Black Swans.




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