Nassim Nicholas Taleb is probably best known1 for The Black Swan, but I think it’d be a shame to overlook Fooled by Randomness , which first gained him popularity on a worldwide stage.

In the preface, Taleb describes our general reaction to randomness:

It is as if there were two planets: the one in which we actually live and the one, considerably more deterministic, on which people are convinced we live. It is as simple as that: Past events will always look less random than they were (it is called the hindsight bias). I would listen to someone’s discussion of his own past realizing that much of what he was saying was just backfit explanations concocted ex post by his deluded mind.2

In other words, we ignore randomness and seek narrative. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve discussed the power and risk of narrative, but it’s this inability to discern objective truth which concerns me.

When we can’t know the truth for a certainty, we have to reason towards some sort of probability of being correct. Some experts think we’re natural Bayesians3, while I tend to look at our handling of probabilities and statistics with the more jaundiced eye of Tversky and Kahneman. Taleb puts it this way:

Probability is not a mere computation of odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge and the development of methods for dealing with our ignorance. Outside of textbooks and casinos, probability almost never presents itself as a mathematical problem or a brain teaser. Mother nature does not tell you how many holes there are on the roulette table, nor does she deliver problems in a textbook way (in the real world one has to guess the problem more than the solution). In this book, considering that alternative outcomes could have taken place, that the world could have been different, is the core of probabilistic thinking.4

It’s this balance of probability and chance that we will be exploring in the next several days.

  1. Right now, he may be currently known as a bit of a Twitter troll. He loves to attack anyone he thinks is being intellectually dishonest, foolish, or otherwise offends his sensibilities. I don’t like this, but I suppose it’s a part of his general Taleb-ness. While he seems to consider himself an iconoclast, I would say he is sarcastic and bombastic, and in many ways, that’s what I like about him. In reality, I almost always have to offer qualified recommendations of people whose work I enjoy, which is frustrating. I’m not sure what this says about me, but hopefully I don’t engender the same reaction. ↩︎

  2. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Incerto) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Kindle Link. You may have noticed I’m back to using Kindle links on this book, instead of the hardcover page numbers I now prefer. That’s only because I’m out of book money, and none of you rats use my affiliate links to buy books (mostly kidding)! Because of that, and my wife’s not-unlimited patience, I’m re-reading the Kindle book I purchased a while ago, like some sort of modern man. ↩︎

  3. This idea is found in many pop-science books, but no one example here would be particularly useful. ↩︎

  4. Taleb, Kindle link↩︎