Monday, April 12, 2004

on black swans and September 11

An essay by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on what he says is the flawed mandate of the September 11 Commission. (via Arts & Letters)
A black swan is an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations. Most people expect all swans to be white because that's what their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise. Nevertheless, people tend to concoct explanations for them after the fact, which makes them appear more predictable, and less random, than they are. Our minds are designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information that fits into a compressed narrative. This distortion, called the hindsight bias, prevents us from adequately learning from the past.

... The mandate is also a prime example of the phenomenon known as hindsight distortion. To paraphrase Kirkegaard, history runs forward but is seen backward. An investigation should avoid the mistake of overestimating cases of possible negligence, a chronic flaw of hindsight analyses. Unfortunately, the hearings show that the commission appears to be looking for precise and narrowly defined accountability.