Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Taleb on history

History is totally unpredictable. If you ask me how the world will be in ten years I really have no idea. One assumes it will not change much or will change only gradually, but who knows. Once a significant event has happened, everything seems inevitable; we tend to invent convenient narratives. We like to use newly inferred "knowledge" to advance our ideologies.

I too, in my writings on history, have been guilty of such theorizing. Narratives based on past events are therapeutic and invigorating; they give the illusory sense of greater knowledge and a warm glow when one is able to talk about them at parties and social events. I am not suggesting that there is no causality or narrative at all, or that history should not be studied. But the current manner in which it is analyzed does suffer from these issues that Nasim Taleb points out in The Black Swan:
History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what’s inside the box, how the mechanisms work.

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:

a. the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;

b. the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and

c. the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories – when they “Platonify.”

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