JLF 2015: The science of improbable

  • Pathikrit Sen Gupta, Hindustan Times, Jaipur
  • Updated: Jan 24, 2015 20:40 IST

Our civilisation comes from trial and error disguised as science, said Lebanese-American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Saturday in a discussion focused on the occurrence of the improbable and the power of rare events.

In the session dubbed 'Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable' - also the title of one of Taleb's books - the bestselling author panned experts who believe in bell curves and pointed out how we expect all swans to be white and are shocked when a black swan swims by.

"Every war is preceded by tension, but every tension is not succeeded by war," said Taleb, "Tension doesn't lead to war. It leads to parties."

A Black Swan event depends on the observer, said the 54-year-old, proposing that what may be a Black Swan surprise for a turkey is not one for its butcher.

"The whole idea is not to be a turkey around Thanksgiving," he said.

Globalisation creates interlocking fragility while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability that generates devastating Black Swans, said Taleb.

"We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks," he wrote in his 2007 book, shortly before the Wall Street meltdown hit the United States and had a ripple effect across the world. "Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks - when one fails, they all fall."

As dismissive as he was of prognostication, Taleb did not sweep aside religion and the matter of people's faith.

"What is unintelligible is not necessarily unintelligent," he said. "Maybe we are not smart enough to understand religion?"

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