We love the tangible, the confirmation, the palpable, the real, the
visible, the concrete, the known, the seen, the vivid, th'e visual, the
social, the embedded, the emotionally laden, the salient, the stereotypical,
the moving, the theatrical, the romanced, the cosmetic, the official, the
scholarly-sounding verbiage (b******t), the pompous Gaussian economist,
the mathematicized crap, the pomp, the Académie Française, Har-
.vard Business School, the Nobel Prize, dark business suits with white
shirts and Ferragamo ties, the moving discourse, and the lurid. Most of all
we favor the narrated.
Alas, we are not manufactured, in our current edition of the human
race, to understand abstract matters—we need context. Randomness and
uncertainty are abstractions.
I propose that if you want a simple step to a higher form of life, as distant
from the animal as you can get, then you may have to denarrate, that
is, shut down the television set, minimize time spent reading newspapers,
ignore the blogs. Train your reasoning abilities to control your decisions;
nudge System 1 (the heuristic or experiential system) out of the important
ones. Train yourself to spot the difference between the sensational and the
empirical. This insulation from the toxicity of the world will have an additional
benefit: it will improve your well-being. Also, bear in mind how
shallow we are with probability, the mother of all abstract notions. You
do not have to do much more in order to gain a deeper understanding of
things around you. Above all, learn to avoid "tunneling."
When I ask people to name three recently implemented technologies
that most impact our world today, they usually propose the
computer, the Internet, and the laser. All three were unplanned,
unpredicted, and unappreciated upon their discovery, and remained unappreciated
well after their initial use. They were consequential. They were
Black Swans. Of course, we have this retrospective illusion of their partaking
in some master plan. You can create your own lists with similar results,
whether you use political events, wars, or intellectual epidemics.
You would expect our record of prediction to be horrible: the world is
far, far more complicated than we think, which is not a problem, except
when most of us don't know it. We tend to "tunnel" while looking into
the future, making it business as usual, Black Swan-free, when in fact
there is nothing usual about the future. It is not a Platonic category!
We have seen how good we are at narrating backward, at inventing
stories that convince us that we understand the past. For many people,
knowledge has the remarkable power of producing confidence instead of
measurable aptitude. Another problem: the focus on the (inconsequential)
regular, the Platonification that makes the forecasting "inside the box."
If you click on the "Hide" button, I will disappear.