Friday, May 28, 2010

Black Swans

When predictions about the future are incorrect, it is often because the predictor assumed that history wouldn’t provide us with any surprises, which it almost invariably does. Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to these events as black swans. It is extremely difficult to predict them in advance, but they have a drastic impact on world history. Examples include 9/11, the AIDS pandemic, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the invention of nuclear weapons, the stock market crash of 1929, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, or the outbreak of World War I.

You may notice that most of the events on this list are widely considered to be disasters. As Warren Buffett has said, “Surprises are nearly always bad.” However, this isn’t universally true. There are, on rare occasions, examples of positive black swan events.

For example, in 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, which predicted a nightmarish future of overpopulation and mass famine. Ehrlich looked at the global population trends from recent decades and saw that people were reproducing at an alarmingly fast rate. Yet within just a few years of the book’s publication, global birth rates began to decline and the global food supply increased exponentially. Ehrlich completely missed two very important “positive” black swans: The widespread adoption of the birth control pill and the Green Revolution in India.

The purpose of thinking about potential black swan events is to plan for events that are individually unlikely to occur, but would have a profound impact on the world if they do. I’ve thought of a few black swan events to think about for the next decade:

• A nuclear war between India and Pakistan
• The democratization or fragmentation of China
• Ecological collapse, followed or preceded by abrupt climate change
• Bioterror or bioerror releases a manmade super-plague
• The invention of effective anti-aging medicine offers indefinite lifespans
• The assassination of a major world leader
• An especially nasty strain of avian or swine flu results in a global pandemic
• An American state votes to secede from the union
• A global financial collapse

Depressing, huh? I tend to agree with Buffett that surprises tend to be bad (with some exceptions). Positive events tend to be much more incremental and predictable than negative events. You may believe the events on my list are all unlikely to occur in the next decade, as I do, but that’s the whole point. We must anticipate unlikely events and make contingency plans in case they occur. Life's surprises can be just as important as its long-term trends.

What do you think are some other black swan events that could conceivably occur in the next decade?

No comments:

Post a Comment