Political pundits in 2016 tried to attribute their failure to accurately assess the chances of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination and election by asserting that it is a "black swan," meaning a totally unanticipated event that suddenly and completely alters world history. Jack Shafer wrote in Politico that "the Trump phenomenon is a Black Swan moment in electoral politics.
"The Black Swan theory—or metaphor—was devised by risk analyst and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb and fully realized in his best-selling 2007 book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, to describe unexpected, unprecedented, cataclysmic events that overturn established ways of thinking. As Taleb wrote, every swan observed in the West until the exploration of Australia was white, leading many to assume that all swans were white. But the single observation of a black swan invalidated the “general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans,” as Taleb put it.
"To qualify for Black Swanhood, Taleb wrote, an event must be an “outlier,” that is, not expected; it must carry an “extreme impact”; and it must elicit from the population explanations after the fact that make it look as though it could have been predicted. Examples of Black Swan events: the 9/11 attacks; the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004; various market panics; AIDS; the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic; the fall of the Berlin Wall; and so on. It's not that any of these events was totally unimaginable, it's that all of them lurked outside our standard expectations and, when sprung, astonished us."
The Trump phenomenon was certainly a black swan. He won the Electoral College vote despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million votes because he received about 150,000 more votes in three states: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. His victory was a shock and astounded the world, like a bolt out of the blue.
But the black swan phenomenon does raise interesting historical questions. Members of Quora discussed possible historical examples of black swans, such as
- Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914.
- Deaths of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and Attila the Hun in 453 AD
- Tai-Ping Rebellion or Chinese Civil War from 1850 to 1864
The concept of black swan events seems kin or close to my theory that slender threads, tiny decisions or close calls often alter history. I would like to read author Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Here's the first chapter, downloadable to Kindle or Kindle for computer.
His other related book is Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and Markets.
Books on similar themes:
- Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk
- This Time It's Different: Eight Centures of Financial Folly
- Extraordinarily Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
- The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind
- The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward and Delusion on Wall Street