Black Swan author Nassim Taleb says Covid-19 pandemic not Black Swan event

People familiar with Taleb and 'The Black Swan' book will understand why.

Belmont Lay| April 01, 09:02 PM

The Covid-19 pandemic is not a black swan event.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the 2007 book, The Black Swan, has come out to say so himself in a Bloomberg live interview.

And the mislabelling of the Covid-19 outbreak as a black swan has got on his nerves, said the philosopher, belletrist and occasional prophet.

"It was not a black swan. It was a white swan. I'm so irritated people would say it is a black swan," Taleb said in the segment he was interviewed.

"We have had black swans, September 11 was definitely a black swan. This was a white swan."

"And there is no excuse for companies and corporations not to be prepared for that. And there's definitely no excuse for governments not to be prepared for something like this."

Confusion about what is really a black swan

The black swan term has been used as a stand-in for any phenomenon people didn't see coming.

This has led to a lot of wonks and otherwise genuine, well-meaning, and intelligent people saying Covid-19 is a black swan.

But Covid-19 is not completely a low probability, high impact event that no one saw coming.

Before Covid-19, there was SARS.

Before SARS, there were other known plagues that have enveloped the planet.

Hence, a virus that is a threat to humanity is not completely inconceivable.

Did Taleb predict Covid-19?

An epidemic, or even pandemic, is not entirely inconceivable.

Before the fact, it was already spoken and written about prospectively.

Because Taleb had written about this possibility in his 2007 book, and now that it has come to pass and his words ring prophetic, he said it was never a prediction, but a mere description:

As we travel more on this planet, epidemics will be more acute -- we will have a germ population dominated by a few numbers, and the successful killer will spread vastly more effectively.

[...]

I see risks of a very strange acute virus spreading throughout the planet.

Taleb was just writing based on what came before -- an acute virus was already a threat that was conceivable.

So what is a black swan?

Black swans are events conditional on things that have not existed or made themselves known.

This was why Taleb said 9/11 was a black swan.

And by virtue of black swans having the property of being unknown at any point in time before they happen, it is useless to try to say what form a black swan will take in the future.

Because if you are able to put down on pen and paper, or on a word document, what a black swan might be, it would be conceivable, and hence, will not qualify as a black swan.

At most, it will be a grey swan.

Moreover, black swans do not have to reveal themselves instantaneously to compound their impact, such as the dropping of the world's first nuclear bomb in WWII.

The Google search engine has also been described as a black swan technology.

Its existence has been consequential and continues to be so, and it has fundamentally altered how people and businesses function ever since its inception.

Prior to Google search engine's existence, there was simply nothing like it -- a thing which couldn't have existed if there was no internet.

So, yes, a black swan is an unpredictable event, which can persist through time.

It is also a description of an event that has disproportionate outcomes.

And yes, a black swan is a metaphor and a label.

Its strength lies in it being an idea that is easily and readily grasped.

Its weakness is that it leads people to assume to know what it is intuitively, only to get it wrong -- since it is a label that can be stuck on many things.

As an intellectual shorthand, it is critically terrible.

And casual labels on their own lack technical clarity, unless the body of work that supports that definition is partaken.

This has also naturally led many people who subscribe to popular thinking to assume the black swan label can be attached to any event as long as it is something they 1) didn't see coming and 2) hold consequences that has a larger impact than assumed.

What other concept is similar to the black swan?

There are many characteristics of a black swan, and these properties have been talked about philosophically or have been known to exist for as long as systems of communication were developed.

Just that it took Taleb to coin the black swan term and make it accessible in 2007.

But essentially, a black swan falls into that category called unknown unknowns.

This was what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously called "the ones we don’t know we don’t know".

It is that category that lies outside the realm of knowledge.

A black swan leads to model failure -- a failure of prediction and a failure to predict.

What is one property of Covid-19 that proves it is not a black swan?

Singapore's response in dealing with the novel coronavirus outbreak already shows clearly the pandemic was foreseeable.

Hence, if it was foreseeable, it disqualifies itself as a black swan event.

Those are the rules.

The fact that Singapore has been praised for her defensive and precautionary actions against Covid-19 is testament to how this current pandemic is not a black swan.

Singapore's experience was gained from dealing with SARS.

It would have been a surprise if Singapore was instead willfully blind to it.

Taleb also got the converse covered.

If a singular outcome was predicted to happen, and great resources was spent waiting for the moment it did, but it never materialised, that would be considered an inverse black swan.


To conclude, there are generally three kinds of people in this world:

1. People who have read all four of Taleb's popular books (Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan, Antifragile and Skin In The Game) from cover to cover, front to back, and back to front, multiple times.

2. People who have never heard of Taleb and have never read his books.

3. People who only read about Taleb's ideas from Wikipedia.

Just don't be the last category of person.

These are the people Taleb attacks all the time, because by assuming they know, they make the world a lot more fragile and dangerous for everyone else.