SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.59 issue2Keynote address delivered at the Biennial Conference (History Wars, Wars in History & other Southern African Histories) of the Historical Association of South Africa conference, Durban, 26-28 June 2014 , University of KwaZulu-Natal, 26-28 June 2014. African encounters with the sea: Durban and beyondThe genesis of the South African foot soldier author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand



Related links

  • On index processCited by Google
  • On index processSimilars in Google



On-line version ISSN 2309-8392
Print version ISSN 0018-229X

Historia vol.59 n.2 Durban Nov. 2014




The Black Swan and the owl of Minerva: Nassim Nicholas Taleb and the historians



Bruce S. Bennett

Bruce Bennett is senior lecturer at the University of Botswana. He has published on religious and political history in Britain and the British Empire, and is also interested in the philosophy of history




In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb considers the importance in human affairs of "Black Swan" events of low probability but high impact. In the process he argues, in a confrontational manner, that historians' causal narratives are mainly invalid on a number of grounds but especially because the unpredictability of Black Swan (or other) events implies that subsequent narratives connecting events are merely "good-sounding stories". This article analyses Taleb's arguments against historical explanation and concludes that they are largely unsatisfactory. It questions Taleb's link between explanation and prediction in the context of history, arguing that Taleb's own concept of randomness as insufficient information implies greater knowledge after an event. However Taleb offers insights which can be of value to historians, and a more irenical relationship would be desirable.

Keywords: Black Swan; chance; randomness; Taleb; probability; causation; narrative; explanation; prediction.


In The Black Swan, beskou Nassim Nicholas Taleb die belangrikheid in menslike aangeleenthede van "Black Swan"-episodes as van geringe moontlikheid maar sterk impak. In die proses redeneer hy, op 'n konfronterende wyse, dat geskiedskrywers se oorsaaklike vertellings hoofsaaklik ongeldig is, op 'n hele aantal gronde, maar veral omdat die onvoorspelbaarheid van Black Swan- (of ander) episodes impliseer dat daaropvolgende vertellings wat episodes aan mekaar koppel, bloot "good-sounding stories" is. Hierdie artikel ontleed Taleb se redenasies teen historiese verklaring en kom tot die slotsom dat hulle grootliks onbevredigend is. Dit bevraagteken Taleb se verband tussen verduideliking en voorspelling in die eks van geskiedenis, deurdat hy redeneer dat Taleb se eie konsep van ewekansigheid as synde ontoereikende inligting, meer kennis na 'n episode impliseer. Taleb bied egter insigte wat waardevol kan wees vir historici, en 'n meer versoenende verhouding sou wensliker gewees het.

Sleutelwoorde: Black Swan; moontlikheid/kans; ewekansigheid; Taleb; waarskynlikheid; oorsaaklikheid; vertelling; verklaring/verduideliking; voorspelling.



Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
Penguin, London, Second edition, 2010
xxxii, 444 pp
ISBN 978-0-1410-3459-1
R233.00 Price


Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan,1 and some of his other writings, put forward ideas on history. The book is unusual since it is neither a normal academic work nor a popularisation but an attempt to do both at once.2 The book's subtitle is The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It is a wide-ranging work, more a collection of essays than a unity, and something of a personal manifesto on his view of life as well as an argument. The basic idea is that highly improbable events have a disproportionate influence in life, and that it is dangerously misleading to treat them as exceptions which can be ignored.

Taleb refers to his improbable events as Black Swans. The name comes from an ancient Latin idiom for something fantastically rare, based on the fact that all European swans are white.3 The metaphor is also used in discussing the philosophical problem of induction, but that is not relevant to Taleb's sense. A Black Swan has three attributes. Firstly, rarity: it is an "outlier", something way outside the normal range. Secondly, "extreme impact" in terms of its effect on human events. Thirdly, "despite its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable".4

It is naive, in Taleb's view, to attempt to predict such events. Rather, we should seek to make our lives more robust to them. It should be noted that Black Swans also include cases where something highly probable fails to happen. (Also, there are positive Black Swans, where some unexpected event with a very high payoff occurs.)

Several points of clarification should be made at the outset. Firstly, Taleb is not saying that Black Swans are common - they may even be rarer than we think. Rather, he argues that they have more impact than we think.5

Secondly, Taleb's concept of randomness (one of his major topics) is one of opacity, that is, the quality of what cannot be predicted. The difference between "true" randomness and insufficient knowledge is irrelevant in practice. This connects to Taleb's project of creating a practical epistemology. As we shall see, the idea that insufficient knowledge is in practice indistinguishable from randomness has been discussed by historians for some time.

Thirdly, Taleb's work is not significantly connected to chaos theory. For Taleb, chaos, unpredictable outcomes from deterministic systems, is indistinguishable in practice from other kinds of randomness. In particular, the "butterfly effect", by which a small effect may have a large impact on a chaotic system, is not particularly relevant. In addition, Taleb barely mentions quantum uncertainty, and again he considers it to be of minimal relevance.

Taleb identifies two basic models for human circumstances, which he labels Mediocristan and Extremistan. Mediocristan refers to those areas of life where statistical values cluster around a norm, and bell curves apply. For example, although there are some exceptionally tall people, they do not significantly alter the average. Extremistan refers to those areas where a single case may affect the total, such as the sales of Harry Potter.6 According to Taleb, much of large-scale economic and political life belong to Extremistan, which is the land of the Black Swan, and attempts to predict or model it on the basis of Mediocristan will be dangerously misleading. Much of ordinary life seems to be Mediocristan, though Taleb suggests that if we reflect on our own life histories we will see that a great deal has been determined by Black Swans.

Taleb's work includes a critique of academic history,7 although he seems to stop short of the root-and-branch denunciation made of many branches of supposed professional expertise.8 History, in his view, is one of the "narrative disciplines"9 and subject to a natural but misleading human tendency to create stories which will explain the world.10 Causal explanations are suspect because we impose meaningful stories and structures on sequences of past events. Taleb calls this the "narrative fallacy". Because of this, most of academic history, or at least the parts to which a high status is given by practitioners (such as analysis of causes) is in his view of dubious value. He does however see some value in a more literary and descriptive approach. His advice is to "favour experimentation over storytelling, experience over history, and clinical knowledge over theory".11 In The Black Swan the critique is largely philosophical,12 and it is this which I am mainly discussing; in Taleb's later Antifragile he makes some criticisms of what he sees as faults in historians' actual practice.

I am not going to attempt a general defence or discussion of all the ways in which historians attempt to establish causes and understand the past, as this would obviously be far too large a topic. Rather, I am responding to the particular issues raised by Taleb in the area of academic history. (I will normally use "history" to mean the academic study of the past, rather than the past itself, or other perceptions of the past.) What follows is based on my own understanding of Taleb, but due to the somewhat unclear structure of his book there could be some dispute on that.

I will make reference to concepts from the philosophy of science, partly because Taleb himself does, but I would note that I do not believe history can be limited by such approaches. There is also a human dimension, not reducible to such scientific schema, and omitting it produces the appearance of rigour at the expense of loss of real understanding of the world. Interestingly, Taleb himself seems to have such a concept, which he refers to as the "texture" of life,13 but he does not seem to develop it as part of his writing on history. Also, I am assuming that whether or not historical narrative can be, or should be, neutral or free of purpose, it is nevertheless possible in some ways to assess its validity in terms of an independently existing reality.

In responding to Taleb, I am not attempting a refutation, although I will argue that some of his arguments are faulty. My contention is that Taleb and the academic historians have useful things to learn from each other, but that an unnecessarily confrontational approach has got in the way of this.14

Taleb's critique of historical causation can be described under four main headings. Firstly, he discusses the issue of "confirmation bias" and "silent evidence" (which he also discusses in other contexts). Secondly, he maintains that in general, explanations of historical causation are merely the "narrative fallacy". Thirdly, he argues that attempting to find historical causes is frustrated by the near-impossibility of "backward process". Fourthly, he problematises the concept of the "event" in causation. The first and fourth point may be seen as subsidiary to the second; they complicate the study of causation, but do not in themselves necessarily make it impossible.

It may be useful to mention at this point that Taleb's "histories" include individuals' perceptions of their past. Hence, he refers to psychological and other studies showing the distorting effect of memory, which he sees as a factor in the way causal narratives are created. However, he seems to conflate this with the construction of explanations and narratives in academic history, where memory is not really the appropriate category. The construction of an analysis, or indeed a narrative, from sources is very different from its formation in memory. Historians are in fact in agreement with Taleb that the picture of the past derived from ordinary memory is likely to be distorted in various ways.15

Although Taleb has evidently had some contact with historians, he does not make what these have been as clear as one would like in his writings, meaning that it is sometimes difficult to be sure what he is familiar with. His quoted reading seems not to distinguish practical historians from theoretical writers such as Marx or Hegel. This may be of considerable importance, since Taleb sometimes criticises historians' supposed attempt to find general laws, an attempt which very few practical historians have even considered as valid, let alone attempted. One gets the impression that contacts have not been fruitful. Taleb's style is undeniably abrasive: he himself notes16 that he used to begin discussions with statisticians by telling them they were wrong, and that it was only after some time that he discovered that a more conciliatory approach led to greater acceptance of his ideas.

Also, it is not clear how far Taleb is familiar with what Collingwood described as the issue of evidence as against testimony.17 For example, he argues that technological history needs to written either by those who have been involved in technological development, or observed it, instead of "just reading accounts concerning it".18 Without dismissing his point, the idea that a historian proceeds by reading accounts of events rather than studying sources is typical of those without close knowledge of the discipline.

The first thing to note is that Taleb's concept of history is a limited one: he rejects the study of causation, but seems to feel that without this history is merely "an enumeration of accounts".19 (This residual type of history is not, in his view, without some value.) However, there are many other aspects of history as practised by modern academic historians, linked by a common theme of trying to understand the human world of the past. These include for example synchronic analyses of past societies (structural rather than causal) and "thick description" which has some relation to anthropology:

... richly contextualized thick description of past events and phenomena is genuine analytical work even if it yields no obvious causal explanations. For us, the unique particularities that define a given historical moment are as interesting as any broader generalizations that might transcend that time and place. Like many other scholars in the humanities, we are as eager to understand the meanings of past times and lives as we are to determine their causes, so interpretation is as important to us as explanation.20

Thus historians often focus on understanding past societies, on many levels, not necessarily assigning causes to particular events. Taleb might say that these types of history are indeed avoiding the "theorizing" he dislikes.

Having said that, I will concentrate mainly on the area of Taleb's interest, namely historical causation.


Confirmation bias

"Confirmation bias" is the tendency to seek or give greater value to evidence confirming one's existing ideas. The term comes from cognitive psychology. It is closely related to "silent evidence", which is a recurring theme in The Black Swan. This is the fallacy of looking at the evidence - notably that of success - which presents itself, while neglecting the "cemetery" of other evidence. This can be illustrated by the genre of books about successful people supposedly showing the secrets of their success by describing their habits and nature. There are many people who go into business but fail, or at least never become rich, and no biographies are written about them. So how do we know if the explanations in the books are true? Maybe the failures had similar habits. Similarly, Taleb argues that history is written by, or about, the winners, so we attribute causal stories to their success which might be seen as unfounded if we were as well informed about the losers.

E.H. Carr, who Taleb cites more than once and apparently regards as a representative thinker, is a bad representative for historians on this issue, since he did indeed believe in history of the winners. He noted that it was states in decline where theories of historical chance were popular,21 and made the famous gibe, "the view that examination results are all a lottery will always be popular among those who have been placed in the third class".22 Carr did admit that finding a motive was not refutation, but does not seem to have reflected on the converse motive, that the winners in history will tend to attribute the results to necessity or their own virtue. The latter motive is that discussed by Taleb, and I think he has a good case that it is in fact the more prevalent problem, partly because of the "silent evidence" issue.

Carr's belief in a history of the winners was based on the premise that "History is, by and large, a record of what people did, not of what they failed to do: to this extent it is inevitably a success story".23 He believed that "primitive savages" had no history, in the strict sense, until their societies reached a certain level of organisation which permitted the analysis of success.24 However, this has never been the attitude of all historians, and a couple of years after What is History? E. P. Thompson famously declared the goal of recovering the stories of the losers from "the enormous condescension of posterity".25 Since then there has been a steady shift to the view that the whole of the human past is at least potentially within the proper study of historians, and the rise of cultural minority history. This does not, however, actually refute Taleb, who would answer that even if historians try to look beyond the winners, it does not follow they will be able to do so, since the survival of information is typically better for the winners.26

Instead of Carr, Taleb might have felt more at home with Arthur Marwick, a historian with some of his own impatience in temperament, and who favoured evidence over theory. Taleb's preference for phenomenological27 observation over the demand for theory28 will strongly resonate with many historians and could be a point of fruitful contact.<