Are We Living In the Age of Black Swans?

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We are living in a time where events seem harder to predict. There are lists to explain such events but in recent history they all must have two items, Brexit and Trump. It’s nice that the Anglophone world remains so culturally significant even when doing its best to recede from the world stage. Anyway, in this new tradition – Brexit, Trump, and the fact that the UK is now heading towards a minority government*. Three seemingly unpredictable events that had and will have huge ramifications for the future. The problem here is that when something is harder to predict it consequently is harder to prepare for.

These big shocking events are known as ‘Black Swan events’, a phrase coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In essence, before the discovery of Australia nobody knew about the existence of black swans. Instead, the phrase meant something like “when pigs fly”. Australia became known to the Western world and suddenly black swans were not a myth or a dream, they were real. Still, though, imagine how shocked you’d be to see a flying pig?

Even though people who are into data and statistics might tell you that polls predicted all these things, which they broadly speaking did, it’s still the case that they were equivocal. The truth is a bit messy and when an opinion research company compiles the data and filters it a bit, the story is then in the hands of journalists. Journalists have a certain word count to reach every day so they fudge it. As a result, they framea one-sided narrative. Brexit could never happen and was just a protest. Trump could never win but here’s some funny stories about the outrageous things he says. Corbyn was an unelectable terrorist sympathiser, ridicule him and vote for the people in power who by every metric have been making things worse. (He’s not a terrorist sympathiser by the way, special branch had people following him for 20 years and he never actively supported any terrorists. Unlike our government who knowingly gave arms to people with some pretty suspicious links in Libya and Syria.)

It’s strange, there is data which disproved all of these notions. YouGov ran polls on Brexit that said it was going to be close, as did other pollsters. Journalists picked one, and pollsters began to ‘herd’, to make their outcome more similar to other companies so they don’t seem stupid if they’re wrong. A similar thing happened with Trump, though apparently you had to ignore national polls and look at state polls. These polls would tell you that Trump had a chance of winning the electoral college while losing the popular vote. On Corbyn, due to the margin of error in British polls the results could have been anywhere between +5 for Labour and +19 for the Conservatives. It’s possible to tell there was a contest because the possibilities were so diverse.

But there’s altogether too much information. There are plenty of polling companies creating data on what people think, and there are lots of journalists expanding on that data to make copy, and there are millions of people telling each other these same stories and so they become ‘common sense’ or ‘conventional wisdom’. So what can be done? I suppose the main method of prevention is to stay vigilant and take things seriously when they could happen. Candidates don’t happen by accident. Extreme anger can be volatile and act in unexpected ways.

So be wary. The next time you see or hear anything that sounds stupid, crazy, or impossible, remember that there’s almost always more to the story. People didn’t vote Brexit because they are stupid, they voted for it because they had real concerns about the state of our politics. People didn’t vote Trump because they liked his weird wha if being, they had issues with what they saw as a corrupt political class, something that wasn’t helped by Hilary being a Clinton. Corbyn wasn’t impossible, he was just highly unlikely if you hadn’t seen the size of his events and rallies. Spend s but if time getting to know these issues and it might save you a lot of sudden shocks.

*I hope everyone has taken a break at this asterisk in order to come down here so i can comment a little on the irony of a politician who wanted to renegotiate a deal to ensure he strength off her country by winning an election, claiming to do it on a platform of being ‘strong and stable’ and a vote for anyone else was to endorse ‘a coalition of chaos’ only for your whole platform to fall to pieces when you try and prove how strong and stable you are and instead end up faltering, throwing the election, and likely becoming reliant on a small party outside of the mainstream politics of where you primarily derive authority, which will almost certainly lead to problems and is by its definition a ‘coalition of chaos’. I hope the two months the Conservatives an cling on to such a tenuous amount of power was worth the widespread dislocation of another general election that, all things considered, didn’t do what they intended nor particularly shake anything else up enough to mskrmit anywhere worthwhile. So strong, so stable. Still, I’m glad they didn’t get a landslide! Now, back to my serious stuff above. It’s all rather derivative but I fancy it is new info to someone.

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