Black Swan Ideas (5)

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management


The Black Swan and Knowledge Management

June 4th, 2009

In past blogs, I’ve discussed Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan as a metaphor for systematic doubt and fallibilism as well the ideas of scalability, non-scalability, Extremistan, Mediocristan, the fallacy of silent evidence, confirmation error or platonic confirmation, epistemic arrogance, future blindness, the lottery-ticket fallacy, the ludic fallacy, Mandelbrodtian randomess and Gray Swans, the narrative fallacy, Platonic folds, Platonicity, randomness as incomplete information, retrospective distortion, and the round-trip fallacy.

All of these ideas, including the Black Swan are united by the same problem of reasoning: the problem of having to overcome our tendency to believe in our own constructs, theories, models, representations or ideas. We are built in such a way that we need to create mental and/or linguistic models to enable us to understand unexpected events in the world around us. Once we create a pattern or an idea, however, it is hard to give it up and to entertain an alternative unless we really believe we need to do so. Instead of being skeptical about our ideas and testing them severely, we, instead, often work as hard as we can to find evidence that justifies them and fits the pattern of narratives. That’s how we come to assume that the real world is like Mediocristan, rather than Extremistan. It is how we come to commit the fallacy of platonic confirmation, the fallacy of silent evidence, and the lottery-ticket, ludic, narrative, and round-trip fallacies. It is the reason why we are epistemically arrogant, and also why we seem to lack an ability to anticipate what the future emotional impact of our errors will be. It is why we are characterized by platonicity, and why we fail to view platonic folds in a way that allows us to see error, and why we need to engage in retrospective distortions. Lastly, it is why it was so hard to get people to accept Mandelbrodtian models and to recognize both Black Swans and Gray Swans.

The Black Swan is a metaphor that brings home the ideas of fallibilism and systematic doubt that arise from the thinking of skeptical empiricists from Xenophanes to Sextus Empiricus to Karl Popper. The other fallacies and errors NNT acquaints us with also reinforce the lesson of fallibilism, and the dangers of justificationism, which I’ve also written about previously. The significance of The Black Swan for Knowledge Management is that it reinforces the message of Critical Rationalism and Evolutionary Epistemology. That message is that the best knowledge is what’s left standing after the most severe testing and challenges, and the best knowledge workers are those who are humble and who hold their, in NNT’s words, “own knowledge in greatest suspicion.” In Knowledge Management, it is best to teach, encourage, and do whatever one can to establish and enhance a culture of humility; so that people will test their knowledge most severely to ensure that what feeds into one’s decision making has survived testing and proven strong.