"Nassim Nicholas Taleb is “irritated,” he told Bloomberg Television on March 31st, whenever the coronavirus pandemic is referred to as a “black swan,” the term he coined for an unpredictable, rare, catastrophic event, in his best-selling 2007 book of that title.
“The Black Swan” was meant to explain why, in a networked world, we need to change business practices and social norms—not, as he recently told me, to provide “a cliché for any bad thing that surprises us.”
Besides, the pandemic was wholly predictable—he, like Bill Gates, Laurie Garrett, and others, had predicted it—a white swan if ever there was one.
“We issued our warning that, effectively, you should kill it in the egg,” Taleb told Bloomberg.
Governments “did not want to spend pennies in January; now they are going to spend trillions.”
The warning that he referred to appeared in a January 26th paper that he co-authored with Joseph Norman and Yaneer Bar-Yam, when the virus was still mainly confined to China.
The paper cautions that, owing to “increased connectivity,” the spread will be “nonlinear”—two key contributors to Taleb’s anxiety. For statisticians, “nonlinearity” describes events very much like a pandemic: an output disproportionate to known inputs (the structure and growth of pathogens, say), owing to both unknown and unknowable inputs (their incubation periods in humans, or random mutations), or eccentric interaction among various inputs (wet markets and airplane travel), or exponential growth (from networked human contact), or all three.
“The great danger has always been too much connectivity.”
Proliferating global networks, both physical and virtual, inevitably incorporate more fat-tail risks into a more interdependent and “fragile” system: not only risks such as pathogens but also computer viruses, or the hacking of information networks, or reckless budgetary management by financial institutions or state governments, or spectacular acts of terror. Any negative event along these lines can create a rolling, widening collapse—a true black swan—in the same way that the failure of a single transformer can collapse an electricity grid."
Source: The New Yorker by Bernard Avishai - April 21, 2020