Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Truth is not easy for us

It has been awhile since I read a book more fascinating than Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

Taleb forces his readers to face hard facts about how we generally play fast and loose with the truth of things.

A stock trader turned empirical philosopher, Taleb is concerned that we understand that no one really knows what is happening or will happen next in our world. We are set up for the "Black Swans" of life--the highly improbable, but high impact truth, development or event that will define life for many of us going forward.

Lots to consider in this slow read!

Here's a sample related to our tendency to confuse important questions about the world we live in and how to navigate it:

Many people confuse the statement "almost all terrorists are Moslems" with "almost all Moslems are terrorists." Assume that the first statement is true, that 99 percent of terrorists are Moslems. This would mean that only about .001 percent of Moslems are terrorists, since there are more than one billion Moslems and only, say, ten thousand terrorists, one in a hundred thousand. So the logical mistake makes you (unconsciously) overestimate the odds of a randomly drawn individual Moslem person (between the age of, say, fifteen and fifty) being a terrorist by close to fifty thousand times!

The reader might see in this round-trip fallacy the unfairness of stereotypes--minorities in urban areas in the United States have suffered from the same confusion: even if most criminals come from their ethnic subgroup, most of their ethnic subgroup are not criminals, but they still suffer from discrimination by people who should know better. (page 52)


osipov said...

oh, how true how true! I was forwarded something just yesterday that was talking about Muslims. I couldn't sit still and just hit "delete" again - I had to respond. Sadly, a lot of us stereo-type - me included - in one way or the other. Bad habit and one we all need to pay close attention to.

SeriousSummer said...

. . . human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

--T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Burnt Norton.

I believe much of the problem is that the world is simply too complicated for the human mind. I see a man carrying a gun so I cross to the other side of the street.

I don't stop to wonder whether he's a hunter returning home from the field; an off duty police officer; a secret service agent; a criminal; a terrorist; a friend.

We lack the capacity to understand everything around us--if we waited to understand completely then we would never act. One mark of insanity is recursive thought--thinking through the same thoughts time and time again in the effort to understand, to fully comprehend.

We always act on partial, inadequate understanding. It is a given. The difficult thing is to know when acting on the rules of thumb that govern our life has become counterproductive.

I don't believe we can ever know how to act well enough to fully understand what we should do. I do believe that we sometimes can understand well enough to know that the way we have been behaving is wrong, and that we must change.

Larry James said...

Apart from you moral pondering here, Serious Summer, you state the thesis of the book, The Black Swan. The world is too complicated to understand.

Larry James said...

That said, the simple odds of these situations turning negative are so low that the high road in human behavior seems the better part, don't you think? Though, your example of the gentelman with the gun seems to fit into a different category! In that case it is all about the gun!