Black Swan - Chapter V
Series of Summaries on Taleb's work
In this series, we are looking at Taleb’s The Black Swan. Earlier chapters were discussed here, here, and here.
In Chapter V - ‘Confirmation Shmonfirmation', Taleb discusses how we look at evidence and the Round Trip Fallacy. The core lesson of this chapter is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.
First, The Round Trip Fallacy (‘RTF’) is simple. Let us say you meet Bin Laden for breakfast every day. On none of those days does Bin Laden does he discuss any signs of being a terrorist. What you have, is absence of any evidence pointing to him being a terrorist. However, there is no evidence of absence or in other words, there is no evidence that he is not a terrorist.
Second, Taleb argues that the RTF had benefits in a primitive environment. When most actions had life or death consequences, it was necessary to take quick decisions. Therefore, “Most Killers are wild animals” and “Most Wild Animals are killers” are statements which could be conflated. Consequentially, there was very little difference between those two statements in a primitive environment. Moreover, the human brain is not built for complexity, so the task of understanding the difference between those two sentences is nowhere as important as seeing a wild animal which could be a killer and escaping from it instantaneously. Nuance was not valuable. However, while human society has grown massively, our statistical and logical intuitions have not evolved for a habitat in which such subtleties and nuance have a huge difference.
Third, our knowledge is domain specific and we tend to address problems in the context in which the problem is presented to us. Taleb demonstrates this by showing statisticians who fail to solve basic logic based statistical problems when presented in a different format. He also points out our tendency to look for evidence supporting our claims or confirming our beliefs, the confirmation bias.
One solution that Taleb proposes is negative empiricism. Essentially, the logic of proof by contradiction is sound. While going from individual instances to a general theory in the inductive logic is rifled with errors, using individual contradictions to disprove larger theories is often logically correct. He refers to Karl Popper’s One-sided semiskepticism and argues that falsification, or showing what is wrong or incorrect, especially in grand theories and sharpens our ability to logically analyse the world.
I hope you liked this edition. Looking forward to discuss the remaining chapters in subsequent editions.