THE BLACK SWAN PROBLEM

The “Black Swan Problem” is a well known philosophical argument among many scholars, which says the following: “If we only observe that all Swans are white; then can we assume that there are no black Swans?” Historically, it was commonly assumed that all Swans are white because there have been no observations of Swans of any color and for that matter a Black Swan is assumed to be almost improbable; that is until the discovery of Australia –then only we know that Black Swans do exists.

The same way can be said about many events in human history – which certain things are assumed to never happen; and then suddenly – lo and behold it did happen, exactly as what everyone predicted that it will not.

The same problem can be linked to another problem that can be named as “the Slaughtered Turkey Problem”. In this case, a Turkey that was destined to be killed for Thanksgiving dinner; was fed by the farmer everyday. In fact as everyday goes by, every time the Turkey saw the farmer, she even become more confident (and friendly) of the farmer, since she expects that he will feed her generously. As the days goes by, she became even more affectionate towards the farmer. Suddenly, on the day just before Thanksgiving, she was slaughtered!

The Turkey problem as I have described above; is in fact not an uncommon phenomena in the human society. As we lives our everyday lives, we became accustomed to what we have and practiced; to the point that we will think nothing will go wrong. We also grew into comfort zones and became thoroughly dependent on what we normally enjoy.

Today, we are facing both problems in some proportionate manner: the Global financial crisis and political crisis. The first problem is a Black Swan; while the second is the Turkey. Let me describe what I meant by both.

In the case of the Global financial crisis, the problem started with a clear fallacious assumptions that the financial systems is working and that the total collapse of the US housing and financial system will have almost a zero probability; i.e. it is a Black Swan. Everybody was wrong – and in fact we are seeing now the collapse of these two into almost a gargantuan magnitude that will pinned the World economy for decades ahead. Similarly (for the case of Malaysia), everyone never saw that this is coming; and in fact, some Government officers arrogantly declared that we are “insulated” from these Global crisis – in the same manner that the American were denying that the “Black Swan” (i.e. the bubbles) do not exists.

What I am propagating for is not for the forecast of doom and gloom (for the World or Malaysia); but rather, the approach that, we as human beings (and Malaysians) took in the face of such situations. The lack of critical thinking, acceptance of fallacious assumptions and beliefs can be catastrophic in results. For example, have seriously consider and looked at the possibility that the current recession can be quite “deep” and “prolonged”. Do we have enough preparations for it? Have considered all the possible “Black Swans” that may appear in the future (i.e. future problems that may arise)?

Now let us turn to the Turkey problem. As Malaysians, we have lived quite peacefully (except for some small glitch here and there) since our independence. Our peace and prosperity to live in harmony among the races, with reasonably well economic performance has been touted as one of the successful example of a developing country. However, my argument is that day by day, we are growing as a Turkey – that is on a fallacious assumption that everything will continue as normal forever.

For example, the Malays, used to be so contented with UMNO and the so-called Malay privileges that to most, it will continue forever and ever – while the reality is that would be impossible and highly improbable. One day UMNO will be gone, and the Malays have to forged relationship with other races not on privileges, but rather on an integrated community. The problem is, today, we see that many Malays are still clinging to this old belief that UMNO has to be protected and carried upon; whereas UMNO can turn out to be the Farmer in the Turkey problem as described. UMNO can in fact be the one that will eventually “slaughter” the Malays – which in this case is the Turkey.

In the same case for the Turkey, there are many signs that should make the Turkey to ask herself, why the Farmer is so kind to her? What are his motives? Are they congruent or in total conflict with hers? Should she just run away to nearby forests as soon as the chance arises? The disappearances of other animals should also serve her some signs. But unfortunately for her, she chose to ignore all the signs and refused to ask those questions. In so much as the signs of UMNO and the Malay problems, we should reserve our judgments and views. Is our comfort (if any) today, is just a precursor to calamitous events ahead of us? Will something that we never thought off could not happen (i.e. Black Swan), will not happen?

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2 thoughts on “THE BLACK SWAN PROBLEM

    1. You can get it from two books by Nasseem Nicholas Taleb; “Fooled by Randomness” and “the Black Swan”. Both are available in paperback and can be found in almost any major bookstores.

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