Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The origami swan

Back on his old blog, Rod Dreher used to talk about the "Black Swan" theory expounded by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the idea that some very rare events which have major impacts aren't even remotely predictable (and are rationalized by hindsight).

Obviously, not every disaster (natural or man-made) is going to be a Black Swan. Some have only localized impacts, some aren't all that rare, and some can be predicted (even if the predictions weren't heeded). Not only that, but some that are rare, unpredictable, and have major impacts can't be rationalized by any hindsight--there's no talk along the lines of "we should have seen that coming," with the associated idea that in future, we will, and thus will avoid similar catastrophes.

All of that said, I confess that I've been wondering whether the events in Japan will someday be looked on as a Black Swan event. No, earthquakes aren't terribly predictable; that is, we may know that a region is prone to them and that a large one may be coming, but we never know the day or the hour, so to speak. Tsunamis may be relatively predictable in that they follow earthquakes, but again, their exact location, scope and impact aren't known ahead of time. Nuclear accidents as a result of an earthquake are--well, unprecedented--but could it have been foreseen? And various results of this trilogy of disasters may also have Black Swan-like attributes--for instance, if Japan must rely on foreign oil for a time that could impact prices at a time when prices are already high, spreading the effects across the global economy. That's just one example, though; there are probably dozens of ways that the devastation in Japan might impact the rest of the world.

According to Taleb's theory, a Black Swan event has three characteristics: the event was a surprise, the event has a major impact, and after the event people begin to believe that they should have seen it coming. I think the situation in Japan satisfies the first two criteria, but it's too early to tell about the third. Clearly, few people really believe that we should have seen the March 9 earthquake in Japan, a 7.2 magnitude quake, as the foreshock it actually was; and tsunamis which follow earthquakes are as unpredictable as the earthquakes themselves, as I said above. The focus will likely be, then, on the impacts of these events, including the nuclear situation, and whether those things and their effects on the rest of the world (if any) should have been foreseen.

What do you think? Is the situation in Japan an example of a Black Swan unfolding in our time, or not?

1 comment:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Perhaps this Black Swan will teach us that we really cannot fill up every available square inch of the earth with more and more people, blithely proclaiming "See, there's no overpopulation problem yet." Earthquakes were of considerably less significance before we began building substantial structures to house ourselves, less so with wood and straw than brick and stone, less so when we mostly lived in scattered rural populations than when we mostly lived in cities.

If we were more spread out, thinly populated, if our buildings were generally one story and built with some flexibility and not too much weight, if they were easily replaceable, if we didn't require wringing every last seed out of "Green Revolution" harvests on every arable square inch just to keep up with the current level of starvation, if we didn't need such an intense volume of electricity... maybe we could weather such natural events better.

We wouldn't weather them perfectly. People living near the shore are still vulnerable to tsunamis. Even in the old days, people who happened to be camping right over a fault line were known to fall into a suddenly opened crevasse, and be swallowed up by the earth. But the devastation would be far less. We're really overdoing it, and only the bare image on a far timeline horizon of the possibility that our population wil finally stabilize in another thirty years or so. Fortunately, we do know that prosperity is the best form of contraception.