The New York Times bestseller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is a product of its time, writes AMANDA WHITE.
That a book about mathematics and philosophy could be a bestseller may seem remarkable, but on examination of the topic it becomes less extraordinary, as this book is a panacea for many of America’s woes.
For one it lets us [humanity] off the hook for not being able to predict the dramatic turn of events that shape our political, cultural, religious and personal lives. Generally speaking the book, and the theory Taleb has developed over many years, is about uncertainty. A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: it is unpredictable, it carries a massive impact, and after the fact humans rationalise it to make it appear less unpredictable and random than it was.
The September 11, 2001 attacks are an example. [The term black swan comes from the ancient western conception that all swans were white and that black swans were a metaphor for something that could not exist.] At presstime Taleb’s book sat at number 10 in the New York Times category of Hardcover Business Best Sellers, which is currently headed by The One Minute Entrepreneur.
For the most part the book covers ground already upturned by the finance academic journals, but what it does do with flair is bring these academic thoughts to the mainstream. And the mainstream is loving it. In addition to sitting on the New York Times bestseller list for 17 weeks, The Black Swan was Amazon.com’s highest selling non-fiction book published in 2007.
Much of Taleb’s success can be attributed to the fact he is a clever writer, he tackles both complex mathematics and philosophy in a way that is accessible for the average punter. And he does it with a nice writing style. Consider: “It is quite saddening to think of those people who have been mistreated by history. There were the poetes maudits, like Edgar Allan Poe or Arthur Rimbaud, scorned by society and later worshipped and force-fed to school children.
Alas, this recognition came a little too late for the poet to get a serotonin kick out of it, or to prop up his romantic life on earth.” Taleb is the Dean’s Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Professor of Mathematics at New York University, Visiting Professor at the Universite Paris-Dauphine, founder of Empirica LLC, and in 2001 was inducted into the Derivatives Hall of Fame. Needless to say he knows what he is talking about.