I’m just starting to read “The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. So far, so fun (have a read: UK and US). The title is motivated by the fact that it takes only one observation of a black swan to undermine the supposition that all swans are white even though we may have years of observations to back it up. This is the classic problem of induction.
It looks like a major claim of the author will be that the probability distributions that underlie the majority of events in the natural and social world are non-normal and subject to huge sampling error. Hence the problem of induction is a severe one in everyday life. Also this problem is one that lies at the edge of our knowledge since knowledge is most easily acquired about systems with more predictable properties. I might be over-interpreting here, but I suspect that this leads him to conclude that science communication, story-telling about uncertainty, is a flawed activity that will itself promote unpredictability by making people less savvy about risky and rare events in a globalised, mass-media world.
I find it an interesting to think that what we don’t know is somehow different in kind from what we do know. It is certainly good to be humble about the limits of knowledge in general. But I am also suspicious that there may be radical scepticism in here: something one tends to find surrounding poorly-evidenced and contrarian ideas. So I will be looking out for selective use of the unpredictability idea and for alternatives that massage intuitions in the absence of evidence.