- Are totally unpredictable by mortal minds.
- Have a disproportionately large impact.
- Have retroactive predictability imposed on them through the foresight of 20/20 hindsight.
Taleb frequently points to the outbreak of World War I as an example of a black swan. He scoffs at historical accounts that present the outbreak as the result of trends that built up over the preceding decades, dismissing them as manifestations of the narrative fallacy:
Narrative fallacy: our need to fit a story or pattern to a series of connected or disconnected facts.
As evidence of the narrative fallacy in histories of World War I, Taleb cites Niall Ferguson’s The Pity Of War on the failure of bond investors to price the possibility of war into their trades right before the war broke out. Ferguson now returns the favor in Complexity and Collapse, citing Taleb in his excoriation of historians who peddle epic theories of social collapse likeGiambattista Vico, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Paul Kennedy, and Jared Diamond. After any major historical event, Ferguson complains:
…historians arrive on the scene. They are the scholars who specialize in the study of “fat tail” events—the low-frequency, high-impact moments that inhabit the tails of probability distributions, such as wars, revolutions, financial crashes, and imperial collapses. But historians often misunderstand complexity in decoding these events. They are trained to explain calamity in terms of long-term causes, often dating back decades. This is what Nassim Taleb rightly condemned in The Black Swan as “the narrative fallacy”: the construction of psychologically satisfying stories on the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
Drawing casual inferences about causation is an age-old habit. Take World War I. A huge war breaks out in the summer of 1914, to the great surprise of nearly everyone. Before long, historians have devised a story line commensurate with the disaster: a treaty governing the neutrality of Belgium that was signed in 1839, the waning of Ottoman power in the Balkans dating back to the 1870s, and malevolent Germans and the navy they began building in 1897. A contemporary version of this fallacy traces the 9/11 attacks back to the Egyptian government’s 1966 execution of Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist writer who inspired the Muslim Brotherhood. Most recently, the financial crisis that began in 2007 has been attributed to measures of financial deregulation taken in the United States in the 1980s.
Ferguson proclaims that the real truth is found in the opposite direction:
In reality, the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess. Thus, World War I was actually caused by a series of diplomatic miscalculations in the summer of 1914, the real origins of 9/11 lie in the politics of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and the financial crisis was principally due to errors in monetary policy by the U.S. Federal Reserve and to China’s rapid accumulation of dollar reserves after 2001. Most of the fat-tail phenomena that historians study are not the climaxes of prolonged and deterministic story lines; instead, they represent perturbations, and sometimes the complete breakdowns, of complex systems.
I’m going to quibble with the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History here.
It’s true that you have little to no ability to predict the future on your own. You can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you react to what happens to you. So what controls your reaction? The same sort of narrative that Taleb calls a fallacy.
Narrative reduces personal experience to a linear progression where cause and effect seem to have a purposeful order. These narratives can then be shared with others, leading to the best definition of history ever: history is a fable agreed upon. Most personal narratives will never be the equivalent of the histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, or Gibbon; or even the fables of Aesop, La Fontaine, or Orwell. Most are simply humble habitual ways of thinking. As habits of thought, such narratives largely control how you react to unfolding events, whether it’s pricking your finger or waging a world war.
Once we recognize the high degree of control that narratives have on the actions of historical actors, the fundamental problem with Ferguson’s critique is revealed: narratives are forged by the very “long-term causes, often dating back decades” that he dismisses in his article. He underestimates the power of inertia: once past childhood, barring serious mental illness or brain trauma, narrative and the behavior it shapes keeps within a restricted range. So narrative is present before a black swan, during a black swan, and after a black swan (assuming you survive the black swan). Black swans may shake the flow of a narrative to its foundations but they may also help confirm and even reinforce it. Through such confirmation, you may come to see a black swan as more of an opportunity than a disruption. You may get the chance to play your narrative out in real life.
Strategy is a reconciliation of cultural narrative, political power, and the outside world. It is a narrative of narratives that somehow weaves these three threads into what at least seems like a coherent tapestry. While the intent of some strategies is proactive and aimed at acquiring some selected degree of control over the future, in practice most strategies are reactive and aimed at maintaining a tenuous degree of control over the present. An unpredictable kaleidoscope of black swans and more prosaic events passes before the strategist’s eye until he sees some pattern that conforms to his narrative. Then he strikes.
But nothing guarantees that the strategist’s eye will be unerring. Strategy is hit or miss, with the emphasis on miss. While the course of events will continue to escape the control of mortal man, the strategist can maintain control of his reaction by maintaining control over his narrative. This may be why Clausewitz elevates steadiness of character over every other virtue: the strategist who endures may be the strategist who triumphs. Steady pursuit of a narrative may reveal more strategic opportunity than a constantly shifting narrative.
Let’s return to Taleb’s example of a black swan: the outbreak of World War I. Mr. and Mrs. Archduke Franz Ferdinand suffered a black swan. But that black swan, as the summer of 1914 went on, suddenly aligned with the narratives of two men. Together, these narratives combined to destroy Western civilization.
Count Leopold Anton Johann Sigismund Josef Korsinus Ferdinand Berchtold von und zu Ungarschitz, Frättling und Püllütz followed a narrative that Serbia had to be permanently cut down to size in order to strengthen the tottering Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The Slavs of Austria-Hungary, unrepresented in a Dual Monarchy dominated by an alliance of Germans and Magyars, were restive. They were especially restive in the newly annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Neighboring Serbia wanted Bosnia for itself so elements of Serbian military intelligence, possibly with the connivance of the Serbian government, conspired to assassinate Franz Ferdinand through a terrorist proxy. Through some good luck, they bagged the archduke, sparing the lives of many innocent animals. Franz Ferdinand, a figure almost universally loathed within the imperial court, had finally done something useful. His unforeseen death had created a series of events that strongly correlated with Berchtold’s narrative.
With the assistance of Count Francis Conrad von Hötzendorf, whose anti-Serbian narrative was even stronger, Berchtold consulted with Imperial Germany. More importantly, they consulted with the major villain of the piece.
Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger) is the single individual most responsible for World War I. Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, had the narrative: Russian military reorganization would be complete in the next few years and then Germany would be outnumbered on two fronts by the Franco-Russian alliance. The Russian army would be larger, better armed, and better supported by a rapidly growing industrial base and economy. Of even more concern, the western Russian rail network, paid for by French money and designed to bring millions of freshly mobilized Russian troops to the borders of Eastern Germany, would soon be completed. In Moltke’s narrative, Germany’s strategic disadvantages relative to France and Russia were growing worse by the day.
Action was needed. Conveniently, as a key part of his narrative, Moltke had a plan: the Moltke Plan. The basic outlines of the Moltke Plan were inherited from Moltke’s immediate predecessor, Count Alfred von Schlieffen. Under the Moltke Plan, Germany would concentrate the bulk of its forces against France in the west, marching through Belgium to envelop the French army from the west. The German army would play defense in the east until France was knocked out of the war. Then German forces would be switched to the east to defeat Russia. Millions of happy Germans would dance in the streets and pointy helmets would be all the rage with the ladies.
With this narrative, complete with official war plan, Moltke repeatedly proposed a preemptive war against Russia in the years leading up to 1914. Germany’s civilian politicians turned him down every time. But Berchtold had finally given Moltke’s narrative the opportunity to be played out in real life. Moltke gave Berchtold his full backing, anticipating that any potential Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia would invite Russian intervention. Russian intervention would be the excuse Moltke needed to have his preemptive war. The Moltke Plan would be on. Real life would follow Moltke’s personal narrative.
With German assurances, Berchtold, the pawn in Moltke’s narrative, manipulated the situation to force Serbia into a corner by giving them an ultimatum that would effectively reduce Serbia to an Austrian puppet. Serbia accepted most of Berchtold’s ultimatum but not all of it. Affecting outrage, Austria declared war. Berchtold had played out his narrative.
Now Moltke’s narrative came to the fore. Moltke had kept his superiors, especially Wilhelm II, in the dark concerning the exact details of his arrangement with Berchtold and the full implications of the Moltke Plan. Moltke led Wilhelm and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg along until it was too late for them to do anything, even if they had wanted to. When they tried to pull back, Moltke protested that stopping mobilization would throw off the General Staff’s plan, a plan which he himself, of course, had drawn up, and leave Germany vulnerable to French and Russian attack. The point of no return came. Russia partially mobilized and Germany launched a full mobilization for the Moltke Plan. France mobilized the next day and Germany declared war. The dominoes began falling.
Both Berchtold and Moltke’s narratives were forged by “long-term causes, often dating back decades”. They were men with extensive life experience: in 1914, Moltke was 66 and Berchtold was 51. Such men are usually set in their ways and their personal narratives rarely change. Black swans are characteristic of Extremistan, a domain where small inputs yield large outputs. This is not the world of the human brain. The human brain lives in Mediocristan, where everything turns out average.Taleb has an insightful axiom that history jumps instead of crawls. Narratives, in their small, obscure, and highly localized corner do just the opposite: narratives crawl; they don’t jump. While Ferguson’s proximate causes can lead quickly to the breakdown of complex systems, states, and empires, they both feed and are fed by the narratives that the people caught up in events have accumulated over the years. Though they are small and fleeting, it is through the marks they leave on narrative that long-term causes leave their mark on history.
Originally posted on The Committee of Public Safety.