The language of business can be surprisingly vigorous. I love the bestiality of its bulls and bears and dead cat bounces.
I’ve only just discovered a new phrase, this one with a tangential Australian connection. A Black Swan Event, according to a newish book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is an event that comes as a surprise, has a major impact, and can’t be predicted but which in retrospect, could have been expected.
What we call here a Black Swan … is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
Taleb, in New York Times, 22 April 2007, quoted in Wikipedia
Now who am I to question someone whose book was on the NYT bestseller list for 36 weeks, but this sounds to me basically what we historians call contingent events, and which Dick Cheney more succinctly described as ‘shit happens’. I suspect that one reason The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) did so well was that it came out just before the global financial crisis, and therefore appeared as a timely warning that people underestimate how random the world really is – and overestimate our ability to predict events by the use of statistics.
I suspect that historians are more skeptical than statisticians. Nobody could predict 9/11 or the Boxing Day tsunami – but the Fukushima meltdown? Maybe.
But looking for black swans sent me back to the origin of the idea of the black swan as something extraordinary, an outlier, something that defies logic – because for 20+ million Australians, this is not the case.
Juvenal wrote about a ‘rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno’ – ‘a rare bird in the lands, very much like a black swan’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the oldest quote in English, from 1398,
The swan … he is al white in fetheres, for no man findiþ a blak swan
The ‘black swan’ was the classic example of impossibility. Pigs might fly, the leopard would change his spots and pink elephants roam the veldt before anyone would see a swan with black feathers.
Then, in 1697, somebody did. The Dutch captain, Willem de Vlamingh, spent some time exploring the coast of Western Australia en route to Java. He named the Swan River after the swans he saw there.
On the 11th [January 1697], at break of day, we again ascended the river, and saw many swans (our boat knocked over nine or ten) some rotganzen [geese], some divers, etc., also a quantity of fish, which were frisking on the water. We also heard the song of the nightingale.
He captured several of the swans and took them on to Batavia [Jakarta], although they eventually died.
Black swans were an exotic export from early Australia. John Macarthur arranged gifts of swans and other rara avis to the wives of the politicians he hoped to influence. They were also shot, both for food and as trophies, prompting one of the first environmental laws in Australia, when Charles Meredith, a Tasmanian politician, introduced legislation to protect black swans from hunting.
Black swans have been successful emigrants from Australia. They have been breeding in St James’s Park, London, since at least 1914, when Winston Churchill wrote that ‘The two black swans on St James’s Park lake have a darling cygnet – grey, fluffy, precious & unique.’ Yet they never quite lost their sense of strangeness, evoked by Barron Field who wrote in 1816:
…this is New Holland, where it is summer with us when it is winter in Europe … Australia is the land of contrarieties, where the laws of nature seem reversed … where the swans are black and the eagles white…
Black swans are particularly associated with Western Australia (originally the Swan River settlement) but they are much more widely distributed. Until a few years ago, they used to breed in a lagoon within walking distance of my home, but during the long drought, the lagoon dried up, and although 2 years of heavy rainfall have brought back the water, the swans have yet to return – perhaps they need time for the weeds to grow again.
Swans are vegetarian. They eat waterweeds, but also sea grasses. In the past I’ve seen great flocks of them on Moreton Bay, and they are said to gather in places where the sea grasses are healthy. Tons of silt were dumped in Moreton Bay during the floods last year. The sea grasses are suffering, and the swans haven’t come back. The Port of Brisbane is expanding, and this may put at risk the swans that live nearby, and there is talk – just talk, so far – of a naval base in Moreton Bay as well.
Despite what Nassim Nicholas Taleb may think, few Australians would ever think of a black swan as a bird of ill omen. But a lack of black swans – that would indeed be a Black Swan Event, except that it is sadly predictable.