No matter how analytical a turkey you might be, you would have no way of knowing that tomorrow is Thanksgiving and that your string of peaceful days would soon end with you on the dinner table.
The tragedy that suddenly strikes such a turkey is an unforeseen horror. This type of event, which arises in contradiction to our most carefully crafted models, is known as a Black Swan event. The term has recently been popularized by the premier genius of our time, Nassim Taleb, in his book "The Black Swan." The title refers to a problem first popularized by the British philosopher David Hume. Hume noted that most people, having seen only white swans, concluded that there were no black ones.
It turns out that there are indeed black swans. Hume used this to point out a common logical fallacy: No amount of observation of white swans can allow one to make a conclusion about the existence of black swans. In other words, observing 1,000 days of no turkey killing does not allow one to conclude that none will occur on day 1,001.
One can readily see the wisdom in this simple observation, and yet this is exactly the trap into which we repeatedly fall. Every day without a tremor leads the residents of San Francisco to feel increasingly safe. Every dry day in New Orleans leads to more rebuilding on the flood plain. What's worse, we are analytical birds and know that New Orleans has suffered a major flood on average every 11 years for the past 270 years. Perhaps our memories are not so good.
But there could be another explanation. According to Taleb, our attempts to predict future disasters, especially very large ones, are severely hampered by our use of the wrong models.
For example, the 1987 market crash, according to the risk models, was a 20 standard deviation event. In other words, such a market decline should only occur once every several billion lifetimes of the universe. The collapse of Long Term Capital Management should have occurred with slightly greater frequency--according to the models.
We are good at managing small-impact events. With workers' compensation losses, we have vast amounts of data. Life insurance is similarly predictable. But a single workers' compensation or life insurance claim is not going to threaten the entire U.S. economy. Massive losses should be of paramount importance to risk managers. And yet, these are precisely the types of events that our standard actuarial models fail to predict.
The first thing we have to do is admit that we are blind to huge Black Swan events. The evidence is clear on this point. The second thing we have to do is take a long hard look at the models upon which we rely to predict future events.
Taleb does a great service to the risk management profession by exposing our greatest flaw. We take solace in the fact that our current methods make huge losses seem rare.
This is comforting. It is probably easier for the turkey to get through each day comforting itself with the fact that the past 1,000 days have been uneventful. But that does not change the fact that Thanksgiving is tomorrow.
We should learn from Mr. Taleb how not to be turkeys.
BEAUMONT VANCE is the risk management columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He manages risk for Sun Microsystems Inc.
November 1, 2007
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