Niall Ferguson discusses Nassim Taleb's new book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, in The Telegraph.
The piece echoes some of the themes in Dr. Bliss' Virginia Tech and the Fantasy of Safety.
Quote from Ferguson:
... it is Taleb's assault on traditional historiography that is most relevant here. Since Thucydides, it is true, historians have encouraged us to explain low-probability calamities (like wars) after the fact. Such story-telling helps us to make sense of a random disaster. It also enables us to apportion blame. Generations of historians have toiled in this way to explain the origins of great calamities like, say, the First World War, constructing elegant narrative chains of causes and effects, heaping opprobrium on this or that statesman.
There is something deeply suspect about this procedure, however. It results in what Taleb calls the "retrospective distortion". For these causal chains were quite invisible to contemporaries, to whom the outbreak of war came as a bolt from the blue. The point is that there were umpteen Balkans crises before 1914 that didn't lead to Armageddon. Like Cho Seung-Hui , the Sarajevo assassin Gavrilo Princip was a Black Swan - only vastly bigger.
The same flaw is obvious in the stories currently being told about the Virginia Tech massacre. If we can see the causes of Cho's rampage now, why was it not anticipated at the time? Negligence is not the only possibility. The reality is that for every Cho who runs amok, there are hundreds of thousands of depressive, misanthropic students who don't.
...as President Bush has learned, you don't get rewarded for trying to stop bad things from happening, precisely because if you're successful they don't happen. On his watch, after all, there hasn't been another 9/11 (a classic Black Swan event). And Saddam Hussein will never invade Kuwait again. But is anybody out there grateful? Not even Bush himself can be certain that his strategy of pre-emption deserves the credit for non-events.
Read the whole thing.