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24 May 2007

The black swan and the siren song

Via Shloky comes the link to this most fascinating interview by the author of Freakonomics with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the thinker behind the concept of the Black Swan. Rarely are we so fortunate as to have two interesting thinkers conversing. Now if we could only get a similar conversation transcript and podcast between Taleb and some of the luminaries of the intel side of the house…

In an intelligence community that has become in many ways almost obsessed with the prospect of surprise (and the attending problem of warning failure), Taleb has achieved a nearly cult status. (We ourselves have done our humble bit in spreading his work more widely within the community.) It is thus quite refreshing to read about his attempts to spoof the traditional categorization in place in the major publishing houses, his other practical jokes in the financial world, and to otherwise defy commoditization of his ideas. This gives us great hope that he will continue to provide great contributions to the community.

Some key points from the interview, which intelligence professionals would do well to remember:

"We prefer any theory, even wrong, to no theory. Theorizing is the default activity for our brain; suspension of belief is an active one. Because of the narrative fallacy, our minds default to theory making. It takes more conscious effort – and energy - to suspend beliefs. It also takes more training – we train children to find “explanations” instead of just teaching them to have the guts to say, “I don’t know” in certain circumstances."

In many ways, our own concept of Smoking Mirror is an attempt to overcome the epistemic arrogance (confident but incomplete knowledge) of the false prophet.

It is too easy – especially as the ranks of true experts thin in the great demographic change sweeping the community – for many intelligence practitioners to assume to mantle of expertise without its substance. In the complex and chaotic world in which we live, that mantle is more of a burden than a benefit. It is for this reason we have such hope for the new young faces in the community, and for the generation after next. They join us without the same pre-conceptions and mental rigidity that too often mark their older but less suitable counterparts – and hopefully, these new professionals will be supported by the best possible education and training to help them preserve that flexibility of mind, and respect for the limitations of their own expertise without the burden of ego.

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