Sunday, November 27, 2016

TOK IRL #3 - The Black Swan Theory and Other Scientific Concerns

The Black Swan theory was one idea that we briefly discussed in class that really caught my attention. This theory, which was devised by a man named Nassim Nicholas Taleb, comes from a saying that was popular in 16th century London. The saying goes "You would sooner see a black swan than..." and would be followed by something that was highly improbable. This is very similar to the saying heard in America "when pigs fly", which refers to the fact that something will never happen until the impossible happens. However, as the theory points out, the impossible can sometimes become the possible.
Black Swan

This may never be true in the sense that pigs will fly, but the belief that all swans are white has already been disproved. Black swans were discovered in Australia, which shifted many people's ideas of the impossible into the possible.

Some examples of the Black Swan Theory are the invention of the computer, World War 1, and the Attacks on 9/11. These were all events that nobody could have predicted and, when they occurred,
all caused drastic changes throughout the globe. According to this video one of the most important examples of the Black Swan Theory took place was with the discovery of fire. It is highly unlikely that an early human understood the concept of fire, much less how to create it; so we assume that the discovery of fire occurred completely by chance. However, this random chance was crucial in the development of civilizations and societies.

Another aspect of the Black Swan Theory is that each event was always somehow rationalized through the use of hindsight despite the fact that they were all entirely non-rational events. As humans, we find it necessary to come up with reasons for everything, which is why we have science.

This theory does not only concern theories about the colors of birds, it also includes many of the scientific theories that we base our knowledge on today. These ideas we believe in can all be disproved with single pieces of information, causing entire theories to come crumbling down.

Black Swans have been seen in science many times, some examples being the ideas of the theories of relativity and of quantum mechanics against the ideas of classical physics and the discovery of dark matter and dark energy. In both of these instances, something new was discovered that caused the already set ideas to shift. This is an important part of science, but it is also slightly terrifying. To know that all the scientific knowledge we have could be dispelled so easily leads to many more questions. But as they say, good scientists set out to prove themselves wrong.


  1. Another great post. I am glad that you picked up on this reference and ran it down. I love how you are kind of weaving two views of science together here through a single lens. The Black Swan theory is closely related to Thomas Kuhn's theory about progress in Science. He argues that it doesn't happen gradually, but through an alternation between periods of stability and huge shifts (like relativity, or quantum mechanics, or fire). But the black swan example is also, as you suggest in your final sentence, the favorite example used to demonstrate the logic of Popper's falsification. Weird thing though: if we cannot predict black swans, how can we set out to look for them?!

  2. I love the part where you talk about how the theory plays out in life, "that each event was always somehow rationalized through the use of hindsight despite the fact that they were all entirely non-rational events." I think this irrational event to rational approach is really cool, but it makes me wonder is there a theory that does the inverse? From rational to irrational? I guess there could be an argument for the black swan doing this because it causes shifts of views, and the previous views tend to be seen as irrational. One example that pops in my head: I heard a story on the radio talking about how people have analyzed all the writing from some old society (super old, I have no idea who they were) and the scientists saw in every manuscript signs of schizophrenia. So apparently all the people were suffering from schizophrenia but still had a working society. Totally irrational today, but clearly it had to have been rational thing for them.