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Black Swans, Male Strippers and Uncertainty

"This too, shall pass." Folk tales say this was engraved on a ring given to King Solomon, who had demanded a gift that would make him sad when he was happy, and happy when he was sad. I recall it whenever I'm confronted with the claim that history has a positive direction--that, by and large, we're progressing toward a more peaceful, just and prosperous future. And conversely, too, when I hear someone say we're on an inevitable path of decline and doom.

We tend to think the future's an extension of the present, and so seek out the patterns and correspondences today that will allow us to predict tomorrow. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written in The Black Swan, people can't bear to think that no such patterns exist. We are habitually overconfident, then, about our knowledge--both its accuracy and its power to dispel uncertainty. It's often said, for example, that democracy promotes peace, because no democracy has ever fought a war with another democracy. As Matthew White points out, this is simply untrue--or, if you prefer, true only when so many caveats and qualifiers are attached that the statement is meaningless.

History moves in both directions, toward bloodshed and away from it, toward openness and toward repression. Taleb's native Lebanon, as he says, is a case in point. When I was born, Lebanon was considered the sophisticated Switzerland of the Arab world. It was inconceivable that this multi-religious, business-oriented and secular-feeling place could become a war zone for religious fanatics. Then in 1975, Taleb writes, "the Lebanese 'paradise' suddenly evaporated, after a few bullets and mortar shells." (His experiences as a teen-ager are one source of Taleb's fierce exasperation with those who think science can measure uncertainty.)

Yet Lebanese history also disproves the notion that longstanding wars can't be ended. Today the country is back to a tense state of peace, and its people enjoy freedoms that would have been unimaginable there in 1979. "Lebanon is not like it was 15 years ago," Jamil Daher said in an interview last month. And he should know: He's Lebanon's first male stripper.

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