Predicting random chaos from hindsight — Niall Ferguson [With reference to The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb]

Why do we insist on drawing causal chains to exceedingly rare calamities after the fact?

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 storytelling 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 such great calamities as, say, World War I, 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." 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 Balkan crises before 1914 that didn't lead to Armageddon. Like Cho, the Sarajevo assassin Gavrilo Princip was a black swan –only vastly bigger.

The light of the public really does darken everything. Niall Ferguson, when he was an obscure (i.e. not on TV) historian, wrote a brilliant history of the Rothschild Bank . It is one of the Top 10 histories written since WWII. Now that Ferguson has become a name worthy of the editorial pages of our "important" newspapers, he has become as inadvertently hilarious as the rest of the commentariat. Gavrilo Princip was not a Black Swan but he was a member of the Black Hand (No, not the Mafia, but the Sinn Fein of the Serbs under Austrian rule). "Sarajevo" was immediately preceded by two Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, and the Austrian's use of it as a causus belli was hardly an unanticipated event, given their occupation of Bosnia a few years earlier. The Austrians were deeply disappointed when the Serbs agreed to nine of the 10 demands in their ultimatum; the mulishness of my paternal grandfather's countrymen in refusing to allow the Austrian equivalent of the carabinieri to be garrisoned in Belgrade as part of the investigation of Princip's criminal conspiracy was the only sticking point. That was enough to save the Austrians from having to find another excuse to go to war.


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