You guys I'm like really smart now. You don't even know. You could ask me, Kelly what's the biggest company in the world? And I'd be like, "blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah blah." Giving you the exact right answer.

-Kelly Kapoor
The Office

Friday, December 10, 2010

Faith - Black Swans and White Doves

   As I research and organize my company's business continuity plan, I can't help feeling how unfortunate it is that  I have to leave my Faith outside the plan. By Faith, I mean my politically-incorrect and empirically challenging position that I am the product of a loving God who died for me. This is not to suggest relying on Faith alone or abandoning planning and preparedness activities, only lamenting the de facto censorship of the day. A key component of Faith is humility.  Humility is most often learned through experience (the BIA being an example of such). The need for humility is a (loud) subtext in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan.

   Taleb clearly indicates the danger presented by relying on human knowledge or self-assuredness in one's ability to predict future outcomes. He focuses on the need to consider the "outlier" - the inexplicable event that occurs beyond our ability to predict. He does not suggest a Faith-based approach to risk assessment, rather devoting his energies to savaging his critics and established "experts" in probability and risk prediction. Taleb goes on to prove than many "experts," assured from their previous (random) successes or wholly focused on their specific risk models, actually performed worse than amateurs (but were better at rationalizing failure). In discussing an analysis of two thousand predictions from security analysts, Taleb notes:

What it showed was that these brokerage-house analysts predicted nothing - a naive forecast made bt someone who takes the figures from one period as predictors of the next would not do markedly worse. Yet analysts are informed about companies' orders, forthcoming contracts and planned expenditures, so this advanced knowledge should help them do considerably better than a naive forecaster looking at the past data without further information.

     Taleb attributes this to "epistemic arrogance."  This arrogance fuels our desire to explain. As we are innundated with more and more information (what Taleb refers to as the "toxicity of knowledge") we are led to come up with bigger stories or more complex models to mask our inability to make sense of it all. "I don't know"is no longer acceptable - particularly from "an expert." 

   In a recent article Tim Keller, refers to a book by David Denby, film critic for the New Yorker. The book is called Snark. Keller writes:

 He [Denby] observed that a tone of snide, mocking, ‘nasty and knowing,’ speaking was coming to dominate our public discourse. ‘Snark’ aims not just at refuting someone’s position, but also at destroying their ‘cool,’ erasing their effectiveness, trying to get control of and sully the person’s image with the public. Opposing views are not treated with respect but instead with snarling disdain and ad hominem mockery. Even many regular editorial writers in major newspaper do little more than ridicule. Denby pointed out that politics has been a major source of snark, since insinuating, insulting, and demonizing the opposition (rather than re-spectful arguments) often wins elections. But the Internet has put ‘snark’ on steroids 

   Keller is senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NY city and, I want to stress, his article does not advocate being "nice" as an alternative. "Nice" people are some of the most awful people I know. Rather, he, like Taleb, goes on to prove how dangerous belief in one's intellectual superiority can be:

According to Proverbs, what happens to the scoffer, the man or woman who always has to be right, who derides rather than engages opposing views? Proverbs says that the first result is loneliness (9:12). Scoffers impress the impressionable if they are allowed to hold forth (19:25; 21:11) but as time goes on, the scoffer not only destroys relationships but is listened to less and less by the public (24:9.) Often the scorner has valid points, but because of his or her dogmatic and proud attitude, no peace is possible inside a community. This is because scoffers don’t know how to affirm and live in harmony with people who don’t agree with them on everything. The problem is, as Kidner says, ‘the mischief he does is not the random mischief of the ordinary fool, but the deeper damage of the ‘debunker’…’ (Kidner, p.42)

Taleb does an outstanding job of challenging his reader to think outside of current models and to abandon established risk prediction dogma.  Ironically, in his own haughty way, he is demanding the humility of his reader by showing the limits of our own knowledge. He is demonstrating the need for something greater by scoffing at the scoffers who came before him.

Taleb appears particularly humble as he visits Amioun, his ancestral homeland in Lebanon. Armed only with a copy of the writings of Seneca, he visits the cemetery where several relatives are buried and muses on his mortality: "I wanted to prepare myself for where I will go next." Taleb, then advocates stoicism as an outlook, concludinf "A Black Swan cannot so easily destroy a man who has an idea of his final destination." After what felt like a long walk with the self-professed flaneur Taleb, it seemed he was still unsure of this destination.

  During both disaster planning and response, the qualities provided by Faith are essential: humility, hope, focus and strength. In planning for or managing a crisis, isn't it wiser to look into the face of a loving God than to the abyss of unfathomable outcomes?

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