The Illusion of Predicting

One of the things The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, points out is the delusion we have that we can predict the future. We have all these formulae, formal and otherwise, that we use to do so… Having been involved in stock trading (he was a risk analyst and advisor) Taleb uses that background along with a strong interest in philosophy and science to dissect and consider all the ways we have of assuring ourselves that the world is steady, even and subject to our interpretation and prediction. If we want to avoid some disaster or to bring about some happy result, we have only to follow the recommended course of action, and voila. There we have it.

Not.

In Taleb’s view the world is far more random than most people will admit. I think to some degree this is a product of business, travel, civilization where you have all these organizations of people interwoven. My editors need to estimate how many copies my next book will sell so they will know how many to print, and much paper, etc, to have on hand to do so. They want me to predict how long it will take me so they can get the cover artist started at the appropriate time, get the book in the appropriate catalogue and start the appropriate marketing plan at the right time for the release of the book. Today’s competitive market demands that you begin marketing before the book is out.

In fact, today’s competitive marketing depends a lot on predictions — only one firm will be the one to make the killing on the next celebrity, best-seller, popular technical advance, demand for xyz that no one saw coming. It’s the reason news agencies break stories before reporters have all the facts, hoping to be the one with the scoop. So it’s very important to those in the marketplace to predict the future, to figure out why things happen as they do and then try to emulate those things…

The trouble is, says Taleb, the illusion that all this planning works, is really… well, an illusion. There is more luck involved than anyone wants to admit.

Of course what he calls “random” and “luck,” I see as the sovereignty of God, so it was gratifying, a day or so after I started the book to open my Bible randomly to Isaiah 41:21 where I read:

“Present your case,” the Lord says. “Bring forward your strong (arguments),” the King of Jacob says. Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; as for the former events, declare what the were, that we may consider them, and know their outcome; or announce to us what is coming. Declare the things that are going to come afterward, that we may know that you are gods; indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together. Behold you are of no account, and your work amounts to nothing; he who chooses you is an abomination.”

“Declare to us what is going to take place… that we may know that you are gods.”

And of course there is this one, too:

“Come now, you who say “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow (let alone a year from now). You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” James 4:13-15

And yet, the culture we live in asks us to do the opposite.

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1 Response to “The Illusion of Predicting”


  1. 1 Gayle October 27, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Amazing how man, from human viewpoint, always thinks he has the answer. Security equals property, money in the bank and wise investments. How easily that can be gone? How easily all we have taken for granted can be gone? The “Two Wills”, one God’s, the other Satan’s. I love that we know the story’s end!!!


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