Posts Tagged 'Black Swan'

The Volcano

Eyjafjallajokull. Even when they provide the pronunciation guide, I can’t pronounce it. (ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl). It’s a Black Swan!  Who could have predicted that a volcano in Iceland combined with wind and weather patterns would wreak such havoc, shutting down the EU for days and causing “the biggest airspace shutdown since World War II?”

Because it’s below a glacier, its magma mixes with the melted ice and cools more rapidly than would normally happen causing explosions that eject plumes of volcanic grit up to 30,000 feet into the sky. Unlike the smoke of a fire, which is mostly made of wimpy bits of carbon, this thing is churning out tiny bits of jagged volcanic rock (and if you’ve ever walked up a cinder cone, you know what I mean by “jagged”) and volcanic glass. Where smoke might clog an airplane engine, volcanic “ash” will tear it to pieces.  Thus airspace of most of Europe’s been closed down.

All sorts of people are stranded, many suffering the horrible tragedy of being unable to get to weddings, graduations, school, meetings and funerals. Even Prime Ministers. The airline industry is said to be losing at least $200 million a day. Warnings are going out that soon people may not be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and many other things taken for granted that must be flown in from all over the world. The event has shown us how interconnected we are.

It’s also shown us how with all our interconnectedness and technology and sophistication how… weak and wimpy and out of control we really are. That’s the part I love about it. As one news story put it, “The eruption was a single act of nature, but it stopped the world in countless ways.”

Not nature, of course, God.

Below is a radar picture of the craters taken by the ELTA radar from an Icelandic Coast Guard airplane. People have compared it to Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” a work whose inspiration is thought to come from the blood-red skies caused by the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.

Bizarre.

And of course the thing is spewing smoke, ash, glass, rock, CO2 and I don’t know what all else, except that I”m pretty sure it’s pollution on a scale that dwarfs anything man has yet produced.

The poor Green Police. How in the world are they going to deal with the likes of this?

The Schizo Christian Life

Yesterday (Wednesday) I spent some time sulking in the morning as I was trying to get to work on Sky. I did a nonstop, whining to God that the reason I didn’t want to work was because with my writing career “sliding into the toilet” what’s the use? Enclave doesn’t seem to be doing very well from my perspective, The Shadow Within and Return of the Guardian King have gone out of print so what’s the point?  Once again I was feeling sorry for myself, feeling like I’d gotten the short end of the stick from God. “All those years of work,” I moaned to Him in the nonstop, “and what was the use? I feel betrayed. I poured out my life for You for decades, and where did it get me?”

Ahem. A still small voice asked me if I was really “pouring my life out” for all those decades writing without publication just for Him, or was it more my desire for approbation (recognition, notice, approval, success) that had driven me?

God always does that. Always knocks the legs of my argument right out from under me.

Yes, He was absolutely right. I was willing to wait and work and wait and work mostly because of the shining goal at the end of the road that would have been glorious success. I was trusting Him to come through, but only as He fulfilled my plan, not His. And my plan was more about having self exalted than Him.

Gross.

But hey, I’ve got a sick head and a deceitful heart and it ain’t goin’ away until I’m dead. Or raptured. Yesterday I liked the analogy of swimming in the cesspool of my sin nature and its human viewpoint. It seemed especially apt for the grossness of my complaints and the greater grossness of the desires of my flesh that sometimes get the best of me. Pastor would probably say “welcome to the human race.” We all want to elevate ourselves in some way when it comes to the flesh. The best looking, the best writer, the best runner, the best mom, the best home schooler, the best children, the best church, the best, the best, the best. Our society is drunk on best-ness. Numbers. Top Ten. Top Five. Number One. Number two is never good enough. There always has to be improvement…. Rah rah. They make that thinking sound like a good thing.

But it’s Satanic all the way. And full of lies. For one thing, I have had success. The Lord did some wonderful things with Arena, and with the  Guardian King books. He gave me four Christy Awards. And was there any doubt that He was the one who had promoted them ALL to publication in the first place? No. But then weirdly, once He’d clearly done it, I took hold of things and began to think I had to do something to maintain it all, even while realizing on some level that I couldn’t. And with that, the fear machine in my flesh chugged and rumbled to life.

Fear of loss meant the approbation I did receive was never enough. There had to be enough sales so the books would not go out of print. But I also know that even if I’d gotten a level of sales that would have prevented the OP problem, it still wouldn’t have been enough. For my flesh anyway. I know that because the Bible says so, and also because I’ve now experienced it. I used to think if only I could get published that would be enough. I wouldn’t even care how many books sold. But it wasn’t long after I had been placed in the status of published author that, as I said, I did begin to care. I checked Amazon rankings daily. I monitored my fan letters. I agonized if there weren’t enough of them on any given day (though how I arrived at an acceptable number is a mystery) and on and on.

It wasn’t happiness. It wasn’t contentment.

Nassim Taleb, in The Black Swan noted that lack of contentment is one of the pitfalls of working in a field governed by extremistan. Where your payoff comes in large, unexpected chunks. He said that our hormonal system does better with a steady stream of small successes. So a stock trader who receives a little bit every day, feels better and more successful than one who receives a huge hunk ever five years, even if the latter gets ten times as much as the former. “It’s better to not to have won anything,” he said, “than to win ten million and lose nine.”

We are such weird creatures. Because I know that statement is true. Left to ourselves we focus on the lost nine instead of the fact that a million is certainly better than nothing.

Another thing Taleb said is that as bad as we are at predicting stock prices, economic futures, and political/national events (and forget predicting the weather!), we are even worse at predicting how much happiness the acquisition of some goal is going to bring us. We lust for a new car, get it and within six months or less, it’s just a car. How long before the new furniture is just furniture? The new job is not as wonderful as you thought it would be? The undying love in a marriage sours? How long before that old phone is no longer anything and now you need the new Apple I-tablet!

Our culture and economy is based on the fact that we’re never satisfied. We’ll always want more, or better or different or newer… Never content with what we have.

True contentment is independent of circumstances. It springs from one’s values and thoughts. It’s something that, according to the Bible (Phil 4:11), has to be learned, and the word for learned there is manthano, which means “to learn by instruction, to be taught” (there’s submitting oneself to one’s pastor teacher to learn bible doctrine), “to learn from experience, often with the implication of reflection – ‘to learn, to come to realize’” (there’s the attempts at application) “and to come to understand as the result of a process of learning” (the final result after many iterations of the cycle).

In other words, contentment is a result of the tranformation of the mind through daily exposure to the teaching of the Word of God. The Word does the transforming and as one’s values and norms and standards change, one’s desires change. Fleshly values and thoughts can only experience the pseudo-contentment of being in good circumstances and even then it won’t satisfy for long as boredom sets in. And should those good circumstances turn bad, the fleshly, pseudo-contentment flies right out the window.

True contentment is something that can’t be shaken. Something that God does, not that we do. I don’t believe we can make ourselves content. All we do is keep exposing ourselves to His thinking and gradually, tiny step by tiny step, His thinking becomes ours and we are changed. I’m not there yet, but way better than I used to be. There was a time I couldn’t even consider the possibility of not being published. Then when I got to the point of truly not caring, God opened those doors. Now, for the most part, I really don’t care what the career does. It’s only when I fall into that cesspool that I start caring again. Get my eyes off the right things and onto the wrong things and I’m miserable. And I do it all to myself.

Fortunately there’s rebound. And daily Bible class, which reinforces the entire process and gets my eyes trained back on the right things.

Differing Worldviews

My son and his fiancée were here over Christmas and since I had finished The Black Swan (which he had loaned me) and he had not yet read it all the way through himself, but wanted to, I gave it back to him. Thus my posts from that source will be coming to a halt here pretty soon. But not yet.  Today I share some observations prompted by a statement the author made regarding differing viewpoints:

“This confirmation problem pervades our modern life, since most conflicts have at their root the following mental bias: when Arabs and Israelis watch news reports they see different stories in the same succession of events. Likewise, Democrats and Republicans look at different parts of the same data and never converge to the same opinions. Once your mind is inhabited with a certain view of the world, you will tend to only consider instances proving you to be right.

Paradoxically, the more information you have, the more justified you will feel in your views.”

Taleb’s observation that different people can look at the same series of events and come to wholly different conclusions is quite true. [Bush Derangement Syndrome comes to mind] And yet the implication in his words is that there is no one “right” conclusion, just conclusions based on whatever each individual regards as correct in his own eyes, each person’s perception shaped, maintained and bolstered by his innate tendency toward confirmation bias.

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

Only God has the true perspective and according to His word, there are absolutes. There are right ways of thinking and wrong ways. Life and death. Lies and truth. The flesh and the world versus the spiritual and the heavenly. As believers we are engaged in a battle against the spiritual forces that for the moment have rulership over our planet. It’s difficult to fight against forces one cannot see nor feel. We’re not going to be slugging it out physically. No, the battle is one of ideas; one of opposing systems of thought. And there are only two: man’s/Satan’s systems (which encompass all of those things that “seem right to a man” in their varied sameness), and God’s.

If you orient back to central principles of each world view, you are going to reach consistent conclusions. In Satan’s worldview, the creature is supreme. The creature operates independently from God (even if he is claiming to serve and love God, he does it in his own way, not according to God’s way) and seeks to solve his problems and improve his situation using creature power and solutions. In God’s worldview, all credit goes to Him. He is perfect. He does all the work. We, by grace, receive the benefits of what He has done, initially in salvation and continuing throughout our Christian walk. We must decrease, He must increase.

Satan’s genius lies in the way he has drawn in all manner of variation, complication, detail, urgency and just plain volume to obfuscate the central conclusions of each viewpoint. As the Lord said in x, the worries and cares of the world rise up to choke the truth of the word. Pretty soon we no longer see the forest for the trees.

But ultimately there are only two viewpoints. Man’s thoughts and God’s. And the two are not remotely similar.

The Only Reliable Confirmation

Back before Christmas I wrote about confirmation bias, the concept that people tend to look for evidence to support their beliefs instead of evidence to disprove them. I discovered it in the book The Black Swan where it was presented in a negative light, something which hindered people from arriving at truth.

And to some degree I believe it is that. I brought up the examples of Global Warming, evolution, and someone trying to sell a machine that was said to detect and cure ills via quantum mechanics and cell phones, all of which rely on confirmation bias for their “proof.”

We also see it in matters of faith.  Members of cults who see events working out to their liking claim that God is behind them, thereby endorsing their beliefs. Muslims are sure that God is working in their attacks upon the Jews and no doubt there are many other religions who look at external events and see the hand of their deity at work. Indeed, the whole point of sacrificing to various gods was to bring about a desired outcome; if the outcome occurred, the sacrifice was good enough, if it didn’t, the sacrifice was lacking. And, of course,Christians use confirmation bias, too, as I illustrated from the example of the young man who derived confirmation of his belief in God’s guidance from a series of numbers on a boxcar.

But just because events seem to confirm a belief does that make it so? Are we to abandon confirmation in external events in our faith lives? Or should we go about looking only for things that might disprove our faith as the author of  The Black Swan seems to advise?

Looking for things that sow doubt does not line up with what the word of God has to say, and in the end, that is the key. The only thing, the only real source of confirmation is the word of God, never experience or external events. I’m not saying that God doesn’t use external events to guide us, only that all experience must be filtered through the standard of God’s word. If it doesn’t line up with what scripture teaches, it’s not valid.

Of course, if you don’t know what Scripture teaches, you’re going to have a hard time discerning what’s valid and what isn’t. We live in a world of lies administrated by the father of lies, Satan himself. He is a master of deception and we are charged with acquainting ourselves with his schemes (2 Co 2:11). We have a sin nature that deceives us constantly. We are human, with limitations to our senses. We don’t always perceive what’s actually going on.

I remember one time my family and I passed a vehicle at the side of the road. A woman was standing near it. After we had passed it we got into conversation and discovered that each of the adults in our car — me, Stu, my mother and my sister — had a different memory of what we had seen. Some thought the vehicle was a pickup truck, others an SUV. Some thought it was perpendicular to the road we traveled on, others thought it was parallel. We even disagreed on what the woman was wearing: what it black shorts and white top, or white top and black shorts? Or was it not even black and white but colors?

I no longer recall what the actual case was, but it would have been a sorry display had we four been called upon to testify before a court of law! Though perhaps if it had been a more important incident we would have paid better attention and remembered more. The point is, our memories aren’t always accurate. Especially if emotion is involved. Which feeds into another principle delineated in The Black Swan — that experiments have shown that each time we recall a particular event from our past we change it slightly, until years later it’s not at all like what it was originally.

All of which goes back to the fact that it’s the word of God that must be the standard for discernment not someone’s experience. Experience can support the word, but if there’s a conflict, experience has to go. And if the word of God is to be our standard, well, that makes one more reason why we must know it backwards and forwards and be we are handling it accurately.

We Live in Extremistan

About a month ago, I mentioned Black Swan author Nassim Taleb’s designation of what amount to two types of randomness, Mediocristan and Extremistan. Here is a chart Taleb provided comparing the two:

Mediocristan Extremistan
Mild randomness Wild randomness
Typical member is mediocre There is no typical
Winners get small piece of total pie Winner-take-all
General Utopian-type Equality Extreme inequality
Impervious to Black Swan Vulnerable to Black Swan
Corresponds to physical qualities and restrained by them Corresponds to numbers, like wealth; no restraints
Total not affected by a single instance Total determined by small number of extreme events
Tyranny of the collective Tyranny of the accidental
History crawls History makes jumps

Mediocristan is where we must endure the tyranny of the collective, the routine, the obvious and the predicted; Extremistan is where we are subjected to the tyranny of the singular, the accidental, the unseen and the unpredicted. “

In some strange way I keep seeing Mediocristan as representative of man’s viewpoint, man’s ways, man’s attempt to control his world, and Extremistan as God’s ways, at least as they are perceived by man.  At one point Taleb says that our problems in general are that we believe we live in Mediocristan but we really live in Extremistan. That statement in particular resonated for me.

We think we can know, we think we can plan and predict and circumvent disaster. We think everything will continue as it has been. We think we have control of things. When we don’t. And it won’t. And we can’t.

 It’s an illusion. A deception.

Mediocristan is that which puts forth the idea that we are all the same, all equal, should all be treated alike.  That all will be routine, ordered, safe, controlled. It’s a place where there can’t be fear because there’s nothing to fear. It’s the world without God. The world wrestled under control of men, to be good and fair and equal. If you just do x and y, z will happen. Simple. It all depends on you. Safe.

Extremistan is what challenges us with our inadequacy. The fact that we don’t have omniscience, nor omnipotence. That we don’t know everything. That, in fact, we don’t even know half as much as we think we do because most of the knowledge we do have is flawed. (Did you see that it’s okay to drink coffee, now? It prevents diabetes and isn’t so hard on the heart after all. Apparently) It reminds us that even though we’ve spent 1000 days walking without incident along a certain path, the next day an airplane can fall out of the sky on you.

We don’t like to contemplate Extremistan because it’s scary and unpredictable so we pretend it’s not so.

Walk by Faith, not Sight

Continuing my thoughts stimulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan  on the validity of human-acquired wisdom, information, predictions, etc. 

In Chapter 5, entitled “Confirmation Shmonfirmation” Taleb observes, “…a series of corroborative facts is not necessarily evidence [of something]. Seeing white swans does not confirm the nonexistence of black swans…” However, seeing a single black swan will  prove that not all swans are white. In the same way finding a malignant tumor proves you have cancer, whereas not finding one doesn’t prove you don’t. [As the doctor said recently to my mother, the cancer cells migrated from the first location to the second and logic says they took up residence elsewhere besides in her leg bone. Hence they opt for another round of chemotherapy. How can we know that the chemo is needed, that it will kill the cells we are hoping it will? We can’t.]

Taleb calls this “negative empiricism” and contends that negative instances (like cancer, like a black swan) can bring us closer to the truth than verifying instances. “It is misleading,” says he, “to build a general rule from observed facts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our body of knowledge does not increase from a series of confirmatory observations.”

That’s one of those sentences that makes you stop and ponder. It seems that the more we see of something, the more certain we can be of the truth, but the reality is, we just don’t have a large enough sample size. Or, put another way, we simply don’t know the big picture.

This recalls to mind God’s command that His children live by faith in His word and character and not by what they see. Sight would involve confirmatory observations, and we crave confirmation of the things that we believe. Yet as we grow God increasingly asks us to put that desire for confirmation aside.  Noah had never seen rain, had not one convert in his 120 years of preaching to the antedeluvian world, yet he kept on.

Abraham spent his entire life waiting for a city without foundations and is still waiting. Moses spent his adult life traveling toward the promised land and never got to enter it. The church has waited 2000 years for the return of our Lord with no confirmatory evidence for the most part. (Though lately that’s been less true than in the past!)

And then there was Job, who was actually being shown off by God to Satan and the world. “Have you noticed my servant Job?” he asked of Satan. “There is none like him in all the world.’

Job was a mature believer with whom God was well pleased. And what did He do with His mature believer, one who had been faithful for many long years? He drew Satan’s attention to him and allowed him to take all that he had without cause. And after Job lost all his children, all his livestock and houses and servants, and even his health, there wasn’t a lot of confirmatory evidence to bolster the notion that God loved him, and that He was a just God who had all under control.

Nevertheless, Job’s initial response was to affirm that very viewpoint: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Even after his wife came advising him to curse God and die, he said, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” and did not sin with his lips. It was only when those three so-called friends arrived to sit with him silently for seven days before urging him to confess his sins because it had to be his fault that all this had befallen him — which was not at all the situation! — only then did he start to fail the test. Why? Because he had only the word of God to rest in and the lack of confirmatory evidence had gotten to him, especially when the “friends” used that very lack against him.

Our Lord also did not seem to be in the Father’s plan when He was tried, convicted and marched up to the hill of Golgotha to be crucified. There His enemies mocked Him, demanding, once again, confirmatory evidence: “Why don’t you come down from there if you’re the son of God? Where is He? Why doesn’t He deliver you if you’re really who you say you are??”

Of course the evidence did arrive eventually, but it’s in those dark hours that we most want it and don’t have it and the fact that we don’t is by God’s design.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a philosopher, concerned with human viewpoint, and the limitations of man’s perceptions. He doesn’t touch at all on divine viewpoint — at least not directly, but what I like is how he highlights many of the tendencies we have as humans that make having faith in someone we’ve never seen, having faith in the words of men long dead, as all the while the exact opposite is apparently staring us in the face and “everyone” is telling us how things “really” are, and they aren’t like how the Bible says.

 It also shows the myriad ways in which the cosmic system deceives. With such tendencies in us, it’s not all that hard. Especially when you combine it with our lack of brainpower to process all the details that surround us and our resulting need to summarize. And then there is our almost hard-wired inclination to make stories out of everything, regardless of the amount of actual facts we have. But those are subjects for future posts.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is when you search for confirmation of something you believe. Finding it then bolsters your belief. In The Black Swan, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb recounts a psychological experiment in which subjects were given the number seqence 2, 4, 6, and asked to guess the rule generating them by producing other three-number sequences that followed the same rule. The experimenter would answer “yes” or “no” in response to each sequence and from that the subjects would formulate their rule.

In this case the rule was “numbers in ascending order,” a simple rule which few of the subjects discovered.  To do so, they would have had to offer a number series in descending order (to which the experimenter would have said “no”). Being focused on trying to confirm whatever rule they had come up with, the subjects never thought to try to disprove it and thus never asked the right questions…

This practice of seeking evidence that disproves one’s theory is called skeptical empiricism, and is one Taleb advocates as a means of increasing one’s objectivity in perceiving reality.  However, it is so much against our nature that it requires a fair degree of concentrative energy. Our habit, our nature is to go for confirmation rather than falsification. Given man’s fallen state I can readily attribute this to the pride of the flesh, delighting in the cleverness of its own ideas and not at all pleased at the idea of being wrong

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes…”  Pro 12:15

“He who corrects a scoffer gets insult for himself.” Pro 9:7

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”  Pro 26:12

Taleb says you can find confirmation for just about anything you want to believe. Confirmation in circumstances, confirmation in “references,” confirmation in events. Confirmation from other people.

The day before I read this section of the book, I was talking with someone who was advocating a health product whose method of operation and results I found difficult to believe. When I expressed my skepticism the person offered several incidents of the personal testimony sort as “proof” the product was legitimate and worked as advertised. As soon as I read about confirmation bias, I realized I’d just seen it in action.

In Frank Peretti’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Visitation, there is an incident where the protagonist was certain that God wanted him to go to the Billy Graham headquarters in Minnesota and offer his services. He was totally unqualified and really had no “services” to offer (except perhaps janitorial), nevertheless he was convinced it was God’s will and direction that he do this. He found confirmation on the side of a boxcar in a train he happened to pass as he started out on his bus trip to Minnesota. There on the side of the car was a number that just happened to be the same as the street number of the Billy Graham offices. Proof, he exulted, that he was indeed following God’s lead.

 Unfortunately when he arrived at the headquarters he was turned away without appeal… Which left him confused. Had God not been leading him after all? I’d say no. It was merely confirmation bias at work.

Complicating this tendency to want to confirm one’s theory or belief rather than to disprove it is the tendency to focus on the incidents that do confirm, while blotting out those that do not. Taleb calls this the silent evidence. You hear of the 10 people who were cured of cancer using this innovative technique, not the 1100 who died using it. You hear of the 100 writers who succeeded using such and so marketing technique, not the thousands who did not.

Sometimes, scientists just throw out the experiments that don’t confirm their theories while trying to force the ones with promise to do so… The recent CRU emails give some examples of this, and I distinctly recall an article I read a few years ago by Richard Lewontin, maybe, about exactly this. We are aghast at the practice, yet if we’re honest I think most of us will find we do the same thing, if on a lesser scale perhaps.

I’ll use an example that I’m familiar with. Let’s say I fear that deep down I believe that I’m not really a very good writer (my theory). I can get twenty very positive comments on my writing, from people I know and respect and yet, it’s the one negative comment, often from a total stranger, that I recall most vividly. Why? Because it’s corroborating my “I can’t write” theory. That’s also why the negative comments are the ones that tend to surface when I’m struggling to write the next book, corroborating my resurrected fear that I really can’t write after all. “See? Not only am I having trouble with the work in progress but some reviewer on Amazon confirmed that I really am just an imposter.”

Thankfully God’s growing me out of this ridiculous scenario, and this whole idea of confirmation bias is a very helpful concept in doing so. It also answers questions I’ve had about doctrinal or faith-based differences between believers. But more on that tomorrow.


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