Science, Black Swans, and Insider-Outsiders

Nassim Taleb writes in the prologue to The Black Swan (2nd edition, 2010):

“Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naively try to predict them). There are so many things we can do if we focus on antiknowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans (of the positive kind) by maximizing your exposure to them. Indeed, in some domains – such as scientific discovery and venture capital investments – there is a disproportionate payoff from the unknown, since you typically have little to lose and plenty to gain from a rare event. We will see that, contrary to social-science wisdom, almost no discovery, no technologies of note, came from design and planning – they were just Black Swans. The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves.”

To an extent, this comports with my reading of a large number of important scientific discoveries. They come from a combination of a) preparedness, b) sensateness, and c) curiosity. The c) curiosity is the tinkering Taleb refers to above. The b) sensateness is being aware of when something unexpected happens, i.e., recognizing opportunities when they present themselves. The a) preparedness is a background of knowledge and skills that enables you to recognize something as unexpected and help you to investigate it.

Consider Taleb on the following:

“Think about the “secret recipe” to making a killing in the restaurant business. If it were known and obvious, then someone next door would have already come up with the idea and it would have become generic. The next killing in the restaurant industry needs to be an idea that is not easily conceived of by the current population of restaurateurs. It has to be at some distance from expectations. The more unexpected the success of such a venture, the smaller the number of competitors, and the more successful the entrepreneur who implements the idea. The same applies to […] any kind of entrepreneurship. The same applies to scientific theories – nobody has interest in listening to trivialities. The payoff of a human venture is, in general, inversely proportional to what it is expected to be.”

This reminds me of Seth Roberts’ insider-outsider idea in science – the idea that insiders (people with expert knowledge in an area) who are also outsiders (have markedly different personal resources than most experts in the area*) have an advantage. If a more-than-marginal breakthrough tends to come from “an idea that is not easily conceived of by the current population of” experts in a field, then it makes sense why an insider-outsider might have an advantage.

*Roberts defines ‘outsider’ as someone who has freedom due to differences in their career. I expand the concept here, then – it seems like having different freedom because of one’s career is one instance of the importance of an ‘outsider’ – i.e., someone who has markedly different personal resources than most experts in the area.

Percy Spencer‘s curiosity was helped by his lack of typical, formal schooling in his area of expertise. In this sense, he was an insider-outsider – such that his “preparedness” and “curiosity” were different from most other engineers. This seems to have directly contributed to his success.

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