This is not a black swan event, and everybody needs to stop claiming that it is.
History doesn’t repeat itself, not exactly, but it does rhyme. What we’re seeing right now is all stuff that we’ve seen before. Not only that, but it’s stuff we were actively warned about over and over again.
Let’s pause and talk about what a black swan event is, and then we can get into the action.
The phrase was popularized by Nassim Taleb, who first began writing about it in 2001. His 2007 book The Black Swan made him famous because he anticipated the financial crash of 2008. A “black swan” was a proverbial example of “something that does not exist” for something like 14 centuries - but then explorers found real live black swans paddling around in Australia.
It would be a little like people saying “when pigs fly” and then someone actually finds a flying pig. Or, “when Hell freezes over,” and... let’s not explore that one because there is too much left of the year 2020 for my comfort.
For something to qualify as a black swan, it has to meet three criteria. 1. It has to be a huge surprise; 2. It has to have a major effect; and 3. In hindsight, everyone sees signs and believes the event could have been predicted.
That’s the tricky part here. The third point is where it would be really easy to get hung up.
Let’s talk about some other surprising historical events and whether they qualify as black swans or not.
The first one that comes to mind for me is the JFK assassination. I think we can all agree that people were pretty darn surprised by that. Anyone who was alive at the time will tell you that it felt like a major watershed, that it changed everything. They can still remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened.
A couple of other events of that magnitude were the Challenger explosion and 9/11.
Notice any differences between them?
There are tons of conspiracy theories about both the JFK assassination and 9/11, but Challenger? Not so much.
I asked my husband about this, assuming correctly that they studied the Challenger explosion in his aerospace engineering classes. “Nothing about space should qualify as a black swan. It is inherently dangerous. We have an expected fatality rate of 1 in 500 launches.”
Everyone knows space is hard; we won’t be able to recognize patterns or predict events in space news for decades, maybe centuries, so it doesn’t mess with our heads as much.
In engineering, there’s a process called ‘root cause analysis’ which should be followed by ‘corrective action.’ You dig down to find out what went wrong, and then try to fix it so it won’t happen again. This is part of why, say, commercial air travel keeps getting safer. It’s also why relatively few people die in structure fires, which were extremely common in the 19th century.
Every time a disaster happens, there is an opportunity to take notes and try to plan around avoiding it the next time around.
It isn’t really possible to avoid black swan events. They arise from whatever conditions existed at the time, but they aren’t necessarily caused by those conditions.
This is the opposite of a persistent problem like traffic fatalities. People die in car crashes every day, and nobody is surprised at all, because awareness of this fatal flaw is built into our system. Under automobile supremacy, people and animals will be routinely killed by cars and everyone will shrug and accept it. The first time an unsupervised autonomous vehicle does it, everyone will get upset.
There are other areas where we acknowledge and accept consistent amounts of property damage and/or loss of life, such as continuing to rebuild homes in a floodplain, and these disasters are influenced more by higher-level policy decisions than we usually realize. I don’t know all that much about floods, but I can guess that there are potential policy changes in zoning, insurance, building codes, and mortgage lending that could have a significant effect on whose house is destroyed in a flood 40 years from now.
This is where we start getting around to talking about public health, and pandemics, and economics, and science denial. Note, sometimes when a disaster happens, like a fire in a nightclub* in 1942, society reacts with major, rapid, and systemic infrastructure updates. Other times, like with seatbelts or cigarette smoking, those changes are gradual and take a long time to reach begrudging consensus approval.
How we react, as individuals and as a society, depends on what disaster we’re facing and what decisions we’ve made about how predictable or acceptable it is.
What we’re facing right now, the situation that everyone keeps referring to as a black swan, is really a “gray rhino.” It’s highly probable, high impact, and you can see it coming a long way away. That is 100% true about COVID-19, and it’s 100% true about the economic crisis that is barely getting started, and it’s probably 98% true about the mask refusal as well.
The last time we went though a very serious pandemic, H1N1, people blamed it on lightbulbs. (Now they’re blaming COVID-19 on 5G). There were public protests about mask mandates, and one dude even got shot. Quarantines literally always result in people violating them and/or running for the hills, carrying the disease to other cities. That’s the entire plot line of the Decameron. All of this has been going on for a long time, far more than the century that has passed since our last reminder.
COVID-19 is so not a black swan that even the specific virus family coming from the specific animal was predicted as a pandemic risk back in 2013. A SARS vaccine that might have worked against COVID-19 was in development back in 2003, but the team ran out of funding. A crisis simulation in October 2019 ran the scenario of a pandemic killing over half a million people. (We passed that number on July 18).
WE WERE TOLD
“Hey, we should make a vaccine against SARS.” (Ignored for 17 years)
“Hey, horseshoe bats grow coronaviruses that can infect human lung cells, so we should probably stop hunting and eating bats in China.” (Ignored for 7 years)
“Hey, we should probably plan around a deadly pandemic.” (3 months’ notice)
There actually was a pandemic preparedness plan, circa 2005, direct result of SARS and how scary that was. We had a playbook. This is where I stop talking, because whenever people sense material that challenges their political beliefs, they lock down.
Viruses do not care about human affairs.
The question is how much we care about human affairs. It is a huge mystery why our attention is captured by certain things, like the debunked idea that vaccines cause autism, but why we are totally bored by other things, like tuberculosis or malaria killing over a million people a year.
What is being revealed about group psychology is that people consider certain things inevitable and unavoidable. It becomes a kind of Stoicism, this idea that we just have to endure pain and suffering - from some sources but not others.
This is why it’s important to talk about black swans, gray rhinos, and strategic forecasting in general. The more we can get these ideas into pop culture, the more likely we are to reach the threshold where we refuse to tolerate predictable and preventable risks. Human ingenuity is definitely powerful enough to build fixes around these obstacles.
* Cocoanut Grove - the reaction to that nightclub fire in 1942 led directly to innovations like EXIT signs, doors with crash bars, fire codes, smoke detectors, fire drills, and evacuation floor plans. Those legal standards have probably saved millions of lives and prevented billions of dollars in property damage. Nobody argues with fire so there don’t tend to be mass protests against fire extinguishers.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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