Black Swan Anthropology

Black Swan Anthropology Lessons – Links to the Highly Improbable

Update August 2013: For related themes see Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity and Anthropology Is Your Ally – Science & Humanities Together.


In early February 2013, a crush of traffic crashed Living Anthropologically. My post on Myths of the Spanish Conquest – Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire was landing more hits per minute than most posts get in a day or a month. But why?! There was no catchy title. It had not gone viral. The post was long, wordy, meandering, and even dropped the jargony term metanarrative in a third-paragraph blockquote. The post contravened what seasoned anthropology bloggers Daniel Lende and Greg Downey call Thomas Friedman’s Lessons for Anthropologists: “One or two main points, some examples and commentary, and then get out.” Dwelling on specialist-literature books, it went the opposite direction of what veteran anthropology blogger Alex Golub labels The Paradox of Publicity: “Books require a lot of attention, and attention is what everyone is short of these days.”

That morning, I was notified of a link to my blog from a suspicious-looking page simply titled Assorted Links. It looked like spam–just seven link titles on a spare-themed blog called Marginal Revolution. Thousands of hits and a site-crash later, I discovered (should have known!) the reach of “one of the world’s most influential economics blogs.” It’s co-authored, but with many posts from prominent economist Tyler Cowen. I later e-mailed Cowen, who told me he got the link via a tweet from Charles C. Mann. Cowen graciously posted a follow-up link to The Yanomami Ax Fight, providing another round of hits.

The link was what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a Black Swan:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. (The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable 2007:xviii)

My brother handed me Taleb’s Black Swan during Christmas 2012 as part of an enduring conversation about whether stock-market success could be explained or predicted. A long plane-ride reading left me with a lot to think about. I had already noted when I surveyed my top posts for 2012 how many of them seemed serendipitous, and speculated similar serendipity for 2013.

Taleb’s Black Swan is fodder for thinking differently about anthropology blogging and how to tackle anthropology’s annus horribilis. Perhaps overlooked in the rush to pithy, simple, and short, there are other roads to high-impact anthropology: “maximize the serendipity around you” (2007:204).

Black Swan Luck to Explain Success

I was initially drawn to the Black Swan as a way of pondering whether success can be explained or predicted. Taleb stresses the role of plain luck:

Numerous studies of millionaires aimed at figuring out the skills required for hotshotness follow the following methodology. They take a population of hotshots, those with big titles and big jobs, and study their attributes. They look at what those big guns have in common: courage, risk taking, optimism, and so on, and infer that these traits, most notably risk taking, help you to become successful. You would also probably get the same impression if you read CEOs’ ghostwritten autobiographies or attended their presentations to fawning MBA students.

Now take a look at the cemetery. It is quite difficult to do so because people who fail do not seem to write memoirs, and if they did, those business publishers I know would not even consider giving them the courtesy of a returned phone call (as to returned e-mail, fuhgedit). Readers would not pay $26.95 for a story of failure, even if you convinced them that it had more tricks than a story of success. The entire notion of biography is grounded in the arbitrary ascription of a causal relation between specified traits and subsequent events. Now consider the cemetery. The graveyard of failed persons will be full of people who shared the following traits: courage, risk taking, optimism, etc. Just like the population of millionaires. There may be some differences in skills, but what truly separates the two is for the most part a single factor: luck. Plain luck. (2007:105-106)

From listening to my grandfather describe his business success–I got lucky–to my own work trying to understand economic development, Taleb’s account rings true. I’ve become increasingly suspicious of stories about success, especially considering the difficulties of accounting for differentials of individuals, neighborhoods, cities, regions, countries. Explanatory stories touting ideas like Culture Matters turn out to be tautological just-so stories. They are very similar to the kinds of Natural Selection stories Anne Buchanan critiques at The Mermaid’s Tale.

This perspective also helps understand academic and popular success. It’s a question I was recently asked, and sometimes ask myself, about Jared Diamond. Why Jared Diamond? Why is he on The Colbert Report? People point to his writing, or breadth of topic, or interdisciplinarity, but really none of those account for the success.

There are plenty of academics, even anthropologists, who are good writers, take on larger topics, and think interdisciplinarily. Diamond got lucky with the Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, and no one called him on how much he borrowed from Richard Lee. Follow that with a “big question” book like The Third Chimpanzee and Diamond was on his way. It’s easier to ask and write the big-question books once you are already known and praised for it: “What we call ‘talent’ generally comes from success, rather than its opposite. . . . Much of what we ascribe to skills is an after-the-fact attribution” (Taleb 2007:30-31; drawing on Hollywood Economics).

My clinching argument is the Jared Diamond book no one has ever heard about: Why Is Sex Fun? Published nearly at the same time as Guns, Germs, and Steel, any bettor would wager that a short book about sex would surely outsell a long book about agriculture. It’s got kissing on the cover! But apparently a book about fun sex is just not as sexy as a book about large domesticated animals traversing longitudinal trade routes.

Again, there were a lot of good writers and thinkers, but as Taleb tells us

do not compute odds from the vantage point of the winning gambler (or the lucky Casanova, or the endlessly bouncing back New York City, or the invincible Carthage), but from all those who started in the cohort. Consider once again the example of the gambler. If you look at the population of beginning gamblers taken as a whole, you can be close to certain that one of them (but you do not know in advance which one) will show stellar results just by luck. So, from the reference point of the beginning cohort, this is not a big deal. But from the reference point of the winner (and, who does not, and this is key, take the losers into account), a long string of wins will appear to be too extraordinary an occurrence to be explained by luck. Note that a “history” is just a series of numbers through time. The numbers can represent degrees of wealth, fitness, weight, anything. (2007:110)

What Jared Diamond, and in similar manner Steven Pinker, have been able to do is to take that luck and leverage it during a time when the rules of the game were changing–when academia, publishing, and life was following a winner-take-all trajectory.

Human Nature and Culture in the Black Swan Extremistan

One of Taleb’s recurring metaphors is that of the many ways we live in Extremistan, as opposed to Mediocristan. Perhaps not the best choice of metaphor, but he means to imply that Extremistan is where one player can dominate the field–sometimes by being better, but very often through luck. Mediocristan has its virtues. The allocation of winnings in Extremistan becomes like a tournament, a lottery. For academia, Taleb draws directly from Robert K. Merton:

Let’s say someone writes an academic paper quoting fifty people who have worked on the subject and provided background materials for his study; assume, for the sake of simplicity, that all fifty are of equal merit. Another researcher working on the exact same subject will randomly cite three of those fifty in his bibliography. Merton showed that many academics cite references without having read the original work; rather, they’ll read a paper and draw their own citations from among its sources. So a third researcher reading the second article selects three of the previously referenced authors for his citations. These three authors will receive cumulatively more and more attention as their names become associated more tightly with the subject at hand. The difference between the winning three and the other members of the original cohort is mostly luck: they were initially chosen not for their greater skill, but simply for the way their names appeared in the prior bibliography. Thanks to their reputations, these successful academics will go on writing papers and their work will be easily accepted for publication. Academic success is partly (but significantly) a lottery. (2007:217)

The genius of people like Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker is to parlay initial success in the academic lottery into trade book or popular success, while retaining the label of scientist. So at a time when book sales, talk shows, and now academic blogs have become winner-take-all enterprises, Diamond and Pinker concentrate on the talk-show circuit and the bestseller list. They are still seen as scientists, even as they spurn silly conventions like peer review. Diamond is notorious for flouting the conventions of academic review. Pinker sells Universal Grammar like it was 1957, as if researchers like Stephen Levinson had never challenged this account: Universal Grammar “ought to be as dead as a dodo.”

In some ways, I have been the beneficiary of similar arrangements, at least on a small scale. My posts on Jared Diamond led to a talk at Binghamton University, Blogging Violence, Jared Diamond, and the Ethnographic Record and a proposal for an Anthropology Now article (thanks to John Hawks for the support). My post on Napoleon Chagnon leads to a May talk at SUNY-New Paltz, The Noble Savages Controversy: Sahlins, Chagnon and Re-integrating Anthropology. But when I think about colleagues who have been really doing long-term, serious fieldwork on the anthropology of violence and the anthropology of war, I have to wonder if I should be the one doing this. Luck, White Male Privilege, and the new internet economy of Sharing Anthropology.

Black Swan Statistics, Postcolonial African Dance, Reading Ethnography

Taleb is harsh on college professors and academia in general, but he reserves special ire for economists and those statisticians who attempt to bring everything into the realm of bell curves and standard deviations. There’s a hidden critique here of The Bell Curve and the regression-to-mean Race/IQ number-crunchers, but that is for another day. Taleb’s advice on taking college courses is rather fascinating:

If you ever took a (dull) statistics class in college, did not understand much of what the professor was excited about, and wondered what “standard deviation” meant, there is nothing to worry about. The notion of standard deviation is meaningless outside of Mediocristan. Clearly it would have been more beneficial, and certainly more entertaining, to have taken classes in the neurobiology of aesthetics or postcolonial African dance, and this is easy to see empirically.

Standard deviations do not exist outside the Gaussian, or if they do exist they do not matter and do not explain much. But it gets worse. The Gaussian family (which includes various friends and relatives, such as the Poisson law) are the only class of distributions that the standard deviation (and the average) is sufficient to describe. You need nothing else. The bell curve satisfies the reductionism of the deluded. (2007:239)

And that, folks, is from a bona fide bond trader who made many more millions than Charles Murray and the rest. “The bell curve satisfies the reductionism of the deluded” (Taleb 2007:239). I was once dutifully recommending statistics classes to fluffhead anthropology majors. No more. It’s all postcolonial African dance and the neurobiology of aesthetics.

Taleb has a strong preference for engineering, evidence, and experiments, but he also is a strong advocate for reading history. As long as we are careful to read history in a non-causal mode, or with sufficient suspicion of causal analysis. Try substituting ethnography or anthropology for history:

Learn to read history, get all the knowledge you can, do not frown on the anecdote, but do not draw any causal links, do not try to reverse engineer too much–but if you do, do not make big scientific claims. . . . The more we try to turn history into anything other than an enumeration of accounts to be enjoyed with minimal theorizing, the more we get into trouble. (2007:199)

Taleb’s account here reads something like Talal Asad’s critique of Eric Wolf–to beware the transhistorical key, whether that be Marxism or the Market Mechanism. At a time when academia is increasingly reduced to statistics, analytics, and the most careerist of purposes, Taleb can be a breath of fresh air.

Small Steps Toward a Black Swan Anthropology

Interestingly, the Marginal Revolution blog subtitle is Small Steps Toward a Much Better World. But for me, a link from there was more like a Black Swan, an Exogenous Shock Toward Uncertain Outcome, if I were to re-title Taleb’s book as a blog.

To distill the potential lessons:

  • Don’t be any longer, more complex, or more jargony than you must be. But if something needs to be long, complex, and involve a technical language, don’t fret too much. As anthropologist Josh Reno reminded me at the Binghamton University talk, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years also became enormously popular, despite what might seem a long and meandering account.
  • Don’t place too much stock in going viral, social media, or even search-engine optimization. Of course, don’t ignore such things, but in general: Pursue high-quality links. (A lesson I’ve also been learning from “Natural Link Building Expert” Eric Ward: Don’t write for “the public”–write for a vertically-integrated niche.)
  • Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like an opportunity. They are rare, much rarer than you think. Remember that positive Black Swans have a necessary first step: you need to be exposed to them. Many people do not realize that they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned: you may never see such a window open up again” (Taleb 2007:208-209).

Of course, some might legitimately wonder how to go from the person pursuing those big links to the person handing them out. For that, the lessons of a high-volume blog like Marginal Revolution may be different. Read voraciously. Post voraciously. Don’t get involved in comments. It is, of course, nice to be a prominent economist, and the economics blogosphere is already enormously populated. But more than that, it is difficult for most anthropology bloggers to pull off that kind of frequency and volume. The closest that come to mind–and they may in some ways be benefiting from the tournament-style dividends of the internet economy–are John Hawks and Greg Laden.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully to turn Anthropology Report into that kind of hub. Inspired by all this, I may start doing a very spare but very frequent Assorted Anthropology Links there. Look out world–it’s Black Swan Supergiant Anthropology:

Plenty of people have called me to discuss the idea of the long tail, which seems to be the exact opposite of the concentration implied by scalability. The long tail implies that the small guys, collectively, should control a large segment of culture and commerce, thanks to the niches and subspecialties that can now survive thanks to the Internet. But, strangely, it can also imply a large measure of inequality: a large base of small guys and a very small number of supergiants, together representing a share of the world’s culture–with some of the small guys, on occasion, rising to knock out the winners. (Taleb 2007:224)

Or maybe just time for Antifragile Anthropology–which I haven’t read yet. One of the downsides to this Black Swan anthropology blogging is trying to figure out which are really the “seize any opportunity” moments, and what is just a whole lot of work with uncertain payoff. Or as Max Weber knew a century ago: Academic life is a mad hazard.


Updates: For the most recent group of people who could use a dose of Black Swan humility, see Epigenetics on The Edge of Human Nature, Goodbye to all that. For Tyler Cowen’s newest project, a Marginal Revolution University, see Tip of the Iceberg.

Tagged With: , , , , , ,