Let us call it the domain specificity of our reactions. By domain-specific I mean that our reactions, our mode of thinking, our intuitions, depend on the context in which the matter is presented, what evolutionary psychologists call the “domain” of the object or the event. The classroom is a domain; real life is another. We react to a piece of information not on its logical merit, but on the basis of which framework surrounds it, and how it registers with our social-emotional system. Logical problems approached one way in the classroom might be treated differently in daily life. Indeed they are treated differently in daily life.
We are not manufactured, in our current edition of the human race, to understand abstract matters—we need context. Randomness and uncertainty are abstractions. We respect what has happened, ignoring what could have happened. In other words, we are naturally shallow and superficial—and we do not know it. This is not a psychological problem; it comes from the main property of information. The dark side of the moon is harder to see; beaming light on it costs energy. In the same way, beaming light on the unseen is costly in both computational and mental effort.
We have a hunger for rules because we need to reduce the dimension of matters so they can get into our heads. Or, rather, sadly, so we can squeeze them into our heads. The more random information is, the greater the dimensionality, and thus the more difficult to summarize. The more you summarize, the more order you put in, the less randomness. Hence the same condition that makes us simplify pushes us to think that the world is less random than it actually is. And the Black Swan is what we leave out of simplification.
Both the artistic and scientific enterprises are the product of our need to reduce dimensions and inflict some order on things. Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story, a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness. Myths impart order to the disorder of human perception and the perceived “chaos of human experience.”
Indeed, many severe psychological disorders accompany the feeling of loss of control of—being able to “make sense” of—one’s environment. Platonicity affects us here once again. The very same desire for order, interestingly, applies to scientific pursuits—it is just that, unlike art, the (stated) purpose of science is to get to the truth, not to give you a feeling of organization or make you feel better. We tend to use knowledge as therapy.
Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device like a computer diskette. In reality, memory is dynamic—not static— like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information. (In a remarkable insight, the nineteenth-century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire compared our memory to a palimpsest, a type of parchment on which old texts can be erased and new ones written over them.) Memory is more of a self-serving dynamic revision machine: you remember the last time you remembered the event and, without realizing it, change the story at every subsequent remembrance.
So we pull memories along causative lines, revising them involuntarily and unconsciously. We continuously renarrate past events in the light of what appears to make what we think of as logical sense after these events occur.
By a process called reverberation, a memory corresponds to the strengthening of connections from an increase of brain activity in a given sector of the brain—the more activity, the stronger the memory. While we believe that the memory is fixed, constant, and connected, all this is very far from truth. What makes sense according to information obtained subsequently will be remembered more vividly. We invent some of our memories—a sore point in courts of law since it has been shown that plenty of people have invented child-abuse stories by dint of listening to theories.
It is so easy to avoid looking at the cemetery while concocting historical theories. But this is not just a problem with history. It is a problem with the way we construct samples and gather evidence in every domain. We shall call this distortion a bias, i.e., the difference between what you see and what is there. By bias I mean a systematic error consistently showing a more positive, or negative, effect from the phenomenon, like a scale that unfailingly shows you a few pounds heavier or lighter than your true weight, or a video camera that adds a few sizes to your waistline. This bias has been rediscovered here and there throughout the past century across disciplines, often to be rapidly forgotten (like Cicero’s insight). As drowned worshippers do not write histories of their experiences (it is better to be alive for that), so it is with the losers in history, whether people or ideas.
Remarkably, historians and other scholars in the humanities who need to understand silent evidence the most do not seem to have a name for it (and I looked hard). As for journalists, they are industrial producers of the distortion.
The term bias also indicates the condition’s potentially quantifiable nature: you may be able to calculate the distortion, and to correct for it by taking into account both the dead and the living, instead of only the living. Silent evidence is what events use to conceal their own randomness, particularly the Black Swan type of randomness.
We are explanation-seeking animals who tend to think that everything has an identifiable cause and grab the most apparent one as the explanation. Yet there may not be a visible because; to the contrary, frequently there is nothing, not even a spectrum of possible explanations. But silent evidence masks this fact. Whenever our survival is in play, the very notion of because is severely weakened. The condition of survival drowns all possible explanations. The Aristotelian “because” is not there to account for a solid link between two items, but rather to cater to our hidden weakness for imparting explanations.
My biggest problem with the educational system lies precisely in that it forces students to squeeze explanations out of subject matters and shames them for withholding judgment, for uttering the “I don’t know.” Why did the Cold War end? Why did the Persians lose the battle of Salamis? Why did Hannibal get his behind kicked? Why did Casanova bounce back from hardship? In each of these examples, we are taking a condition, survival, and looking for the explanations, instead of flipping the argument on its head and stating that conditional on such survival, one cannot read that much into the process, and should learn instead to invoke some measure of randomness (randomness is what we don’t know; to invoke randomness is to plead ignorance).
I am not saying causes do not exist; do not use this argument to avoid trying to learn from history. All I am saying is that it is not so simple; be suspicious of the “because” and handle it with care—particularly in situations where you suspect silent evidence.
Excerpts from The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb