Taleb on Writing History

In his 2007 effort The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb described history writing in a way that has stayed with me since I read it.

Our problem is not that we donot know the future, we do not know much of the past either. […]

Consider the following thought experiment borrowed from my friends Aaron Brown and Paul Wilmott:

Operation 1 (the melting ice cube): Imagine an ice cube and consider how it may melt over the next two hours […]. Try to envision the shape of the resulting puddle.

Operation 2 (where did the water come from?): Consider a puddle of water on the floor. Now try to reconstruct in your mind’s eye the shape of the ice cube it may once have been. Note that the puddle may not have necessarily originated from an ice cube.

The second operation is harder. […]

The difference between these two processes resides in the following. If you have the right models […] you can predict with great precision how the ice cube willl melt – this is a specific engineering problem deviod of complexity […]. However, from the pool of water you can build infinite possible ice cubes, if there was in fact an ice cube there at all. The first direction, from the ice cube to the puddle, is called the forward process. The second dircetion, the backward process, is much, much more complicated. The forward process is generally used in physics and engineering; the backward process in nonrepeatable, nonexperimental historical approaches [p. 196*].

I wonder if there’s something to it. I think it’s a bad metaphor. For one thing, historians usually do not only see the final outcome (the puddle) of a history (the melting), but they can observe historical accounts and observations made underway; if one were to describe the shape of the ice cube, it would for example help if someone had written down a description of the shape of the ice cube at some given time in the melting process. In general, I don’t see a clear analogy between Taleb’s clear cut example and the work of historians.

Taleb’s main message about history is that we cannot rely on it when it comes to predicting the future. It is unreliable when it comes to describing the past, he argues, and simply unsuited to foretell the future. I think I’m more in line with Taleb on his main view than his strange example of the melting ice cube.

* Page numbers refer to the British edition.

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