Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Black Swan and Godzilla

From the fan art page of Ryan North's charming Dinosaur Comics

I happened to start reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan one night while flipping channels (yes, I confess to sometimes watching television while reading), and saw that the 1998 American remake of Godzilla was on. I watched the movie while I read the book—an interesting juxtaposition.

Taleb's book title comes from a famous example used by Karl Popper to illustrate his notion of falsifiability. If you say that "all swans are white" no amount of white swans will prove the statement as true. You need to see only one black swan to disprove or falsify the statement. Indeed Europeans apparently did believe that all swans were white, until the first black swan was sighted in Australia. Taleb uses the black swan as a prototype for every kind of anomolous life 'territory' which take us by surprise because our 'maps', expectations, theories haven't accounted for them. A 'black swan'—often unwelcome—'bites' us when we don't expect it.

Many scenes from Godzilla illustrate the 'black swan' phenomenon beautifully. I'll mention two but since the movie is basically about a big 'black swan' Godzilla just about every scene provides an example. Near the beginning of the movie, Matthew Broderick's character, a young scientist has been brought to a disaster scene in Panama, the aftermath of a Godzilla sighting. He stands on a bit of ground clueless until he sees that he is standing inside the clue, a giant reptilian footprint. 'Black Swan' time.

Once Godzilla has landed in Manhattan, an obnoxious newsman played by Harry Shearer is in his high-rise office complaining on the phone to someone about problems with finding interesting stories for the evening news. While he complains, Godzilla's tail is seen to sweep by the newsroom's picture window. The biggest story has walked right by him and he is oblivious to it. 'Black Swan' time.

I understand that the 1998 movie didn't do very well in the box office. But I liked it.

The world is actually full of 'black swans'. When we begin to look for them, expect the unexpected, perhaps we can be better prepared to deal with them. At least perhaps we won't feel so shocked when we see some Black Swan Godzilla walking down the road our way.

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