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The Days of Black Swans

by Mary Miller, Executive Analyst, Koinonia Institute


In his 2007 scholarly work, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains why the black swan is a metaphor about the significance of unexpected events in history...

Simply put, black swans are things we were certain could never happen—and lately it feels as if we are living in the days of black swans.

Defining a Black Swan

A black swan is an event that has three characteristics:

1) It lies outside the realm of regular expectations be-cause nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility;

2) It carries an extreme impact;

3) In spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

The Last Decade

The turn of the century promised a black swan in the form of the Y2K computer software scare. For many, it appeared as if it just didn’t happen. However, 2000 came in with its own black swan. Billions of dollars were spent dodging a bullet and producing new computer software to replace the legacy programs that would cause a problem. In the process, the sheer volume caused many technology companies to look to India, then Eastern Europe and China for outsourcing their software development and customer support. It was a tremendous black swan to the American labor force.

The 2005 Hurricane Katrina was a black swan. It was assumed that New Orleans was secure because of levees built to sustain a Category Three hurricane. According to Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the Corps of Army Engineers, “We were just caught by a storm whose intensity exceeded the protection that we had in place.”

The 2008-2009 global financial meltdown was not supposed to happen either. Surely, the people who annually received multimillion dollar bonuses couldn’t have created prime loan strategies that would prove worthless. They did. In 2010 the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico flowed for three months. It is the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The explosion aboard the drilling rig killed 11 men working on the platform and injured 17 others. On July 15, 2010, the leak was stopped by capping the gushing wellhead after it had released about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil.

On March 11, 2011, Japan was rocked by a 9.0 earth-quake off its northeastern coast. The resulting damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors is a black swan incident. The reactors were built to sustain a 7.0 earthquake, but not one of 9.0 with a resulting tsunami that wiped out the power to the plant and covered much of it with sea water. Once again, the response was: “No one could have expected this!”

Looking at the World Through a Biblical Lens

This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.

2 Timothy 3:1

We are in the last days and perilous times have certainly come! Perhaps our normalcy bias should be “Anything Can Happen!”

For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.

1 Thessalonians 5:3-5

Prophecy paints a vivid picture of what the future days hold as we come to the end of this age in anticipation of His return. We, as mere human beings, do not have the power to change the outcome. Those who believe there is no God would try to have us believe otherwise and put our security in the knowledge and science of man. Author Taleb explains the propensity of the human mind:

The human mind suffers three ailments when it comes into contact with history—the triplet of opacity :

1. The illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks they understand what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;

2. The retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than it does in empirical reality); and

3. The over evaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories—when they “Platonify.”

Black swans are not just unexpected events; they are often created and then treated as black swans. Taleb warned of the impending 2008 financial melt-down:

Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks—when one fails, they all fall.

For decades, many Christian pastors and teachers have been advising their flocks to get out of the world’s financial systems as they were seriously failing God’s abhorring of “unequal weights and measures.” We should have been expecting the black swan.

Consequences of Iniquity

Dan Stolebarger’s recent Young Lion’s Club study on the Book of Lamentations provides in vivid detail the picture of Jeremiah (the “weeping” not “whining” prophet) sitting and overlooking the devastation that was once Jerusalem—a black swan to the false prophets who knew not the coming destruction in judgment. [I highly recommend listening to it: www.studycenter.com.]

The anger of the Lord hath divided them; he will no more regard them: they respected not the persons of the priests, they favoured not the elders. As for us, our eyes as yet failed for our vain help: in our watching we have watched for a nation that could not save us.

Lamentations 4:16-17

Matthew 24:6-9 describes what shall happen before the end of this age—wars and rumors of wars; nations and kingdoms against one another; famines and pestilence; and earthquakes in diverse places. And importantly, “then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.”

Again, Taleb defines our road to Matthew 24:

Owing to...misunderstanding of the causal chains between policy and actions, we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance—like a child playing with a chemistry kit.

If we listen to politicians and media spin experts, we would believe that politicians, international bankers and corporate executives have everything under control to bring the reeling world back into a natural orbit of everyday activity.

That would be hard enough to believe under very good circumstances—what about the “unexpected” events that keep “surprising all of the experts.”

Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, once said:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

In today’s world, it is all about the marketing and the money supporting the agenda.

In his book, The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future of Our Economy, Energy, And Environment, Chris Martenson expresses his frustration:

...the economists and other people in power seem to have no idea of the connections between the economy, energy, and the environment. When reality finally convinces enough of them that it needs to be taken seriously, in what sort of world will we be living?

It will be a world in which it is too late to stop the progression of black swan events—both natural and unnatural. It will be a world in which the black swan events lead to greater efforts at shared global responsibility and authority. It will be a world ready to accept the leadership of someone who seems to have all the answers and the charisma to sell them. It will be a world of new “revelation.”


Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
New York. Random House, Inc. 2007.
Martenson, Chris. The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future
Of Our Economy, Energy, And Environment. Wiley. Kindle Edition. 2011.

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