Sep 04, 2016

Of Black Swans and Tigers: The Power of Episteme

Tulsi Jayakumar

I encountered a ‘Black Swan’ recently. The term has been used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (NNT) as a metaphor for ‘random’ events that underlie our lives, in his best-seller book ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’. Though old, the book ranks among one of the best I have read. In fact, Taleb was on my mind again, when a news item indicated his being chosen for an honorary doctorate by the American University of Beirut.

Taleb’s random events are outliers and impossible to predict, their impact is huge and yet, after they happen we try to rationalise their occurrence. Historical events, the 9/11 attack, the financial crises, not to mention elements of our own personal lives, according to NNT, are Black Swans.

Living in ‘Extremistan’ as we do, predictions of the irregular, almost always ultimately fail. Equating guessing and predicting, the book comes up with strong statements and prescriptions. (Sample this, for instance, marginalize the economics and business school establishments, shut down the Nobel in economics, put the bankers where they belong etc.)

In particular, I found NNT to be particularly disdainful of economics as well as economists as a community.

He writes: “Economics is perhaps the subject that currently has the highest number of philistine scholars – scholarship without erudition and natural curiosity can close your mind and lead to the fragmentation of disciplines.”

Further, “……… a review of articles and working papers in economics….. show no convincing evidence that economists as a community have an ability to predict, and if they have some ability, their predictions are at best just ‘slightly’ better than random ones – not good enough to help with serious decisions.”

Being an economist, I got to ‘test’ some of Taleb’s theories during a recent vacation in Corbett National Park, India’s oldest national park, located in two districts of Uttaranchal- Nainital and Pauri. Corbett covers an area of 521 sq. km and together with the neighbouring Sonanadi Wildlife sanctuary and Reserve Forest areas, forms the Corbett Tiger Reserve of over 1288 According to current estimates, the number of tigers in Corbett is between 160-180, making it India’s most densely populated tiger zone.

So what would be the chances of spotting a tiger in the reserve? Could you, for example, predict your chances of spotting a tiger and increase your probability of getting the bang for the buck? If you went by what the locals said, it was a ‘luck by chance’ event (Wonder whether Zoya Akhtar could be sued by the locals for infringement of copyrights for her film bearing the same title!). In the words of my friendly, well–meaning Punjabi neighbour, “Tiger-shiger to Ji, naseeb (luck) ki baat honde nein”. In NNT’s terms, it would constitute an unpredictable, random event; and so it would have been, had there not been a series of events to falsify the ‘luck’/ ‘random event’ theory.

As ‘predicted’, the ‘luck by chance’ did not work its magic on us. We had to be content with spotting deer and other sundry animals, which are seen in any National Park or wildlife sanctuary worth its salt. However, the envy of all in the resort we stayed in, happened to be a family which managed to catch sight of tigers, not once, but both times they went on a safari. Were they merely lucky, or did they use the power of knowledge to transform the improbable and unpredictable into the ‘predictable’. I suspect it was more of the latter, contrary to NNT’s theories of ‘unknowledge’.

It turned out that out of the five entry points and hence areas earmarked as tourist safari Zones, there were two – Dhikhala and Bijrani –that were the most likely zones for tiger spotting. We had been booked on a safari in the Durgadevi zone, which lies right on the outskirts and is a mountainous area, with very little forest (green) cover.

A wild life film screened later in the evening revealed that tigers are found in areas with dense foliage, which support prey; also, they usually follow their tracks, walking along the same track several times, making it extremely easy for hunters to hunt tigers. If this were the case, people in charge of the safari ought to have known the extreme unlikelihood of spotting tigers in the mountainous Durgadevi area, as also the most likely areas to spot tigers.

Additionally, a ‘jeep safari’, though modern, comfortable and with its premise and promise of covering vast tracts of the large park, is in no way comparable to the ‘traditional’ elephant safari. The latter has a greater likelihood of success on account of the tiger accepting the elephant as part of its natural habitat. This was also revealed in the wild life film, which documented a project involving filming tigers in their natural habitat by using elephants as the carriers of the cameras. As it turned out, the ‘successful couple’ had gone to Dhikhala and Brijrani as also an elephant safari later in the evening, with a hit rate of 2 on 3.

It appears that knowledge of ‘where, as also how to find the tigers’ helped in finding tigers. This power of ‘episteme’ was sadly, lacking in us. Which now makes me come to my Black Swan moment!

The next morning arrived, with its promise of leopards, wild boars and the like, in another resort this time — to be spent in Binsar, another hill station in Uttaranchal. Much to my dismay, my husband asked the driver to turn around and drive back to Delhi. Not for him this wait for the elusive tiger. And thus, tigers put paid to my ‘all-paid’ vacation; it was a ‘black swan’ moment like no other-unpredictable, momentous in its impact (I had to forego a well-deserved non-refundable pre-paid vacation) and which I am still trying to rationalise- and yet totally avoidable, had we possessed the epistemic arrogance which Taleb derides.

Could it be that NNT is being rather harsh on academicians and their ilk as also unnecessarily dismissive of the power of knowledge? I would assume so. The disappointment and the ‘Black Swan’ moment could have been avoided, much in the same manner as the global financial crisis which could have been avoided had the power of knowledge been heeded. It was a surfeit of knowledge – ‘misknowledge’ – rather than ‘unknowledge’ that was responsible for the global financial crisis as also NNT being, in his own words, a ‘Black Swan’ author.

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