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Japan's Black Swan
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Japan's Black Swan

What could go wrong? The significance of unexpected events in history.


A black swan isn't just a ballet role played to perfection by Natalie Portman that won her an Oscar for best actress.

As developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his masterful scholarly work The Black Swan, praised by many as one of the most important books of the century, the black swan is a metaphor about the significance of unexpected events in history. As he explains it, it is an event with three attributes. First, it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

Simply put, black swans are things we were certain could never happen.

Related Article: When Bad Things Happen

And recent tragedies that have captured world headlines have been perfect illustrations of experiences that were supposedly out of the range of possibility.

Japan is today struggling to cope with its largest disaster since the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Years ago, architects and engineers joined to create quake-proof buildings and planned backup generators and thick containment vessels at nuclear plants. Nothing could ever go wrong they assured their countrymen. Their mantra was that humankind had triumphed over risk. Technology had finally achieved mastery over the vicissitudes of nature.

Recent events make clear how wrong they were. They had foreseen the possibility of an earthquake, but not one of a magnitude of 9.0. They built a sea wall to protect against an expected tsunami, but not one that rolled six miles inland, devastating towns, obliterating villages, and causing partial meltdowns at three major nuclear reactors.

The tragedy in Japan revealed the fragility of our knowledge of the world and its workings.

This disaster was not a failure of human engineering, but of human imagination. No one dreamt it could happen; that made everyone certain that it was impossible.

The tragedy in Japan revealed the fragility of our knowledge of the world and its workings. The wisest fell back on the lame excuse, “But no one could have expected this…” Black swans happen. We choose to disregard them due to hubris, human arrogance that prevents us from acknowledging that with all of our knowledge we are still not divine masters of the universe. Surely, we all thought, the engineers and the scientists and the weather forecasters and the technicians and the nuclear specialists were intelligent enough to make proper plans to stave off catastrophe. But they weren't. And human mastery of events was not as total as we presumed. The experts were wrong.

Hurricane Katrina also couldn't happen. We built walls around New Orleans to contain raging waters. We felt secure because we arrogantly told ourselves we were so smart the forces of nature no longer threatened us. And we were similarly mistaken.

The financial collapse of 2008 and 2009 couldn't happen. Our Wall Street wizards were too brilliant to allow for a financial meltdown. The people who annually received multimillion dollar bonuses couldn't have created prime loan strategies that would prove worthless. The real estate market couldn't collapse forcing an untold number of foreclosures when "those in the know" assured investors there was absolutely no risk involved. And yet they too were all wrong.

The oil industry finally figured out how to pump liquid gold from beneath the ocean without any fear of spillage or contamination - or so they assured us. Until the BP catastrophe last summer proved them wrong. Again, it couldn't happen because that's what the experts told us - until it did, with all of the horrible consequences. The collective wisdom of the marketplace and the scientists proved wanting. It was yet another Black Swan.

Black swans remind us that in spite of all of our achievements, we are still ultimately mortals.

The unexpected overwhelms us because our egotism doesn't allow for considering the possibility of human error.

The ancient Greeks understood overweening pride as the underlying cause of man's downfall. Human hubris, they said, "is the pride that comes before the fall". The greatest antidote to man's exaggerated sense of self-importance was, for the longest time, a religious sensitivity that acknowledges a Higher Power. Recognition of God could at least place a limit on man's ego. But a contemporary world that could make Christopher Hitchens's book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything an international bestseller is a world that suffers from the delusion that we are all self-made heroes who have no need to worship anything but ourselves. As Dorothee Sölle put it so beautifully in The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, “With the disappearance of God, the Ego becomes the sole divinity.”

Without faith, we worship our own truths as if they were the sole reality. Without faith, we believe we are the sole captains of our destiny. Without faith we put our trust in the works of our own hands and confuse our talents with divine perfection, our limited knowledge with the possession of infinite wisdom.

That is why we continue to be stunned by black swans. They starkly remind us that in spite of all of our achievements, we are still ultimately mortals. And if the many tragedies we have endured in the past decade can teach us that lesson, perhaps we may, in spite of their horrific consequences, salvage a measure of blessing from them.

March 27, 2011

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 19

(19) SusanE, April 12, 2011 6:28 PM

People are Pretty Dumb while thinking they are Superior.

And Rabbi, I know people who don't smoke, don't drink, live moral lives, wear their seatbelts, exercize, and eat very well. They expect to live and have fun until they are 90 and peacefully die in their bed, because they deserve it. ~~~~~ Are we as adults that stupid to think it works that way? That because we say it will be OK that it WILL be OK? Would we put a violent dog in a cage in the living room with our baby while saying the dog is in a cage so the baby is safe? Same thing as the Black Swan analogy. I personally think that gullible people are simply that stupid. Even my limited knowledge knows you don't build cities at sea level or below. Even I know that nuclear power, nuclear weapons, nuclear medicine is dangerous for the world. There are Nuclear power plants in US actually sitting on fault lines. Now there is a safe situation. - - We can't invent fiction about nuclear power that could be so monsterously stupid as this.

(18) Anonymous, March 31, 2011 6:26 PM

Japanese supprt Iran's nuclear industry

We are all deeply disturbed by this tragedy in Japan. We also note that Japanese support Iranian nuclear industry. I am hoping that the Japanese will be less enthusiastic in their choice of business partners when it comes to the nuclear industry. My fear is also that they may decide to harden their hearts and not heed that warning. The whole world feels for its people. We especially.

(17) Lauryn, March 31, 2011 3:22 PM

Katrina should have been avoided

The levees were not up to par with what they should have been, or Katrina would have been avoided. There are calculated risks and there are foolish risks, and while you make Katrina sound like a calculated one, that's not the case. The upkeep and planning was shoddy and not at all what it should have been. Of course I feel the same way about nuclear power plants in general, but I'll refrain from commenting on that while the situation is still unfolding. Just please don't make it sound like the government and relevant parties had done everything "by the book" in keeping the levees etc. in fine working order.

(16) henry, March 30, 2011 10:28 PM

quest for knowledge

the quest for knowledge leads to humility in front of the unknown, certainly not arrogance to become divine masters of the universe. The exorbitant risks taken taken by the financial sector, or by the oil industry or now by the nuclear sector were carried out for profit, under the assumption that those responsible for the disaster would not be held fully accountable., For all the damage caused nobody has gone to prison, and only superficial changes have been introduced to tackle future calamities.The moral teachings of Judaism are hidden behind superstitious ritual, it is the scientist who attempts to understand some of the wonders of the creation, without the arrogance of the believer who puts ,with certainty, faith, above inquiry and knowledge.

(15) Anonymous, March 29, 2011 12:45 PM

A message from Tokyo

Many of us in Tokyo are working to "salvage a measure of blessing" from the tragedy. I remind myself that excessive fear is a kind of idolatry, and I think about an Aish Audio talk by Rebbetzin Heller, if memory serves, where she characterized the Yetzer Hara with the statement "I have so little and I want so much." I reverse it: I have so much, and I need so little. Rabbi Binyamin Edery of Chabad House Japan, in Ota Ward, Tokyo, has been on the road to Sendai and back almost constantly since Shabbos ended on March 12, the day after the quake. He is registered with local authorities there and is bringing needed items to survivors, with support from individual volunteers and donors and from Japanese merchants. He took a break only to carry out Purim festivities at the Chabad House as usual. I've known the Edery family for years. They are dedicated and there when anyone needs them. When I moved house and wanted a mezuzah (my first ever as an adult), Rabbi Binyamin was at my door within hours, with two of his sons. They visit the sick, they visit prisoners, they reach out to the homeless with food and other support. The Edery children are kind beyond description, and the family is an example and a source of strength to many, not only to Jews but also to numerous Japanese whose lives they've touched in one way or another. Please consider donating to their efforts. Here is a link with more information: Please take a look and consider helping. And to any readers in Tokyo or other parts of Japan: I'm a little shy about posting my name and email (so sue me!), but if you'd like to post yours in a comment, I will try to get in touch. It is a difficult time for this country, but also a privilege: The Japanese, too, are models in their way. And there is a lot we can all do, so many ways we can grow. Let's, at least, communicate and stick together. And let's all remain aware of how blessed we are.

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