Substitute certainty with confidence

For several centuries in Europe, people used the term ‘black-swan’ to refer to something that doesn’t exist. Since all swans seen until that point were white, they presumed that all swans were white. This belief was upended when, in 1697, a group of Dutch explorers spotted a black swan in Western Australia.

Nicholas Taleb has popularized the Black Swan Principle. It states that you can never be completely certain of any assertion. For instance, you can never be entirely certain that ‘all swans are white’, despite spotting millions of white swans. All it takes to contradict that statement is the existence of one black swan somewhere in the universe.

Our minds crave for certainty, and yet, due to the Black Swan Principle, certainty is an illusion. Instead, we ought to train our brains to interpret the world in terms of confidence. Rather than say ‘all swans are white’, we are better off saying ‘when a swan is spotted, it is likely to be white’.

People often fail to substitute certainty with confidence – I call this the certainty fallacy. A popular example could be somebody stating that the benefits of an exercise routine and the dangers of smoking are overblown since their grandfather, who was a lazy smoker, lived to be 90. A regular fitness regimen and refraining form smoking only increase the odds of having a healthy life – it doesn’t guarantee it.

Amos Tversky said that ‘man is a deterministic device thrown into a probabilistic universe.’ The means to deal with this conflict is learn to substitute certainty with confidence.

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