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Debra Allcock Tyler: The black swan warns us that no one can be prepared for the unpredictable

Third Sector, 27 February 2012

Debra Allcock Tyler

Debra Allcock Tyler

We should be sceptical about attempts to predict the sector's future, says our columnist

My ability to foretell the future is as awesome as it is legendary. My all-time favourite expression is "I told you so". Or at least I believed so until I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan.

He uses the fact that all swans were believed to be white until the first black one was spotted to make the point that many major events are undirected and unpredictable. He argues that we human beings have a tendency to think we can know things in advance; that we overestimate the likelihood of an outcome based on limited - and, frankly, often dodgy - evidence and that we underestimate the massive and undeniable effect that pure chance has on the fortunes of human beings, organisations and governments.

Black swans tend to stick in our minds, making us more likely to make judgements, choices and forecasts now based on the one black swan instead of the 99 white ones. For example, whatever the experts now say, the financial and banking crisis was not predictable.

As a result we perhaps have a tendency to overestimate both its current and future impact and the possibility of it occurring again. The sensationalism of some sections of the press does little to help us rationalise such effects.

Consider some of the following examples of experts predicting the future: "Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxiation" - Dr Dionysius Lardner (1793-1859), professor of natural philosophy and astronomy at University College London; "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" - Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, president of the Royal Society, 1890-1895; "Democracy will be dead by 1950" - John Langdon-Davies, A Short History of The Future, 1936.

So I urge you to treat with extreme scepticism any statements about our sector or economy that "foretell" the future, particularly when the experts seem to be amassing black swans and ignoring the white ones. Take the Third Sector Austerity Watch Panel, for example (forgive me, editor). The name alone casts gloom into the heart - never mind the miserable expressions on the faces of the panellists, who I happen to know are rather fun, positive types in real life. Austerity Watch: a self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?

So, for the purpose of thinking and being prepared, by all means consider what might happen. But remember, we are more often wrong than right. Don't lose sight of your immediate environment. If you spend excessive time second-guessing the unseeable road ahead, you stand a greater chance of falling into the pothole right in front of you. We would all do well to remember the famous alleged last words of General John Sedgwick, spoken as he looked out over the parapet at enemy lines during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864: "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist ..."

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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