Is COVID-19 a Black Swan Event?

Maybe black swans don’t really exist.

Posted May 11, 2020

If there was ever a black swan event, it would be the COVID-19 pandemic. Taleb (2007) has described how an unexpected event can wipe out all our plans and preparations.

As we are all painfully aware, prior to the pandemic, everything was proceeding smoothly in November 2019, and December, and into February. The U.S. economy continued its upward swing. The Dow Jones and the S&P 500 recorded all-time highs on February 12, 2020.

Then it hit. Starting on February 24, the stock market went into free fall. Not only do we have a collapsed U.S. and global economy, but we are also locked down, fearful of venturing from our homes, wondering what has happened to us and how long it will take to return to normal—wondering what normal means anymore.

However, I do not think the pandemic was a true black swan. I used to buy into Taleb’s arguments. I used to believe the concept of black swans was very valuable. But I don’t anymore.

I know that many people enthusiastically apply the concept of black swans, and that’s a problem because some of the most common reactions to black swans are not particularly helpful. Even worse, applying the idea of black swans may get in the way of using more effective tactics to detect problems in time to head them off or at least mitigate them.

Let’s start with the question of whether the pandemic was a black swan event. It turns out that epidemiologists have been warning of pandemics for many years, so they weren’t surprised. And some epidemiologists sounded the warning about COVID-19 once the picture from Wuhan, China, started to become clear. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) learned about the Wuhan outbreak in December. The World Health Organization issued a warning on January 5, 2020.

So the pandemic was not an unexpected event. And alarm bells for the COVID-19 outbreak were starting to ring in January. Therefore, I don’t think the collapse of mid-February was a black swan event.

Going further, when I have investigated other “unexpected” catastrophes, such as the 9/11 attacks, or the stock market collapse of 2007-2008, or the “unexpected” fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel was “unexpectedly” attacked by Egypt and Syria, I always find individuals who did sound a warning. These events do not come out of nowhere. They were predictable—because people predicted them. That’s why I no longer believe in black swans. (To be sure, there are some truly unexpected events, but they seem to be very infrequent and don’t involve the high-profile catastrophes we worry about.)

This may seem like an academic argument, but it actually does have a practical impact. One type of response to the notion of black swans is for countries and organizations to invest more in data-gathering technologies and applying Big Data analysis techniques to try to pick up the earliest warning signs. Technology to the rescue—except that this investment doesn’t seem to pay off very much, if ever.

The belief in black swans comes with a delusion that once informed about a threat, we will expeditiously take action. And we know that this isn’t true. From my perspective, the problem isn’t the lack of data, but the complacency of the decision-makers.

Along with that complacency comes what I think is the real problem: silencing the people who try to sound an alarm. They get silenced, because their message is inconvenient, and because the events they are warning us about are fairly novel. I remember hearing one story in which a junior intelligence analyst issued a warning about a coup in a certain country, but his supervisor refused to pass the message up the chain in her agency because that country hadn’t ever had a coup before, so it seemed to be unlikely. When I heard that story, I wondered why the U.S. government was funding that agency because it seemed determined to only issue warnings that were obvious to everyone involved.

That’s why I question the attempt to spot black swan events using technology. Why invest in technology when decision-makers are determined to ignore bad news? Why invest in technology if decision-makers are determined to marginalize the bearers of that bad news, because their news is so inconvenient, and because the dangers they are describing seem so implausible and improbable?

We don’t need a wider array of detectors. Countries and organizations already have people sounding the alarms. These people are just not getting heard.

Of course, most alarms are false. We can’t respond to every alarm, or else we’d paralyze ourselves.

Therefore, we should develop protocols for listening to the alarmists, even though we won’t necessarily act on their warnings. We should develop exercises to shake decision-makers out of their knee-jerk dismissals of improbable warnings. We should prepare drills for helping decision-makers anticipate the consequences of the events being flagged and to track the trajectories of these events to gauge their significance. If the warning has merit, we should notice more and more confirmations, and here we can deploy technology to focus data-gathering on the warnings that deserve attention.

However, we are unlikely to do any of these things as long as we continue to believe in black swans.

References

Taleb, N.N. (2007). The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable. Random House: New York.