The case for humility

Unlikely events and our generation

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When I read Vice Provost Susie Brubaker-Cole’s email regarding the school’s timeline for the retrieval of student belongings, I thought back to the many things I left behind. As I scoured my dorm room (mentally, of course), I fixated on a book page I had taped to my wall with a loose command strip at some point during fall quarter. The page contains the final few paragraphs of the story of a fellow named Croesus, a name anyone in my Ancient Empires class would recognize.

Croesus was the king of Lydia, and in the year 547 B.C., he faced a Herculean task: leading his army against the invading Persians, led by King Cyrus “The Great.” Prior to the battle, Croesus approached the Oracle at Delphi asking for guidance, and the Oracle foretold that he would destroy a mighty empire if he attacked the Persians.

So Croesus, confident with this prophecy, marched into battle where his army of skilled cavalrymen was swiftly defeated by the camel-riding Persians (it turns out horses are afraid of camels). He was then captured and brought to the king’s palace where he was to be burned on a pyre. As the fire beneath him started to burn, Croesus yelled to the heavens asking the gods for help and forgiveness. The gods replied with a momentary rainstorm that put out the flames and saved Croesus’ life.

Cyrus, impressed with what he perceived to be the godliness of the man sitting before him, offered Croesus a position in his cabinet, which Croesus gladly accepted, but asked if he might first send a servant to the Delphic gods to ask why they had misled him. When Croesus’ men returned to Delphi to probe the Oracle, she recounted, “when the god[s] told him that, if he attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire, he ought, if he had been wise, to have sent again and inquired which empire was meant, that of Cyrus or his own.”

Although Croesus’ plight might seem distant, his mistakes are perennial, perhaps even more relevant today than they were then. Much like Croesus, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has been placed at the behest of “experts,” predictors and forecasters who tell us about what the future holds every single day while the world seems to do the opposite right in front of our faces. In light of this, I recently picked up a book called ​”The Black Swan” ​by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And I think Taleb has something reassuring to offer us when it comes to the idea of prediction, something that extends into the very core of many of the technical disciplines Stanford students, myself included, hold dear.

Taleb’s idea is, fundamentally, that we as a human race systematically underestimate what the future has in store because we tend to ignore, retrofit and often fall blind to what he calls Black Swan events. A Black Swan is an event, positive or negative, that is rare, has extreme impact and is retrospectively predictable.​ The term comes from the legend that people in the Old World were convinced all swans were white: If it’s a swan, then it must be white. This all changed when someone discovered Australia and, with it, the first black swans. Ironically, I mistakenly thought COVID to be a Black Swan event (it is ​not​— in short, it ​was ​prospectively predictable) based on my superficial understanding of the term, so I bought the book.

In explaining how Black Swans are made to seem retrospectively predictable, even invisible, Taleb highlights that so often our interpretation of history is marred by what psychologists call the narrative fallacy.​ This is the notion that we, as humans, have a limited ability to look at sequences of facts (data, history, etc.) without weaving a conveniently sensical logical link between them. This narrative tends to obscure the unknown and unpredictable, yet our generation in particular should be acutely aware that the most impactful events are those nobody saw coming. If you’re a rising college senior (age 21 or so), you’ve lived through quite a few: 9/11, the Great Recession and most recently, the 2016 presidential election. Try to find a conference for “experts” who predicted Trump would be president of the United States.

This idea leaves us with the following question: If the events that most impact the present state of the world are unpredictable and often obscured in history, how can we possibly expect to predict the future? The largest sample of the past we can conceive of is painfully finite, whereas every future instant contains infinite outcomes. Such is the problem of induction, and the basis for so much of the buzz surrounding modern technology: the ability to interpret data (history) and relay predictions (prophecy). Why do we do this? Hubris. What Taleb calls ​epistemic ignorance​.

To see this, consider the following experiment: Choose an arbitrary statistic, let’s say the number of cubic feet in an Olympic swimming pool, and ask a room full of people to provide a range of values such that they are 98% sure the value you asked for is in that range (all the stats aficionados out there will recognize this as a confidence interval). The researchers running this study expected that only about 2% of the answered ranges would not cover the real value. The error rate turned out to be closer to 45%, and this was in a sample of Harvard MBA students. Later studies on different populations found janitors and cab drivers to do considerably better. The difference maker: humility. They gave themselves a much wider margin of error.

Now, let’s return once again to the story of Croesus. It should be clear by now that the Oracle is not wise because she can predict the future, but instead because she chooses to accept the limits of her knowledge (much like the janitor) and that Croesus, on the other hand, fell victim to epistemic arrogance when he stopped asking questions because he assumed he had heard everything he needed to know. All it took was a Black Swan event, the rain that put out the burning pyres, for him to realize it. He had been humbled.

This brings me to my final point: the case for humility. After reading ​”The Black Swan​,” I was left with the feeling of how not to feel paralyzed by the vast unpredictability and randomness in the world around us. As I wrestled with that uncomfy displacement, I thought back to one student’s op-ed ​that courageously clapped back at Marc Andressen’s call to “​build​.” The author underscores the notion that “we need builders, surely. But more importantly, we need engaged citizens.” He is exactly right. If you need any further evidence of this, just turn to videos of nurses, doctors and first responders applauding patients as they leave the ICU having narrowly escaped death and try not to feel deeply humbled by their heroics, their extreme citizenship; it’s contagious.

We have a choice to make, a generational choice. We have the opportunity to learn from the impactful randomness that our young lives have been uniquely subject to. If we so choose to let these experiences humble us, by embracing the limits of our knowledge, in spite of our academic pedigree, we will have built a more robust future, one led by a generation of Oracles, far too wise to try and pretend that they can predict the future.

Contact Hannes Boehning at boehning ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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