The opacity of events

As the Manila shooting incident reveals, human inadequacy in confronting black swan events is far more than just a lack of anticipation and readiness. After all, who can blame the holiday makers for not being able to see beforehand that a gunman would board their coach when they are having fun in another country? The major part of our inadequacy, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, lies in our grasp of the events. Taleb says that history is opaque because we can only see what comes out of the events but not the script that produces them. He identifies three ailments of the human mind as it comes into contact with such events.

First of all, the human mind suffers from the illusion of understanding. We think we know what is going on in a world that is more compicated than we realise. When the civil war broke out in Lebanon during Taleb's childhood, he was constantly told by adults that the war, which ended up lasting close to seventeen years, would end in a matter of days. Likewise, as a survivor of the Manila incident painfully and regrettably recalled, the hostages wasted many opportunities to overcome the gunman, even though his sense of self-protection had been low. They did secretly conspire to save themselves by rising against him, and they saw various occasions in which they could have done so, but they had been fooled by the apparent "friendliness" of the gunman, who had apologised to them and had released some weaker hostages. They had also fatally misjudged the ability of the Filipino police to peacefully resolve the case. "We thought that if we could see how easy it was, so could the government," the survivor said. "And if they didn't take action even though there had been so many opportunities, surely they had other plans." And so they decided not to take risks - a decision the survivor would live to regret.

Second, the human mind is inclined to look at past events in a distorted way. This is what Taleb calls "the retrospective distortion". I don't mean to be disspectful, but in the past two weeks since the shooting incident happened, the media have been inundated with with reports of how brave and selfless those who lost their lives had been and even what great people they were during their lifetime. Why is it that such accolade is always lavished to people who died in such cases?

Taleb's third ailment of the human mind - the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of the authoritative and learned people - is also very evident after the shooting event. The people around me, many of them very well educated, were so desperate in milking every ounce of information from the media. They would then discuss and comment on the event as if they had grasped all the "facts".

The crucial question we should ask ourselves is, why is it that history keeps repeating itself even though there is no lack of lessons from such black swan events for us to learn from?

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