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Is Bernie Sanders a Black Swan?

By tdberg

A black swan is an event or occurrence that deviates from normal expectations and is exceptionally difficult to predict. In philosophy, the Black Swan is a metaphor for a statement of impossibility and is generally used to highlight the problem of induction. It is most notably connected to Karl Popper, and his argument goes something like this:  Europeans for a great many years observed millions of, and only white swans. From these many observations they concluded that all swans are white. Later on, after exploring Australasia, they discover black swans. Ergo, their belief that all swans are white is proven false, and their belief is shattered. Karl Poppers’ point is that no matter how many observations are made which confirm a theory there is always the possibility that a future observation will refute it. Induction can never yield certainty. From this we can further derive that there is fragility inherent in any system of thought. And a set of conclusions can always be invalidated if any one of its fundamental postulates is disproven.

In 2007, philosopher and notable statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published the ground breaking work “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”. Taleb defined a Black Swan as possessing the following properties:

  • It is unpredictable
  • It carries a massive impact
  • And, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable than it was

According to Taleb, our traditional “predictors may be good at predicting the ordinary, but not the irregular, and this is where they ultimately fail. All you need to do is miss one interest-rates move, from 6 to 1 percent in a longer term projection (what happened between 2000 and 2001) to have all your subsequent forecasts rendered completely ineffectual in correcting your cumulative track record. What matters is not how often you are right, but how large your cumulative errors are.” (Pg. 149) In other words, big surprises or statistical outliers can cause larger disruptions even nullifying the most complex modeling.

So why is this? Taleb believes it is partially due to human hard-wiring.  We tend towards learning specifics. We restrict our view by focusing on the inconsequential, allowing for unexpected events to surprise us. We concentrate on what we already believe disregarding what we don’t know. And, more importantly in my opinion, we are vulnerable to simplification. The result of all of this can be a sort of “collective blindness”. (Ibid)

In the case of Bernie Sanders, I intuitively think we may be in the throes of a Black Swan. Traditional polls don’t accurately reflect what could be a massive millennial turnout. They can’t predict the ways in which social media may disrupt voter predictability. They too often rely on landlines when a large segment of the population exclusively use cell phones (In particular this is true for millennials and those under 40). They are not entirely taking cross-over votes into consideration in states where there are open primaries.

Pundits appear to be siding with the obvious if not the superficial while drawing the conclusion that Hillary’s election is inevitable. But they are ignoring the current mood of the country. Voters’ desire for authenticity and integrity- which Sanders has in spades.  Moreover, if history actually IS a gage, Clinton may be one scandal away from her assumed inevitability.

Whether this is a mere hunch or something concrete remains to be seen. Yet, I do believe the question is a legitimate one.

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