Monday, June 21, 2010

Another white swan

One of the standard methods of covering a total screw-up is to claim that what happened was not only unforeseen but, basically, unforeseeable. Something so rare as to unaccountable -- a "Black Swan" as it were. Nassim Taleb has a book called "The Black Swan" in which he gives a (popular) account of this phenomenon. Since Taleb is especially interested in economics, he spends a lot of time debunking classical pundits of the "dismal science" -- in fact, he is highly skeptical that it is a science. (He put his money where his mouth is and made a fortune during the recent "unpredictible" financial crisis.)

Some examples often given of black swans range from the outbreak of WW I to the 9/11 attacks to the financial collapse of 2008-2009. These are all pretty bad examples since there were many people who foresaw these events, but whose opinions -- mostly for political reasons --were deliberately ignored or maginalized. I won't go into that now.

Most recently, our favorite company, BP, was telling us mere months ago that what happened in the Gulf was extremely unlikely and unforeseeable -- a classic black swan. Furthermore, their "experts" were saying, in no uncertain terms, that undersea "plumes" of oil were largely impossible and, in any case, didn't exist.

Now it turns out that BP knew all along that exactly what happened was so likely that they actually did experiments to try to model it. Today's Globe, for example, has an article which describes experiments -- partly funded by BP and run by the much-criticised federal Minerals Management Service -- that released oil mixtures deep underwater to see what would happen. Guess what? The mixtures divided into two parts: one rose to the surface fairly rapidly while the other formed: a plume!

Seems that the swan in this case is black only because it is covered in oil.

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