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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

On the unexpected

It took me a while to locate the passage that lodged in my memory in high school, as I never reread the book and did not retain a copy marked with sticky notes as the books I read in graduate school were.  Credit for pointing out the passage does not go to the teacher but to another student who mentioned the soundness of the observation outside the context of class.  At the beginning of chapter 5 in Silas Marner,  the narrator observes:
This is the edition we read.

His legs were weary, but his mind was at ease, free from the presentiment of change. The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he has worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink; and it is often observable, that the older a man gets, the more difficult it is to him to retain a believing conception of his own death. 
This is really the essence of the argument Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in The Black Swan, a good century plus after Silas Marner was published. Modern audiences may find it easier to read  Taleb's book  George Eliot's novel, which is characterized by a rather dense style of prose. While Taleb appears to be well-read, he doesn't refer to English literature, as he does to French works, so it is quite probable that he has never read the novels of George Eliot. Still in those few lines, she distills a lot of his argument: People form their expectations, believing that if something that is unprecedented is not to be anticipated. If one breaks out of the limits of what one has seen and experienced, then they may entertain more possibilities, resulting in what Taleb suggests could be a "grey swan," an event that is not what you would expect but that does not take  you altogether by surprise.

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