How is it possible to see into the future? Leave aside for the moment, premonitory dreams, psychics, crystal balls, Tarot cards or paranormal phenomena. Is there even any theoretical basis for scientists to try? There’s some evidence that time runs backwards as well as forwards or perhaps time ebbs and flows at least on a subatomic level. (Ask any physicist.) So it might be possible to forecast future events by 'remembering' things that have yet to take place in the future. Try to get your mind wrapped around that.

 Photo Copyright Steve Hill

Photo Copyright Steve Hill

“Much of what happens in history,” Nassim Nicholas Tabeb says, “comes from 'Black Swan dynamics,' major, even cataclysmic events that are large, sudden, and totally unpredictable -- 'outliers' or black swans.” Tabeb is the author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, a national bestseller. “Our track record in predicting those events is dismal; yet by some mechanism called the hindsight bias we think that we understand them. We have a bad habit of finding 'laws' in history (by fitting stories to events and detecting false patterns); we are drivers looking through the rear view mirror while convinced we are looking ahead."   So why are we so bad at forecasting dramatic events? Is it because we don’t know how to remember future events or is it because we’ve forgotten?  Tabeb says that our problem is that we are so swayed by our emotions that we’re ill equipped to anticipate these black swans. The emotional apparatus that “made us fit for the Pleistocene era,” just doesn’t serve us very well today. “Our risk machinery is designed to run away from tigers; it is not designed for the information-laden modern world." Yet while we fail to anticipate black swans, which we neglect at our peril, we are forever studying and mulling over ordinary events, the day-to-day noise that passes for news, most of which is inconsequential. What would have happened, Taub asks, if someone on the eve of World War I were to predict Hitler, the rise and fall of the Soviet Empire, Islamic fundamentalism or the attacks on September 11th? Such a Cassandra would have been dismissed as mad as the original one was. Yet, Tabeb argues, the “very unexpectedness’ of a black swan event “helps create the conditions for it to occur.” If on 9/11, for example, there was an expectation that such a spectacular hijacking might be made, jet fighters would have been scrambled to intercept them and security measures on the ground would have been ramped up. Instead we’ve been busy locking the door of a vacant barn ever since.

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AuthorLeslie Horvitz