Of Black Swan Events, Normality Bias, and Dancing Dogs


Donald Trump’s presidency is a black swan event.* Among the astonishing variety of cognitive biases to which we humans are heir, the normality bias causes us to “believe that things will always function the way things ‘normally’ function”–and thus to fail to recognize a black swan event for what it is.

Fortunately, Aardvark himself suffers no such biases. Regrettably, many of our fellow citizens do labor under the normality bias.

Just how many? Well, now we know.

Question 27 in the new NBC/WSJ poll asks whether, since the election, the media has been fair and balanced toward Trump, too critical, or not critical enough. 51 percent picked “too critical.”

This at a time when the nation’s foreign policy is in a state of incoherence.

A time when cabinet members must repeatedly clean up Trump’s mess.

A time when Trump’s lack of focus and inability to understand policy issues prevent him from doing a foundational job of any president—developing legislation and presenting it to Congress.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson records,

I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

What is surprising here is not that Trump is doing a bad job, it is that he is not doing the job at all.

What will it take for everything to recognize the truth? Unfortunately, it will require calamity. And calamity is likely.

*  (1) The event is a surprise (to the observer). (2) The event has a major effect. (3) After the first recorded instance of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected; that is, the relevant data were available but unaccounted for in risk mitigation programs. The same is true for the personal perception by individuals.