The Problem with Outliers and Black Swans in 2020
Updated: Aug 7
One of the things that has concerned me when observing the contentious debate around policies and events this year is a misunderstanding of outliers. An outlier is defined as:
a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system. a person or thing differing from all other members of a particular group or set.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book entitled, "Outliers: The Story of Success" which focused on various factors that have helped people become successful. However, outliers can also work the other way when we showcase instances that do not reflect reality. The problem occurs when the media (or anyone we listen to) uses outliers to publicize a specific cause or push a certain ideology. While media do not inherently report on normal things and I enjoy hearing different points of view, we also have an obligation to think for ourselves about the generalizability of what we are seeing. It becomes dangerous when we assume that what we are consuming from one individual or one group of people is true for an entire population.
For example, I have one conservative friend who consistently quotes Candace Owens, Ben Carson, and Sheriff David Clarke as voices of the black community because those are the people he sees on Fox News (which is the only source of news he watches). The problem is that he rarely, if ever, talks to black people in real-life so his only "exposure" to black voices are those he sees on that media channel. Most, if not all, of my black friends will be the first to tell you that Ms. Owens, Mr. Carson, and Sheriff Clarke are not part of the mainstream black community and are seen as grifters by many. They are outliers.
As Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out, there are also Black Swan events. A black swan event is defined as "an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences." Black Swan events and outliers are often singular realities that are not true for the majority of the population or in the majority of cases. One of the things we in society have to do is a better job of critically thinking when consuming information from any source. Is this the experience of the majority of people? Is this how it works in all cases?
Instead of guarding against these outcasts or rare events, we have to see them for what they are: not representative of the general population or true in most situations. This is especially important right now- when social unrest and political instability are so high. Outliers and Black Swans can stretch us and can even be entertaining. However, while the ability to think critically about what we consume can be cognitively taxing, taking the time to dig deeper and learn more also allows us to see the world as it is- not how the media or government or our closest friends and family want us to see it.