Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Orange TRUMPeter Swans: When What You Know Ain't So

Was Donald J. Trump's political rise in 2015-2016 a "black swan" event?  "Yes" is the answer asserted by Jack Shafer this Politico article. "No" is the answer from other writers, including David Atkins in this article on the Washington Monthly Political Animal Blog.

Orange Swan
My answer is "Yes", but not in the same way that other events are Black Swans.   Orange Swans like the Trump phenomenon is fits this aphorism:
"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." -- attributed to Mark Twain
In other words, the signature characteristic of Orange Swans is delusion.

Rethinking "Black Swans"

As I have mentioned at the start of this series, the "Black Swan event" metaphor is a conceptual mess. (This post is sixth in the series "Think You Understand Black Swans? Think Again".)

It doesn't make sense to label any set of events as "Black Swans".  It's not the events themselves, but instead they are processes that involve generating mechanisms, our evidence about them, and our method of reasoning that make them unexpected and surprising.


An "Orange Swan" is a process where:
  1. The generating process is deterministic, either simple or complex, but where randomness in time does not play a significant role;
  2. The evidence arises in two epochs: first, when the event is considered "extremely improbable" or "impossible", and second, when the event is happening or has happened;
  3. The method of reasoning is "conventional wisdom" or punditry about causes and effects in this domain.

Main Features

The primary feature of Orange Swans is defying conventional wisdom, especially strongly held, widely accepted and acclaimed conventional wisdom.  When an Orange Swan comes to pass, it reveals how the conventional wisdom was delusional, at least in those particular circumstances.

Some systems of conventional wisdom feature strong rules about what is possible and what is impossible, on principle.  Simply, these rules are treated as though they are laws that govern our part of the Universe. It's helpful for us to remember that there was a time, not too long ago, that everything in the human realm was governed by conventional wisdom of one sort or another -- e.g. who got sick and who got well, the weather next week, crop success or failure, and the right/best form of religion, government, and social organization.  Divination can be seen as systems of conventional wisdom overlaid by random draws. Even in the realm of sciences, conventional wisdom still has great power and influence on the social processes of science -- e.g. who gets admitted to grad school, who gets grants, who gets credit or blame, etc.

But, in modern society, the domain of politics stands out as the Kingdom of Conventional Wisdom.  The prominent exception are pollsters and other "quants" like Nate Silver's team at  But the vast majority of practitioners, analysts, researchers, and commentators trade in almost nothing but conventional wisdom.  Everyone in the social system either echoes and reinforces the conventional wisdom, or tries to modify it by adding their own "wisdom" (i.e. rules of thumb, causal explanations or possibilities, etc.), usually backed only by a few stories, conversations, or a clever idea in the middle of the night.

Anyone running for or serving in elective office, especially at a Federal/national level, has to confront the prevailing conventional wisdom, whether favorable or unfavorable, because everyone believes that the conventional wisdom expresses the Laws of Politics at the present time.


The most obvious present example is Donald J. Trump's nomination as Republican Party candidate for the President of the United States. The Trump candidacy has been (wrongly) called a Black Swan event. There have been a ton of articles and blog posts on why Trump was never going to be the nominee, never going to have a chance of winning, or, at least that his chances were extremely small.  There have also been a ton of articles that have attempted to explain how people who espoused conventional wisdom were so wrong.  The tone of these reflective articles has been especially somber during periods when Trump's poll numbers were surging and it looked like he might actually win (the nomination or the general election).

Let's not fall into the trap of believing that only politics is susceptible to Orange Swans.  Here are a few "conventional wisdoms" in other domains that fell to Orange Swans (i.e. seemingly impossible events that nonetheless came to pass or were observed):

  • World War I will be "over by Christmas" (Britain) -- see here and here
  • Earth is the center of the Universe -- geocentrism
  • Arrival of "abnormal" astronomical visitors like comets are unpredictable -- see here.
I'm leaving out extreme events that are due primarily to random/stochastic processes or would otherwise better be describe as a different colored Swan.

Why Orange Swans are Sometimes Extreme

There is nothing in the deterministic generating process that makes Orange Swans extreme.  They might be experienced as extreme relative to the strength in belief they are impossible and, by implication, that the whole system of conventional wisdom might be wrong.  The successful prediction of Halley's comet did not have a revolutionary effect because, by that time, there was considerable acceptance of new conventional wisdom about astronomy and what was or was not predictable.

The Orange Swan event will also be experienced as extreme if it threatens the social status of the arbiters and beneficiaries of conventional wisdom, for whom the Orange Swan might be imagined as "the end of the world".

Why Orange Swans are Surprising

When conventional wisdom includes strong rules about what is impossible, and that "impossible" event comes to pass, then it feels extremely surprising, and even unpredictable in principle. Not every system of conventional wisdom is susceptible, because not all include strong rules about impossibility.

Going into the 2016 elections, one expression of conventional wisdom about who can and can't win the nomination was presented in the book The Party Decides:
"...for the past several decades, The Party Decides shows, unelected insiders in both major parties have effectively selected candidates long before citizens reached the ballot box."
This version of conventional wisdom said: Trump was not, and could never be, acceptable to these "unelected insiders", and therefore would not be successful in getting the Republican nomination.

The events that unfolded were surprise after surprise for those holding this and other conventional wisdoms.  (In their defense, Trump's recent decline in the polls and likely election defeat are seen as justifying the conventional wisdom that a candidate like Trump -- in general and especially in particular -- could not win a Presidential election.)

Why Orange Swans Can Be Rationalized in Retrospect

The causal relationships leading to the Orange Swan are rarely mysterious in retrospect, in part because randomness and uncertainty rarely play more than a minor role.  Sometimes a new conventional wisdom takes over, replacing the old.  Other times, the conventional wisdom reasserts itself, writing off the Orange Swan as an aberration. Occasionally, there is a general loss in confidence in any strong conventional wisdom.

How to Cope with Orange Swans

From an analysts point of view, here's how you can cope with Orange Swans:
  1. Take inventory the conventional wisdom, especially what is deemed as "impossible".
  2. Use scenario analysis methods to generate possible futures that appear to be "impossible" through the lens of conventional wisdom, but have plausible causal chains.
  3. For critical problems, use formal or semi-formal methods of evidence analysis and inference, such as Analysis of Competing Hypotheses. This will help you avoid the pitfall of minimizing evidence that might support hypotheses in favor of Orange Swan events.

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