As the COVID-19 spreads throughout the world, its cascading and multiple impacts deepen. As a result, fear spreads. Meanwhile, finance and business firms now started promoting the idea that the COVID-19 epidemic was a “black swan event”.
For example, Goldman Sachs, in its Top of Mind, issue 86 (February 28, 2020) featured an article titled “2020’s Black Swan: coronavirus.” It is “the event that no one expected”. This, by the way, as we shall explain below is not what a black swan event is. Similarly, as the idea spreads throughout the corporate world, we read that “Sequoia Capital, one of the world’s top venture capital firms, sent a note to the founders and CEOs of its companies on Friday 6 March 2020 describing the coronavirus as “the black swan of 2020″ and urging them to brace for coming economic shocks” (Reuters 6 March 2020: Latest on the spread of coronavirus around the world).
The only problem with characterising the COVID-19 epidemic as a black swan event is that it is untrue. At best it shows ignorance. This statement also underlines the complete incapacity or unwillingness of a large part of the corporate world, and of society more generally, to consider the future and plan ahead.
This article explains why the COVID-19 is NOT a black swan event.
What is a black swan event
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The idea of a “black swan event” was popularised in 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb bestseller The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable (see Helene Lavoix, “Taleb’s Black Swans: The End of Foresight?“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 21 January 2013, and “Useful Rules for Strategic Foresight and Risk Management from Taleb’s The Black Swan“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 28 January 2013).
Taled defines them “as unpredictable (outliers), with an extreme impact and which are, after the fact, revised as explainable and predictable”.
Actually, in a nutshell Taleb with The Black Swan denounces the problem and risks of induction, building upon David Hume and Karl Popper. Extremely briefly, an inductive reasoning runs as follows: all the swans observed are white, thus all swans are white… which is proven wrong when one black swan is spotted. Hence the danger of this reasoning.
If we follow Taleb, a “black swan” is an event that cannot be foreseen because there is neither knowledge about it nor methodology to anticipate it. Black Swan events are intrinsically unknowable.
Thus was the COVID-19 epidemic intrinsically unknowable and unpredictable?
Did we have knowledge to foresee the COVID-19 epidemic?
First, we know, considering for example the SARS epidemic, that coronaviruses exist and can lead to epidemic.
True enough the very specific strand of virus named COVID-19 was probably impossible to predict, but the emergence and spread of an epidemic of a coronavirus type was possible to foresee. Actually, such an emergence is almost certain. And the emergence of other epidemics of the same type and of other types is certain too. The problem is a problem of onset, of monitoring and then of handling of the outbreak.
Indeed, and second, since at least 2006, epidemiologists and serious people interested in national security and anticipation have summarised the issue for pandemics and epidemics with the catchphrase: “the question is not if but when”. They have been worried about it and they have fought to see epidemics and pandemics and their emergence and spread put on various national and global agenda. I can witness to this having worked with such a community of interest within the U.S. system.
Finally, since at least 2000, we know that biodiversity has effects on the emergence and spread of disease (e.g. Ostfeld. and Keesing, “Biodiversity and Disease Risk: the Case of Lyme Disease“, 2000). Since then, there has been scientific debate to understand how both relate. Thus, a conservative appraisal would be that biodiversity has both positive and negative impacts on the emergence and spread of disease, according to mechanisms we still do not understand very well (e.g. Angela D. Luis, et al. “Species diversity concurrently dilutes and amplifies transmission in a zoonotic host–pathogen system through competing mechanisms“, PNAS, 2018). Biodiversity is notably operative in the spill over of infectious diseases from animals to humans (Ibid.).
Considering the staggering rate of biodiversity loss, and our imperfect knowledge, then first this factor should have been considered. Second, the precautionary principle would have demanded that scenarios be crafted. As a result, actors would have taken into account the whole range of possibles for the future.
Thus, we had enough knowledge to consider the possibility to see epidemics and pandemics emerge and spread at all time. Hence the current epidemic was not intrinsically unknowable. Hence it is not a black swan event.
You may then argue that uncertainty is still part of our knowledge thus that we could not do anything to foresee the COVID-19 epidemic because of this uncertainty.
Thus, do we have methodologies and ways that allow to handle uncertainty? Can we foresee despite uncertainty?
Did we have methodological tools to foresee new types of epidemics
In serious strategic foresight, strategic warning, futurism and risk management – I mean people who are seriously and systematically applying proper methodologies to anticipate – we do have ways to handle these types of possible surprises.
Scenarios, for example, are a perfect way to handle issues presenting various types of uncertainties (e.g. Scenarios and our online course 2: Geopolitical Risks and Crisis Anticipation: Scenario building, where, by the way, a whole unit is devoted to Back Swan and Wild Card events).
Then, we have something that is called wild card scenarios and which aim at handling difficult cases (James Dewar, “The Importance of “Wild Card” Scenarios,” Elina Hiltunen, “Was It a Wild Card or Just Our Blindness to Gradual Change?” 2006). If we assume that an epidemic has a low probability of occurence – which we can debate considering biodiversity as well as climate change, then we can at worst consider the emergence of an epidemic as a wild card. Indeed, “a wild card is a future development or event with a relatively low probability of occurrence but a likely high impact on the conduct of business,” BIPE Conseil / Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies / Institute for the Future: Wild Cards: A Multinational Perspective, (Institute for the Future, 1992), p. v). The idea was then popularised with John L. Petersen, Out of the Blue, Wild Cards and Other Big Surprises, (The Arlington Institute, 1997, 2nd ed. Lanham: Madison Books, 1999).
Thus we could have anticipated the COVID-19 epidemic at worst through such an approach.
As a result, if we had enough knowledge to anticipate the emergence and spread of a new global epidemic of a coronavirus type, and if we had the methodology to anticipate such an event, furthermore considering remaining uncertainties, then the current COVID-19 epidemic is NOT a black swan event.
The truth is that the corporate world and especially the financial world do not seriously anticipate events beyond one day, one week and at the very best three months. When they do anticipate, they are blinded by quantitative tools, as already denounced by Taleb (Ibid.). Meanwhile they think in silos. In general, despite of course exception, recruitment is done by people who have no clue about global risks and methodology to handle such risks. Recruiters privilege the wrong skills, using keywords and criteria rather than real understanding. Outside research and scientific circles, most of the time, basics of qualitative research and understanding, built over centuries, are now discarded. In most sectors, nepotism reigns. Fear of not pleasing the hierarchy or “the market” rule. Finally, there is also most probably a large part of wishful thinking and ego that stops such a successful crowd to properly and honestly consider the future.
Thus, no, the COVID-19 epidemic is NOT a Black Swan event. Thinking so will only allow people and firms who failed to shed any responsibility for their error.
On the other hand, is the COVID-19 epidemic a strategic surprise and a warning failure? Yes, definitely for many actors (although not for all). If we recognise this, then it will also be a way to humbly understand why part of the world was not prepared for the epidemic and why proper strategic foresight systems to anticipate it were not operational. And, so far, we are rather lucky as the case-fatality rate, although far superior to the influenza, seem to remain relatively low (see WHO and The New Coronavirus COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) Mystery – Fact-Checking).
Recognising errors and mistakes is the only way to progress. It will be the only way to do better, when the next epidemic will emerge.
BIPE Conseil / Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies / Institute for the Future: Wild Cards: A Multinational Perspective, (Institute for the Future, 1992), p. v).
Dewar, James A., “The Importance of “Wild Card” Scenarios,” Discussion Paper, RAND. – download pdf.
Hiltunen, Elina, “Was It a Wild Card or Just Our Blindness to Gradual Change?” Journal of Futures Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, November 2006, pp. 61-74
Lavoix, Helene, “Taleb’s Black Swans: The End of Foresight?“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 21 January 2013
Lavoix, Helene, “Useful Rules for Strategic Foresight and Risk Management from Taleb’s The Black Swan“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 28 January 2013.
Luis, Angela D., Amy J. Kuenzi, James N. Mills. “Species diversity concurrently dilutes and amplifies transmission in a zoonotic host–pathogen system through competing mechanisms”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; 201807106 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1807106115
Ostfeld, R.S. and Keesing, F. (2000), Biodiversity and Disease Risk: the Case of Lyme Disease. Conservation Biology, 14: 722-728. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2000.99014.x
Petersen, John L., Out of the Blue, Wild Cards and Other Big Surprises, (The Arlington Institute, 1997, 2nd ed. Lanham: Madison Books, 1999)