Black and White Swans: Pandemics, Prognostications, and Preparedness



This essay examines why communities around the world have tended to respond relatively poorly and belatedly to the Covid pandemic—despite the fact that the likelihood of this sort of infectious outbreak had been widely recognized by public health experts, and furthermore in early 2020 communities outside of China were, in effect, given an advance warning of the imminent threat of this particular outbreak before the virus began to spread globally. Drawing on Nassim Taleb’s recent discussion of the sociopolitical significance of “black swan events,” this essay argues that the global Covid response is symptomatic of a more general difficulty in thinking probabilistically.


Covid-19 Black swan Probabilistic thinking 


  1. Avishai, Bernard. “The Pandemic Isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System.” The New Yorker, April 2020.Google Scholar
  2. Banov, Jessica, Kate Murphy, and Martha Quillin. “North Carolina Has Its First Reported Coronavirus.” News and Observer, March 3, 2020.
  3. Carey, Benedict Carey, and James Glanz. “Hidden Outbreaks Spread Through US Cities Far Earlier Than Americans Knew Estimates Say.” The New York Times, April 23, 2020.
  4. Daly, Natasha. “Fake Animal News Abounds on Social Media as Coronavirus Upends Life.” National Geographic, March 20, 2020.
  5. Global Preparedness Monitoring Board. “A World at Risk: Annual Report on Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies,” September 2019.
  6. Luzum, Nathan Luzum. “Duke Curtails In-Person Meetings, Promises Pay For University Employees.” The Chronicle, March 16, 2020.
  7. Norman, Joseph, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “Systemic Risk of Pandemic Via Novel Pathogens—Coronavirus: A Note,” New England Complex Systems Institute (January 26, 2020).Google Scholar
  8. Schwartz, Ian. “Trump on Coronavirus: ‘Nobody Could Have Predicted Something Like This.” Real Clear Politics, March 30, 2020.
  9. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, second edition (New York: Random House, 2010).Google Scholar
  10. US Health and Human Services. “Crimson Contagion 2019 Functional Exercise Key Findings,” US Department of Health and Human Services, internal report (2019).

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Duke UniversityDurhamUSA

Personalised recommendations