#51 Under- and over-estimating one’s psychedelic luck

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb, pages 51-133

So far I’m really liking Taleb’s “unconventional” views regarding logical fallacies regarding the anticipation of Black Swan events. The only reason his ideas are thought to be unconventional is because most people have the wrong approach/attitude when it comes to Black Swans’ unexpected arrival. People tend to draw too much from the well of the past, oversimplifying and explaining away the rare, sociocultural-shifting events in addition to natural disasters, while at the same time not realizing and learning from the past, that is to say, that rare events will occur again at some point in the future, our future history; the exact event might not occur again, but the rare occurrence of extreme events will undoubtedly repeat.

Cover of the Black Swan book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.For example, the odds of another 9/11-type attack have dropped significantly with added security at airports, better training for airline crews, and bulletproof doors of cockpits. However, the shock that such a rare event created will be repeated in another type of event that we could not have anticipated, and that is the point. We are currently in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet we shouldn’t be shocked by it; analysts anticipated another pandemic (it had been 100 years since the last one), especially since the world has become smaller with better international transport and the resultant easy/quick daily shuffling of millions of people around the world.

Taleb mentioned a couple of fallacies that I’d like to discuss in greater detail related to psychedelics.

The first is the “reference point argument.” In it, he mentions how New Yorkers call themselves and their city resilient in that they bounce back from disastrous events. It’s true, New York City has bounced back from many events in the last 250 years, but that doesn’t mean it will always bounce back. Taleb mentions that we should take all grand cities, so to speak, into our cohort to analyze. The reference point argument says, “…do not compute odds from the vantage point of the winning gambler (or the lucky Casanova, or the endlessly bouncing back New York City, or the invincible Carthage), but from all those who started in the cohort” (Taleb, 2007, 114-119). The vantage of the above argument is that New York City and New Yorkers have been resilient, but that sentiment comes from a current grand city. If you were to take all metropolises that ever existed, whose citizens also had high regard for it and themselves, you would see that many historical cities no longer exist, or exist in a different form today. From a gambling metaphor, just because you are winning today doesn’t mean you always will, nor does it take into account all the losers who lost their money.

Related to psychedelics, the first idea that comes to mind is the difference between people who live to tell the tale and the ones who died during their experiences or suffer from permanent disabilities as a direct result of their psychedelic use. Yes, these substances should not be taken lightly. Someone might take a psychedelic and physically hurt him- or herself; go mentally insane; or worse, die. Death is a concern for people taking iboga, or, for untested and barely researched novel psychoactive substances (usually synthetic). Death is a rare occurrence no doubt, but if we are to take a proper pulse of the overall use of psychedelics, we should note that people in traditional and Western settings do die from taking certain substances for many different reasons. Taleb also gives the example of Russian Roulette: just because you’re on a winning streak not blowing your brains out doesn’t meant that you won’t one day. Odds are, you will. Same goes for a substance like iboga: let’s say you take a dosage of total alkaloid (TA) extract just below safe levels according to your body weight. However, since most people don’t have access to laboratory grade equipment to test their product’s purity, and since the amount of ibogaine found in TA extract falls within a range of roughly 50-70% concentration, pushing the visionary envelope too extremely could result in death; taking a big dose, albeit still considered “safe” for your body weight, could have very high levels of ibogaine or concentrations of other less researched alkaloids that just might kill you. Indeed, no iboga tree is exactly the same, therefore each will have different levels of various alkaloids. The point is that we should take into consideration everyone who has ever taken iboga/ibogaine, especially, if data permits, all individuals who took similar doses and concentrations that you intend to take, to get a more complete picture of what you’re dealing with.

The next fallacy I enjoyed learning about is what Taleb calls the “ludic fallacy.” Ludic in Latin means “to play” and relates to playing games. The ludic fallacy says, “…the attributes of the uncertainty we face in real life have little connection to the sterilized ones we encounter in exams and games” (Taleb, 2007, 125). He gives the example of the casino spending hundreds of millions of dollars on security equipment and professionals to spot cheaters trying to game to casino, while not paying attention to Black Swan events that ended up costing a lot to the casino. His point is that while we invest time and energy on what is known and predictable, that is, predicting that someone will eventually try to cheat at gambling, we forget about or don’t anticipate well enough the big events that cost just as much money. For example, when one of Siegfried & Roy’s tigers attacked Roy during their Las Vegas show in 2003, the casino lost about $100 million. In my opinion, this should have been anticipated. Afterall, these guys were playing with tigers, regardless how trained they were. It was going to happen. The main draw of the show was to see these two entertainers perform with their tigers, but my suspicion is that people came to the show to see how long these guys could get away without getting bitten, and then ultimately, they did. Just because they hadn’t been attacked for all their years of performing doesn’t mean that it cannot happen; the odds are the same on the first performance and the 1,000th performance, just like Taleb’s says in his Thanksgiving Turkey example.

With regard to the ludic fallacy Taleb says, “…just as we tend to underestimate the role of luck in life in general, we tend to overestimate it in games of chance” (Taleb, 2007, 129). What he says here and in the previous pages is that gamblers know the odds of casino games, thus they will overestimate the role of luck in “domesticated uncertainty,” while people, including the gamblers, tend to underestimate the role of luck in daily life. Domesticated uncertainty in the psychedelic world might be trying to control for as much as possible before the experience begins, such as set, setting, choosing the retreat, additionally based partly on staff members/guides/shamans, therefore, such variables under our control are manifold. What you cannot control during your trip is whether a guest dies, the fire alarm goes off, a storm rips the roof off, the contents of your experience gives you a bad trip, etc. We would ultimately fare better therefore by also overestimating the chance happenings that “should not” occur but do. When it comes to psychedelics, overestimating the role of luck in daily life and in games of chance—in our case, the game of chance is the content you experience during your trip, is probably a good thing to do. The last thing one should believe in is a false sense of security prior to any psychedelic experience; there are always risks, including unthinkable Black Swans peaking their necks around corners, checking for opportune moments to reveal the entirety of their being.

Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House.

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