The term “black swan” refers to an event that has enormous impact and is rare and difficult to predict. The prime example used by Taleb is 9/11 — an event of outsize importance that typical risk analyses would have been unable to predict or identify. There’s a fair amount of focus now on black swans, how to predict and control for them.
Sometimes, though, we are looking for black swans when we should be looking for white ones — events that have enormous impact, but that are neither rare nor particularly difficult to predict. An event like the Newtown murders may feel like a black swan — who could have predicted? But the preconditions for the event make it more of a white swan than a black one. For one, mass gun violence is relatively common in America; about 80 people die every day from gun violence. Although it is tragic that 27 murders and 1 suicide occurred in one place, and that many of the dead are children, it is not extraordinary in a world where gun violence occurs with regularity.
As long as it is easier for a mentally disturbed young man to get a handgun than mental health treatment, President Obama’s exhortations that we will do more to protect children strike me as hollow. Gun control laws have been eviscerated by the Supreme Court, and the gun lobby’s loud voice in the public conversation make movement on that front almost unimaginable. Mental health treatment is only slightly more likely, and my guess is that such laws would be targeted at committing people to quasi-incarceration rather than actually providing therapeutic treatment.
We cannot predict mass murder with precision, of course, but we can say with some probability that murders with guns will occur regularly through the day, week, month, year, etc. Without concerted efforts to either reduce the availability of firearms or increase the availability and reduce the stigma of mental health services, mass murder will continue to be a white swan rather than a black one.
(On the gun control topic for a second, I get all the 2nd Amendment stuff — we need to have firearms in case we need to overthrow the government. Sure. But a state monopoly on violence goes a long way to reducing violence among the populace. If this is an explicit trade-off being made, then fine, but I don’t think we have properly costed in the price of lost lives and mental/physical trauma.)