A swan in Europe was a white swan. So, naturally, swans were thought of as only white by Europeans until news came from travelers to Australia in the late 1600s where black swans are in fact relatively common. Black swan events can turn a worldview upside down. They are unprecedented, unexpected, rare, and with a significant impact.
The infrequency of black swan events means prior data about them is too little to reliably guess the likelihood of one, and you may not even think to anticipate the event anyway. Except after the fact, when all of a sudden many people will claim to have predicted it — black swan events are prone to be rationalised in hindsight, believing that all the signs were there beforehand even if they weren't.
The idea of black swan events is from Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He writes:
"One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single black bird."
Examples Taleb gives include the September 11 terrorist attack, the 2008 financial crisis, World War I, or the rise of the Internet.
More Taleb sketches: on mistakes, the firehouse effect, and the Lucretius problem. Also, hindsight bias.
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