Wednesday Opinion: Black Swans

They exist

I haven’t been writing much in this blog, so I’ve decided to give myself a regular weekly task and see if that helps. I’m going to do an opinion piece on Wednesdays for a while.

In “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It”, Chris Voss talks about Black Swans. You see, all Europeans assumed for centuries that all swans were white. the 2nd-century Roman poet Juvenal used “black swan” much as we use “flying pig” today. Then the Dutch discovered black swans in Western Australia in 1697.


After that, a “black swan” became an important, surprising discovery – something you never saw coming, but you can understand easily enough with hindsight. Really, it’s a sign that your mental model of the world needs updating. It can be uncomfortable in the short term, but it’s less painful in the long term.

If you believe all swans are white, then seeing a black swan is initially confusing. It’s not the swan’s fault.

I often read people who claim that it’s confusing for children to see same-sex couples holding hands. Well if you believe all romantic relationships are heterosexual, then it would be. But it’s not the fault of LGB couples for existing – you need to update your model of reality, just like people discovering black swans for the first time.

Similarly, if you believe everyone is either male or female, than trans people are confusing. It’s not their fault for existing. What you learned at school was the kiddie version and your model of reality was incomplete. There are people with XX and XY chromosomes, yes. There are also occasional people with XXY and XYY chromosomes, men with XX chromosomes, women with XY chromosomes, and people with both a penis and a vagina. Each condition is rare, but together they account for over 1% of the population.

At this point people tend to say, “Well I certainly don’t know any freaks!”

Really? If you had ambiguous genitals, how many people would you tell? Almost nobody, right? So it follows that the lady at the corner shop isn’t likely to tell you about her micro-penis either. And yet you’ve known her for years with absolutely no problems. She’s no threat to anybody. You just need to update your model of reality, OK?

Posted by sheila

Sheila came to La Palma with a six month contract and has stayed 24 years so far. She used to work as a software engineer at the observatory, but now she's a writer and Starlight guide.

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