Cisnes negros o blancos

Chance and Necessity in 2021

Luis Fernández-Galiano 

The year 2021 begins with three black swans, sounding like drum beats after the Christmas truce: the assault on the United States Capitol by a mob devoted to still-President Trump, the historic snowstorm that has paralyzed Spain, and the sudden spike of the third wave of the viral pandemic. But this burst of chance blurs the fact of inevitability: the rise of populism in the world, the multiplication of extreme climate phenomena, and the problem of reconciling globalization and freedom with epidemic control are characteristic features of our time, so our black swans were perhaps as predictable as the white ones. The political crisis, the climate crisis, and the health crisis coincide and overlap, tainting the horizon with the menace of social crisis that now gestates in the womb of inequality, distrust, and disinformation, and that can only be held back by a fairer economy, stronger institutions, and better communication.

For film buffs, the black swan brings to mind the actress Natalie Portman dancing ballet in New York, suffering the pressures of her environment and ultimately confusing reality and fiction; but for analysts, the black swan is the metaphor used by the philosopher and mathematician Nassim Taleb in referring to highly improbable events that impact on the world, refuting the predictions of experts – specialists only in confusing reality and fiction, like Portman – because the unpredictable and chance are ultimately more determinant than forecasts and prognoses: an epistemological skepticism that refuses to make rational extrapolations of the past to imagine the future, and which assigns an essential role to the random, perhaps like the Harold Macmillan who, questioned on the most pressing problem he had to deal with as British Prime Minister, famously answered: “Events, my dear boy, events.”

With the January events, black swans which may be simply white swans assuming an inexistent exceptionality, we can reconcile chance and necessity by accepting that our fragile lives are always exposed to upheavals, and by making an effort to control our personal and collective existence with the help of rational thinking. Science has given us the vaccines to fight Covid-19, knowledge warns us of the dangers of climate change, and intelligence urges us to reinforce institutions against the emotive irrationalism of populism. The last two digits of the brand new year are inevitably associated with chance, Twenty-One being a card game dating back to the times of Cervantes, even though it is now called blackjack, and 21 also being the total number of dots on a dice: but the passion for luck that feeds lotteries, playing cards, and casinos cannot prevail over the imperious need for reason and the reasonable.

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