Black swans and the Apocalypse

(I’m feeling fatalistic today. Can you tell?)

Whenever I hear some conservative ding dong going on about how people should stop whining and “carping on” (thanks, Jacob Rees Mogg, embarrassment to all British Catholics due to his apparent total lack of empathy for, y’know, other people), I recall Karl Popper’s black swan.

*I am not referring to a film about neurotic ballet dancers.

Karl Popper (1902-1994) was a philosopher who used the example of black swans to explain his principle of Falsification, which was one of his key contributions to the philosophy of science. I’m not proposing to go into any great detail, and philosophy of science has moved on a lot since the Black Swan narrative – but falsifiability (or ‘refutability’) is the capacity for any statement or hypothesis to be contradicted by evidence. So, using Popper’s own example, the statement “Swans are white” is falsifiable, as once you find even a single black swan, the statement is disproved.

NB: this story has always stuck in my mind because the political theory prof who gave the lecture all those years ago explained that for many centuries, it was widely assumed that indeed, all swans were white, and that there was no such thing as a black swan – despite references to the existence of black swans in various ancient texts. The impossibility of a black swan was overturned in 1697 when Dutch explorers in Western Australia found, you guessed it, black swans (Cygnus atratus).

The link, for me, between swans, Popper, and ‘conservative ding dongs’ is that what really underlies Popper’s Black Swan example is that no individual life experience is universal. Therefore, your own view of the world, of what is right and wrong, of where our social problems come from and how they might be solved, is unique to you and you alone you might be able to categorise your views with a community of ‘like-minded’ individuals, but due to a singluar lack of telepathic skills among the general populace, you’ll never know exactly how ‘like-minded’ they really are.

It is incumbent upon us all to

  1. be aware that our experience is not universal,
  2. seek to understand others’ life experiences,
  3. be empathetic to the struggles of others and not denigrate them, and
  4. to consider how our actions affect others.

While I would not be so churlish as to deny the existence of a social conscience among those who support conservative social and economic policies, it does strike me that the social conscience of many influential conservative actors like Rees Mogg and Johnson seems to extend only marginally beyond themselves and other people like them. Either they assume that their privileged and narrow life experience is a universal norm (I cannot see how anyone could actually think that, but remember the Black Swan, peeps – we just need some evidence to falsify that hypothesis) or they simply don’t care about the vast majority of people in the UK.

Sigh. Whatever. The world is on fire, literally and figuratively.

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