E Pluribus Veritas

As you guys know, I’ve been struggling with what I perceive to be an awful lot of blind animosity in the US right now. It’s disheartening since I don’t really know what to do about it. I certainly don’t have the solutions to the country’s complex problems—I haven’t even experienced a tenth of the country, let alone from all the different perspectives.

But as I’ve been thinking about it, there is one thing that’s come to me over and over again: one party trying to solve the problem hasn’t been working for us. Pick a topic—any topic—and no single party has been able to solve it. Why? I firmly believe it’s because every party only sees a piece of the problem. If you’re trying to do a jigsaw puzzle and can only see four of the pieces—pieces that don’t even go together—then how can you expect to solve it? The parable of the blind men and the elephant comes to mind. It seems to me that if we’re going to solve any of these complex, diverse problems that face us, we have got to get more people involved so we can see the rest of the puzzle.

Any statistician will tell you—and the parable of the blind men and the elephant demonstrates—that a single sample—a single viewpoint—is not a very good estimate of the whole population or the “truth” of a thing. It takes many samples—many perspectives—to even begin to approach the real thing. This notion, that the truth can only be approximated given a sufficiently diverse set viewpoints, is the thesis of this article, or, put differently, E pluribus veritas, “From many, truth.”

In linear algebra, if you have a certain number of unknowns, then you have to have at least that many independent equations to be able to solve for them. It’s no different here. For decades, our country has been trying to tackle hard problems—problems on whose solutions even the world’s experts continue to disagree—without having enough information to do it. Consider that for a moment: if you had to plan a budget for your family and you had absolutely no idea how much your rent, mortgage or property taxes were going to cost, you’d be at a pretty big disadvantage, wouldn’t you? Now, if on top of that, you also didn’t know how much it would cost you for transportation—fuel and auto costs, bus passes, etc.—or how much food would cost you, all of a sudden, your budget becomes a bit of a joke. That is, I believe, what our government—and worse, society at large—have been trying to do. Now, consider that you live with several roommates. One of them knows how much your rent is, another knows how much food for the group of you will be, and still another knows how much your transportation will cost. By talking to all these different people, suddenly you have the tools to put together a budget that actually has a chance of being right.

But even then, it won’t be perfect. One of you eats more than the others, so that person’s food budget will be higher. Another is a homebody who works from home all the time and as such has almost no travel expenses. For something as basic as creating a budget for a few roommates the variations suddenly begin to matter, and the person who eats like a bird and never goes anywhere might not be too keen on having to pay more so that the one person can eat like a horse and the other can go jet-setting.

Now take the squabbles that could ensue from that very simple example and expand it out to apply to the roughly 325 million people in the country. One group—be it old, rich, white men, old, rich, black women, or any other group—is like one roommate. Sure, there are many people in that group, but their views are broadly aligned—not exactly, but stereotypes exist for a reason. In that sense, their perspectives are not independent in the mathematical sense; they’re just variations on a theme, and they don’t provide new information. Take me, for instance: I’m a 30-something, middle-class, white guy. If you were to group me with other 30-something, middle-class, white guys, we might have different opinions on things, but not one of us could tell you definitively what its’ like to grow up poor, to grow up black, to grow up rich, to grow up a woman. Asking me—or anyone in that group—what any of those things is like is like asking the roommate who knows the cost of food and asking how much it costs to get from point A to point B: we’ll all gladly take a guess, but none of us have the perspective to be able to answer it authoritatively.

That is why, to answer hard questions like how to address poverty, race relations, or education, we need a lot of perspectives. Without firsthand experience of what it’s like to enter poverty, to live in it, and to get out of it, we’re trying to solve for a variable without enough equations. Without perspectives of blacks, whites, countless other races—and, yes, even racists, any solution we try to provide is sure to be a poor estimate of the optimal one. Why? Because if you leave the racists out and come up with a solution that seems great to everybody else, the racists will claim you beat them over the head with it. It won’t appeal to them, won’t have any common ground on which they can stand, and feeling shoved off the island, they’ll throw up their hands and walk away, dig in their heels, and reject any kind of change, no matter how small. When communication stops, our country stagnates. And, like stagnant water, a stagnant country begins to stink.

So, I’m starting the hashtag #EPluribusVeritas. I have no idea if it will catch on. I hope it does. I hope it attracts smarter people than I am. I hope it attracts a wide variety of perspectives so that we can finally start wrapping our heads around these massive problems that have only gotten bigger during my lifetime. I hope it attracts a presidential candidate—and a party—that we can all get behind. But most of all, I hope it starts to heal the cracks before our country splinters into a hundred different pieces. Say what you will, we’re stronger together.

-Jack

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