Oregon, and Starting Over

Impartiality is hard. Maybe impossible.

One of my favorite ways to describe the difficulties of objectivity is the Traveling Salesman Problem. It’s a straightforward question – a salesman has to travel through a specific number of cities and return home. What is the shortest route through all the cities that allows him to both return home and traverse through each city only once?

Picture a pool table, mid-game. Each ball is a city, and they’re scattered at random points. You need the shortest possible distance, a distance that goes through each ball only once, and that also returns to your original ball. Intuitively, it’s easy to come up with a good answer – several good answers, in fact. Coming up with the best answer, though, is nearly impossible through intuitive means. You can’t simply try each route and measure them all – with every ball on the table, the total number of possible routes increases far more quickly than your ability to count and tally. You need a method that guarantees finding the absolute shortest route.

If that seems impossible, don’t feel bad – mathematicians and computer scientists have been working on better and better solutions for over two centuries, when the problem first appeared. Making the best choice, it seems, is infinitely more difficult than simply making a good one.


We think with our feelings. I keep saying that, and I feel I’ve rambled far more than explained. So let’s consider the Traveling Salesman Problem, but with a few additional tweaks. One – let’s make it a contest. Whoever comes up with the shortest route wins. Two, participants can add or subtract cities at will. That last rule completely destroys the game, mind you – unless all the cities are in a straight line, or a grid, or a repeating and constant pattern, adding or subtracting a city will always give you the edge, whenever you need it. It’s cheating, built into the rules.

This, though, is how we argue. Or at least how we argue complex topics. No one bothers to argue 3+3=6 – we have a method for finding that, and we all agree on it. It’s a simple question. Try making the question more complex, though, and giving people the ability to change the rules, and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of people yelling at each other about the best way to traverse a pool table with a lot of spare and moving balls. The yelling is inevitable, and it’s easily explained – at some point, everyone participating stopped looking for the shortest route, and started trying to win. They started off looking for a short route, and ended up adding or subtracting a city to undercut an opponent. For a time, finding the truth and winning were the same. But only for a time.

If we argue long enough, we end up arguing to win. And not, mind you, simply to find the truth. The two aren’t incompatible, but they do have one key difference – if I’m arguing to find the truth, I may eventually believe my opponent has found the shortest route. If I’m arguing to win, I might just change the rules to make my route the shortest. In the end, I won’t pick cities to find the shortest route at all. I already believe my route is the shortest. I pick and remove cities based on the belief that I’m already right.

We argue, in the end, to win. And we win, most of the time, by legitimate cheating – taking our intuition, and making it fact. In our defense, too, we do it because, lord, it’s so easy – it’s wired into us, and for good reason. We’re born into a complex world, with so much information thrown us at every moment, long before we can decipher it all. We need to filter out the important stuff, and intuition is very good for that. It can find short routes. If we couldn’t move on unless we’d found the absolute shortest route available, we’d never move beyond the Salesman Problem at all. If, as babies, we couldn’t speak unless we knew for certain what a word meant, we’d never speak. We can function as adult humans in this world because we’re able to take a good guess from a pile of good guesses, and run with it. It’s a strength, one responsible for all of civilization. We shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

But, where debate is concerned, we should probably stop doing it.

I could talk about this all day, but, eventually, a concrete example is needed. So, let’s talk Oregon, militias, and mandatory minimum sentences.



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