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  • Jose Arrieta

Mediocrity Principle

Updated: Jul 11, 2021

Like many of the nationals of developing countries one meets in Europe, I grew up privileged. A plurality of country, beach, and mountain clubs, elite private schools, tutors, gardeners, housemaids, housewives, a lack of realization about the unfairness of the inequality that defined my life, and a homogeneous group of friends who shared all of these characteristics.


There is truth in the saying that only by leaving your country can you realize what your country means (404 error). Indeed, only by leaving Costa Rica could I realize that my childhood was built on a foundation of inequality that I can only hope will rot in future generations for Costa Rica to become a developed nation.


Accepting this hurts. I could only do this by emigrating to an even more affluent nation and affording for the first time the privilege to reflect on my life. As I did I needed to change my values and accept that progress requires that a fewer portion of the Costa Rican population experience life as I did growing up. This is needed not because my childhood was bad but because for progress to come to inequality has to decrease drastically and wealth has to be distributed more broadly. But I digress.


This process of learning by updating one's biased initial beliefs is a central tenet of science.. It is called the mediocrity principle. It explains why the "How's the water?" joke from David Foster-Wallace blew our minds as the last Millenium came to a close. The mediocrity principle tells scientists that when studying a phenomenon one should assume it is common within the class of phenomenon in its category. The mediocrity principle came about in astronomy where we assumed that our sun was a normal star, a fact we could realize was wrong only centuries later after more data poured in.


It seems wrong but the mediocrity principle is required for science to exist. It is the bootstrap that helps jumpstart learning and avoid Hume's problem of induction. However, it requires loads of energy to rebuild one's knowledge after data flow in and one comes to realize that the sun is a not-normal star and that my childhood was neither normal nor fair.


I am aware of the irony of this post. I could only afford to update my beliefs by being in a more affluent society a move itself marred with inequality. Yet, Milton Friedman once said that the only test of a theory is not being realistic but making accurate predictions. This pursuit for a broader predicting power is another foundation of science. And I believe my new world view has at least that to speak for itself.


Obama brought MLK's "the moral arc of history is long but it bends towards justice" to our Zeitgeist. On the same note, my new world view might come again from inequality but at least it is self-critical and closer to a true definition of prosperity, justice, and truly humane development.


PS: Friedman himself was an apologist for the capitalism and freedom doctrine that stagnated middle-class income and the sharing of prosperity. I guess it's "[inequality] all the way down" in this post. Puh!

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As a resident of Europe this privilege crosses my mind every now and then. Yet, only today I realized how uncommon it is.