The great English poet John Milton once said, ‘Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; or opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.’ In contrast an anonymous smartarse once quipped that ‘opinions are like armpits; everyone has them and they usually stink.’ How then can we sift through smelly armpits and identify the opinions that truly are knowledge in the making. More specifically, the question I should like to address is this; does personal experience in an area make an opinion more valid or less?

Being a chap who revels somewhat in the oratorical arts especially when pitted against a formidable intellectual foe, I have noticed a certain pattern that emerges in tense discussions on a variety of topics. Fellow X may be making a jolly fine argument, logically consistent, poetically phrased and convincing till the hilt. As Fellow X reaches his crescendo of sophist persuasion his momentum is suddenly hijacked. ‘As it so happen,’ ejaculates Fellow Y, ‘I have experienced this situation firsthand and conclude rather the contrary.’ What then is Fellow Z to make of all this? Fellow X has indeed presented his case with the skill of Antiphon and yet there is a sense that Fellow Y’s humble and unsustained offering still has greater weight.

Let us use a concrete example. Suppose that you are the adjudicator, Fellow Z, and you were keen to clothe yourself in knowledge concerning the political climate of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. Whose opinion are you likely to heed. On the one hand Fellow X may present you with the most convincing evidence such as opinion polls, election results, noted academics who have commented on the nation, official commentary from allied nations in South America balanced with news from antagonistic nations such as the United States and things of that sort. Suppose further that Fellow Y is a recent migrant from Venezuela and objects in the strongest possible terms. How do you process this information?

If I were Fellow Z in the hypothetical above I should be highly suspicious of the account from Fellow Y for the simple fact that firsthand experience brings with it an inevitable degree of firsthand bias. This is not to discount the personal testimony of Fellow Y but Fellow X would be in my opinion well within his rights to claim, ‘you think thus and so about the political climate of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez because you are from a certain area, a certain social class and a certain family. Were this not the case your experience and therefore your opinion may be widely different.’ And so it is true. No intellectual musing can replace the glory of a life experience but equally no experience can breed an unbiased opinion. The opinion which is born out of research and the accumulation of knowledge should be respected above the one which is the sole product of experience and feeling.

And yet, generally speaking, people do give more weight to people with firsthand experience. This is lucky because often that is the only weight their arguments have. People tend to defer to the opinion of a parent on raising children rather than a childless person who has just written an academic thesis on the topic. Someone who lives in a certain area is presumed to know more about it than someone who has ‘merely’ studied it. The opinion of the soldier dominates that of the military historian. This is even more the case in sensitive personal circumstances. In a debate on depression and the public health system, the firsthand experience of a sufferer will usually outweigh the statistics of a researcher. Should this be? Personally I think not. In every case it is the (ideally) neutral, impassionate researcher who can come far closer to the truth than the jaded, biased opinion of someone who is necessarily emotionally invested in the issue.

This seems to be a truth that is virtually self-evident and yet our instinctive reaction is quite the reverse. Let us propose you are planning a holiday in a little French seaside village where there are just two hotels. Your two friends Fellows X and Y each suggest you stay in a different one. Would you give more weight to the opinion of Fellow X who has never travelled there or Fellow Y who has? Fellow Y may tell you a horror story from his time there but only Fellow X through research can glean whether this was the exception or the rule.

On a sidenote, the ill-deserved credence of personal experience seems to me to be a convenient loophole for people, places and organisations seeking exemption from public scrutiny. The childish and frustrating response to valid criticism is often something along the lines of, ‘you do not understand because you are not part of my religion,’ ‘just wait till you have kids, then you’ll see,’ or the annoying and unarguable, ‘you simply can’t appreciate what it is like as you see things through the eyes of a woman/man/child/black person/white person/whatever.

The simple truth is a man can comment intelligently on feminist issues and, if he has researched the particular area, can make a much more useful contribution that an average woman. The reverse is also and obviously true. An Aboriginal person can be the world’s foremost expert on Japanese gardens without ever leaving Australia. A psychologist at a rape crisis centre can understand the impact of rape more than an actual victim. A studied atheist may have more insights into a certain religion than its lay adherents. And so on the list goes.

I do not propose to glorify academics in ivory towers who never step out of the hallowed halls of knowledge and experience the real world. In terms of a fulfilling life then indeed experience is everything. It is surely a million times better to be a biased, tainted, hurt but active player in the world of love than simply an expert on Australian sexual behaviour. I do maintain, however, that when Fellow Y forces his head into the debate his argument should not be welcomed with open arms but rather the same critical nonchalance that greets Fellow X. Experience in itself does not really amount to evidence and oftentimes can point the searcher of truth in the wrong directions. Mark Twain wrote, ‘It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.’ Of course he is right. But let us not think that all horses are equal. Let us put our money on the stronger horse not the weaker. Give weight to the opinion which is well-argued, based in fact and backed with references.

 

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