Personal Experience and Rationality

In my previous post, I examined how people misuse the question, “Where is that in the Bible?” In this post, I’m going to discuss how people misuse their personal experiences. Let’s start with an example. 

Several years ago, Ann Coulter argued that single motherhood should be stigmatized because of its negative impact on children. I dislike her inflammatory rhetoric, and I don’t condone her recommendations. My interest is how irrationally the audience responded.

Early in the interview, Coulter says this:

A woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock, if she wants to do the best thing for the child – it is overwhelming she should give the child up for adoption because the statistics both from the left and the right are overwhelming on what happens to illegitimate children. About 70% of juvenile delinquents, teenage runaways, pregnancies out of wedlock are committed by the children of single mothers. 

If you were in the womb right now, and you could choose whether to be black, white, rich, poor, the one thing you should hope for… is that your parents are married. 

After some back and forth, the moderator responds: 

When you say things like that and you make these blanket statements based on statistics. I say to myself… I know so many good single mothers, so many heroic single mothers, I just can’t agree with you on that. I really can’t. 

Later in the dialogue, the audience gets involved: 

Woman: Do you have any children?

Coulter: Not relevant to statistics. 

Coulter’s response is excellent. The answer to the question is irrelevant to Coulter’s argument, and getting bogged down in facts about her personal life wouldn’t have furthered the dialogue. 

After explaining her positive experiences with single mothers, the woman concludes: 

You’re speaking about statistics, you have to live it to understand it.

There are at least two ways to understand single motherhood: the aggregate (studies and statistics) and personal experience. This woman seems to be saying that the aggregate aspect doesn’t capture the reality of single motherhood. She is correct in a sense. There is a first-person aspect of single motherhood that can’t be documented (at least not completely) by studies, but that isn’t relevant to the argument Coulter is making. She is talking about objective, statistically verifiable effects. So in the context of the discussion, the woman’s statement is a red herring. The other audience members commit this fallacy repeatedly in the rest of the interview.

I understand why people rely on personal experience. It’s easy and intuitive. Personal experience is crucial for evaluating a friend’s character or a client’s reliability, but it’s a poor choice for analyzing broad societal trends. It’s nonsensical to assert personal experience and think you’ve disproved a general pattern. That’s like a 6’3” woman using her height to dispute the claim, “Men are generally taller than women.” Her data point is incapable of disproving an average like the height of men and women. 

If you would like another example of irrational use of personal experience, watch Jordan Peterson’s interview with Kathy Newman. 

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