Personal Experience, The Fallacy of

This is one of the most common and pernicious ways of destroying an argument. The indignant private anecdote trumps all other collective experience, research, historical precedent or evaluation: I was made better/worse by the hospital (“I wouldn’t be alive now if . . . ”/“My brother would be alive now if . . . ”), so I know how to run the health service. Time, now, for wisdom to slink away in shame. You can’t disagree with my personal experience because it happened to me. And if you do, I will take it as a personal attack (Ad Hominem).

This may, at a pinch, be a justifiable position to take. If you have seen for yourself the fissures in Arctic ice, this may well add to the authority with which you can speak about the reality of climate change. But its chief contribution to argument is destructive. The point is, you can’t argue against it, because you are pitting logic against passionate emotion, and it doesn’t work. It can be useful to bear in mind, or even to point out, that personal experience can in fact be a substantial source of bias in a person’s argument: she may be drawing general conclusions from exceptional cases; she may be validating her career experience by reading more significance into it than it deserves. Personal experience erodes objectivity, and can reduce knowledge of a subject by closing down any willingness to find out more about it.


Related entries:

Deceptions, High Ground.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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