“Life Experience” as a Conversation-Halter

Some­times in an ar­gu­ment, an older op­po­nent might claim that per­haps as I grow older, my opinions will change, or that I’ll come around on the topic. Im­plicit in this claim is the as­sump­tion that age or quan­tity of ex­pe­rience is a proxy for le­gi­t­i­mate au­thor­ity. In and of it­self, such “life ex­pe­rience” is nec­es­sary for an in­formed ra­tio­nal wor­ld­view, but it is not suffi­cient.

The claim that more “life ex­pe­rience” will com­pletely re­verse an opinion in­di­cates that the per­son mak­ing such a claim be­lieves that opinions from oth­ers are based pri­mar­ily on ac­cu­mu­lat­ing anec­dotes, per­haps de­rived from ex­ten­sive availa­bil­ity bias. It ac­tu­ally is a pretty de­cent as­sump­tion that other peo­ple aren’t Bayesian, be­cause for the most part, they aren’t. Many can con­firm this, in­clud­ing Haidt, Kah­ne­man, and Tver­sky.

When an op­po­nent ap­peals to more “life ex­pe­rience,” it’s a last re­sort, and it’s a con­ver­sa­tion halter. This tac­tic is used when an op­po­nent is cor­nered. The claim is nearly an out­right ac­knowl­edg­ment of mov­ing to exit the realm of ra­tio­nal de­bate. Why stick to ra­tio­nal dis­course when you can shift to trad­ing anec­dotes? It lev­els the play­ing field, be­cause anec­dotes, while Bayesian ev­i­dence, are eas­ily abused, es­pe­cially for com­plex moral, so­cial, and poli­ti­cal claims. As rhetoric, this is frus­trat­ingly effec­tive, but it’s log­i­cally rude.

Although it might be rude and rhetor­i­cally weak, it would be au­thor­i­ta­tively ap­pro­pri­ate for a Bayesian to be con­de­scend­ing to a non-Bayesian in an ar­gu­ment. Con­versely, it can be down­right mad­den­ing for a non-Bayesian to be con­de­scend­ing to a Bayesian, be­cause the non-Bayesian lacks the episte­molog­i­cal au­thor­ity to war­rant such con­de­scen­sion. E.T. Jaynes wrote in Prob­a­bil­ity The­ory about the ar­ro­gance of the un­in­formed, “The semil­iter­ate on the next bar stool will tell you with ab­solute, ar­ro­gant as­surance just how to solve the world’s prob­lems; while the scholar who has spent a life­time study­ing their causes is not at all sure how to do this.”