Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Life Experience Should Not Modify Your Opinion

When I'm debating some controversial topic with someone older than I am, even if I can thoroughly demolish their argument, I am sometimes met with a troubling 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 my opinion is based primarily on nothing more than my perception from personal experience.

When my cornered opponent makes this claim, it's a last resort. It's unwarranted condescension, because it reveals how wrong their entire approach is. Just by making the claim, they demonstrate that they believe all opinions are based primarily on an accumulation of personal experiences, even their own opinions. Their assumption reveals that they are not Bayesian, and that they intuit that no one is. For not being Bayesian, they have no authority that warrants such condescension.

I intentionally avoid presenting personal anecdotes cobbled together as evidence, because I know that projecting my own experience onto a situation to explain it is no evidence at all. I know that I suffer from all sorts of cognitive biases that obstruct my understanding of the truth. As such, my inclination is to rely on academic consensus. If I explain this explicitly to my opponent, they might dismiss academics as unreliable and irrelevant, hopelessly stuck in the ivory tower of academia.

Dismiss academics at your own peril. Sometimes there are very good reasons for dismissing academic consensus. I concede that most academics aren't Bayesian because academia is an elaborate credentialing and status-signaling mechanism. Furthermore, academics have often been wrong. The Sokal affair illustrates that entire fields can exist completely without merit. That academic consensus can easily be wrong should be intuitively obvious to an atheist; religious community leaders have always been considered academic experts, the most learned and smartest members of society. Still, it would be a fallacious inversion of an argument from authority to dismiss academic consensus simply because it is academic consensus.

For all of academia's flaws, the process of peer-reviewed scientific inquiry, informed by logic, statistics, and regression analysis, offers a better chance at discovering truth than any other institution in history. It is noble and desirable to criticize academic theories, but only as part of intellectually honest, impartial scientific inquiry. Dismissing academic consensus out of hand is primitive, and indicates intellectual dishonesty.

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