Personal Experience, The Forest, The Trees, And Discussion

There have been a few times in the past when, to buttress a point I was making, I referred to specific personal experiences that reflected the point I wanted to make.

In one instance, I was having a discussion about health care policy, and referred to my personal experience on waiting lists and receiving treatment from Canadian health care providers. After recounting my predominantly negative experiences, another of the discussion's participants suggested that I was "generalizing from a sample size of one." In other words, there may be millions of other people who have had wonderful experiences receiving health care in Canada, and my "example" ignored all of them. I was being unscientific because I was relying on the experience of just one person (myself), when there are many other experiences to account for.

In another instance, while making the case that attempting to discuss religious differences among true believers leads to conflict because religious people do not want to have their differences questioned, I referred to a personal experience I had with a believer who invited me to question his faith, only to subsequently ignore my questions and put an end to the discussion. This was a clear demonstration of my point, but again, the response I received was that it was merely a sample size of one. What of all the other believers who really do want to question their own faith? I was being unfair to believers who have religious discussions because I was (supposedly) hanging my entire perspective on one bad experience with one bad apple.

One last example: I once had a debate about socialism in which I referred to a point made by Ayn Rand in one of her books. In response, my debate opponent suggested that Ayn Rand's whole perspective on socialism was not worth considering, because it was tainted by the fact that she lived through the Bolshevik Revolution. In other words, Rand's experience with Leninists had left her unable to objectively assess the relative merits of socialism.

Of the three examples I have just provided of this one concept, the last one takes the cake.

Context-Dropping And The Purpose Of An Example
One of Rand's most important contributions to logic is her identification of the fallacy of context-dropping. I have linked to the fallacy's entry in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, but that page does not really do a good job of explaining what the fallacy is. So, I'll try to illustrate the fallacy myself.

Suppose Jack and Jill are married. Every day, when Jack comes home from work, he takes off his socks and throws them in the middle of the bedroom floor. Minutes later, Jill also comes home from work to find Jack's dirty socks in the middle of the floor. Jill finds this highly irritating, so she decides to talk it over with Jack the next time he does it. The next day, Jill comes home and finds Jack's dirty socks on the floor, so during dinner Jill says, "Jack, every day I come home to find your dirty socks on the floor, and I find this very unpleasant. Could you please try not to throw your dirty socks on the floor?" To this, Jack replies, "It's not fair for you to object to this today! I had to answer the phone as soon as I came home!"

Jack has dropped the context. While he may have a valid excuse for not putting his socks away today, Jill is confronting him about a long pattern of leaving his dirty socks on the floor. Jack's point about the phone call may be a perfectly valid reason for his not putting his socks away today, but Jill's point exists in a context broader than just simply today. Jill isn't talking about today, per se. She's talking about any time Jack leaves his socks on the floor. Jack's justification for today, or indeed for any particular day, is completely beside Jill's point. Whatever the various reasons for Jack's leaving his socks on the floor, Jill's point is that it is a consistent pattern of behavior she would like him to try to avoid.

Even if Jill were to say, "Jack, I wish you hadn't have left your socks on the floor today," Jack's objection would still be an example of context-dropping, because Jill's point is bringing up today's instance specifically is merely to provide an example of the issue Jill would like to discuss.

In other words, the purpose of Jill's example is not to get caught up in the particular justifications of how and why Jack's socks ended up on the floor, but rather to highlight that Jack's irksome habit occurred as recently as today. The addressing of one day's excuses is an example of context-dropping. The broader context is the consistent sock-leaving pattern; the issue is Jack's messiness.

Avoiding The Particulars Of Examples
In our day-to-day relationships, in our political debates, in foreign affairs, in our legal battles, and in simple casual conversations, we all experience the fallacy of context-dropping. And this is especially true when someone provides a specific example in favor of their own side.

But when someone uses personal experience and illustrative examples to highlight her point, she has no intention of hammering out the specifics of the example used. She is simply clarifying her point.

Here, I'll clarify my point: When someone says, "I hate it when people drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time; in fact, the other day, I nearly had an accident with a motorist talking on a cell phone," the person has no interest is discussing whose fault that particular accident really was, or whether the other motorist was taking an emergency phone call, or whether the other motorist was swerving to avoid hitting a child who had run into the street, or anything else. Such a person is simply indicating that there are many citable examples that can be used to illustrate her point. It's not about the details of any one case.

Therefore, any attempt to prove or disprove the details of whatever example happens to be cited is spurious and irrelevant. One who chooses to disprove an illustrative example is not even addressing the other person's argument, but simply dropping the context of it.

Instead, if you'd like to reply to someone who is using an example, you could provide a counter-example. Or, you could discuss the extent to which the example illustrates your own point. Or, you could illustrate the extent to which the example is inapplicable to the present discussion. All such responses are useful and valid responses to an example. What you can't do, though, is disprove the lone example under the belief that doing so is persuasive argument for your own point.

Many people argue with each other for years simply because they are talking past each other in this way.

Personal Experience
Let me make a final point about examples cited from personal experience.

A person's own personal experiences are the primary drivers of what the person knows to be true. Suppose Jack and Jill are discussing whether or not Mr. Hill is trustworthy. Jack suggests that Mr. Hill cannot be trusted because Mr. Hill has a bad reputation. Jill responds that, notwithstanding Mr. Hill's reputation, all of her dealings with him have been positive.

Jack might counter that Jill is "just one person," and that her judgment might be unfairly clouded by her personal experience. If ninety-nine other people say they have been cheated by Mr. Hill, Jill's dealings with him may not be a representative sample of Mr. Hill's trustworthiness.

But unless Jill has observed these 99 other interactions with Mr. Hill firsthand, or unless she knows those other 99 people very well and places a high value on their word, why should she place a higher value on hearsay than her own personal experiences? There may be (and often definitely is) unique value in one's own, unique personal experiences that is not captured by a solicitation of several other people's opinions. In other words, personal experiences are an incredibly useful source of information. There may be reasons to discount one's experiences, but that hardly means that deferring to one's experiences is an act of poor judgment.

Thus, my experience with the Canadian health care system is far more valuable to me than someone else's. My experience with religious discussion is more valuable to me than the statistical possibility that a future religious discussion might not be contentious. Ayn Rand's experience with the Bolsheviks was more valuable to her than the promises of various other socialists.

Indeed, objecting to a person's examples or personal experiences becomes a case of "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

More importantly, it misses the whole point of deferring to illustrative example. Examples are used to more intuitively describe one's position, to clarify the thesis statement, not to prove it. The proof comes from the underlying reasoning, not from the example.

Don't get caught up arguing about the details of an example. Look for the forest and the trees.