Atheist Meme of the Day: Personal Experience /= Data


Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own.

Personal experience is not, by itself, enough reason to believe something is true. And that’s just as true for religion as anything else. Our personal experience told us for centuries that the sun orbited the earth. To be reasonably certain that what our experience tells us is probably true, we need to rely on rigorous testing of hypotheses. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Comments

  1. says

    How do you explain this to people who insist on claiming that everything we observe, even in the context of a scientific experiment, boils down to personal experience? Do you even try to or is it worth it?

  2. says

    How do you explain this to people who insist on claiming that everything we observe, even in the context of a scientific experiment, boils down to personal experience?

    I would say that there’s a difference between an experience that can be rigorously cross-checked by several different people — i.e., a replicable scientific experiment — and one person’s experience that can’t be replicated by anyone, and that disappears when factors like the placebo effect and confirmation bias get ruled out by careful experimental procedure.
    You might be interested in a piece I wrote a while back, Blind Men and Elephants: Religion, Science, and Understanding Big Complicated Things. I talk about the story of the blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is, and they all have different experiences… but I point out that nowhere in the story do the blind men compare notes and work together to figure out what an elephant is. It’s basically about this exact topic: the difference between subjective personal experience (important, but deeply flawed) and the scientific method (also flawed, but a whole lot less flawed than personal intuition).

  3. jdhuey says

    The problem,for me, is that I have a large number of conclusions based on personal experience but, of those, very few have been addressed in any scientific way. I like to think that I’m open minded enough that if some well performed study contradicts my experience then I will modify my conclusions. I’m not going to elevate my personal experience reaction to that of a statement about reality. However, when I’m conducting my day to day existence, the vast majority of my decisions end up being determined by experience alone and not by science. Of course, most of those decisions are of a trivial nature so, hopefully, even if I’m wrong, no biggie.

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