Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

Argumentum ad Experientiam
by G. Stolyarov II

Recently, in a response to my satirical commentary, “Michael Moore’s Mystery Message,” I was told by a man who visits Iraq “every month” that my arguments against Mr. Moore’s portrayal of the situation there in his recent documentary were off target. He did not tell me how my arguments were off target, or what he had observed during his travels in Iraq that would discredit my case. Nevertheless, he did venture to express his suggestion that I visit Iraq before I write about it. Rather than offering concrete evidence or abstract reasoning of any sort, this man merely seemed to state: “I know more than you because I have been in Iraq. Thus, you are automatically wrong.” This is an example of perhaps the most grievous logical fallacy of our time, and one of the greatest existing obstacles to rational argumentation: argumentum ad experientiam, Latin for argument from experience.

Argumentum ad experientiam is not an argument from any particular experience; the latter would merely be an appeal to objective evidence and fact. Rather, the fallacy consists of citing experience in general as a warrant for one argumentator’s superiority over another.  For example, the man who had written to me concerning the Iraq issue did not mention what in his experience allows him to hold the position he does. Rather, he claimed that because he possesses certain experience, he is inherently better qualified to judge an issue than I. Thus, he implicitly requests that his position be accepted a priori, before the presentation of any evidence, while mine be similarly discredited a priori.

It does not take long to see that argumentum ad experientiam is but a subtle variation on an ad hominem argument, which attacks a person rather than the idea that person presents. The ad hominem argumentator seeks to show, by means of absolute illogic, that, because his opponent in the debate is somehow inferior or lacking, everything he says is therefore incorrect. Certain ad hominem appeals, to race, gender, or nationality, for example, are bigotry in the most transparent sense. However, the ad hominem appeal to an opponent’s inexperience is a more subtle variation of “poisoning the well,” and thus still retains considerable respectability in the modern culture.

The most evil variant of argumentum ad experientiam today is the most expansive one, which serves to discredit an opponent’s entire spectrum of reasoning and ideas. While “not having been to Iraq” may unjustifiably smear one in a debate on Iraq, it bears no effect on a debate on tariff laws or abortion. But a viler device is used to discredit almost anyone in any debate, often under the pretense of compassion and even objectivity. This is the appeal to inexperience due to age.

An example of this took place during my campaign to spread information in opposition to the re-implementation of military conscription. I had written a series of essays on the matter, and also entertained contributions by others. An extremely eloquent 17-year-old high school student named Robert Olson submitted an essay, titled “Four-Thousand-Fold: An Essay Attempting to Discredit a Potential Draft in America.” Mr. Olson’s work was well supported with factual evidence and considerable rhetorical finesse. In a world plagued by argumentum ad experientiam, however, Mr. Olson made one critical mistake: he revealed his age/educational background in the author credentials paragraf following the essay. Both of us encountered substantial opposition from pro-conscription ideologues, but the treatment we received differed dramatically. I was told by a certain member of the military that, though he vehemently disagreed with my point of view, my style of argument and the amount and complexity of information that I had employed were impressive. According to him, this type of expression was one of the reasons why he had enlisted to defend his country in the first place. Mr. Olson, on the other hand, was dismissed by no less than fifteen responders as “inexperienced” and not qualified to discuss the draft issue (ironically, despite the fact that the draft would affect him more personally than it would most anyone else!).  Certain persons even suggested that, in some twenty years, Mr. Olson will be looking back at his essay with either great embarrassment or great laughter. What is this perversion of any possible rationality that allows arguments of the same intellectual caliber to be treated, by some of the same people, in a diametrically opposite way?

The argumentum ad experientiam due to age is not limited to intellectual discrimination against the very young. It can be used by a 40-year-old against a 25-year-old, by a 50-year-old against a 35-year-old, or by that same 50-year-old against a 70-year-old who is judged to be “too out-of-touch” or “too old-fashioned” to properly evaluate an issue. It can even be wielded by pop-culturist teenagers seeking to discredit the “inexperience” of their elders with the newest types of bizarre hairdos and obscene floor-wriggling.

Using age as the benchmark of judgment is perhaps the most obscene form of discrimination possible; the intelligence, knowledge, and reasoning ability of individuals shows no direct correlation with respect to it.  Surely, John Stuart Mill, who was already a prominent administrator of the East India Company at age seventeen, could not be dismissed as ”inexperienced” in comparison to even the typical fifty-year-old. An individual’s ability to make accurate judgments and evaluate the world objectively is not determined by automatic chronological progression, but by the choices that individual makes, especially in his early life. A child prodigy, well read and well schooled in the techniques of rhetoric from an early age, could easily outthink any academician who had dallied away his college years, indulging in women and drink, and who considers himself vindicated by the “experience” automatically bestowed by his advanced degree.

Moreover, not only is the quality of the argumentator independent of generic “experience,” but so is the quality of the argument. A little two-year-old, saying “two plus two equals four” presents absolute, irrefutable truth, even if this is all he knows about mathematics, while a professional modern mathematician, espousing the existence of a 2.67th dimension, is absolutely wrong, no matter for how many years he had allowed himself to dwell upon the denial of the evidence of the sense.

That evidence of the senses is indeed extremely important in many debates and intellectual positions, but the particular argumentator’s experience is absolutely irrelevant. I can, for example, read an eyewitness report on the situation in Iraq, written by someone else, and still gather the facts I need to argue a position accurately. I do not have to be there to be right. Knowledge of a fact is just that; nowhere does it necessitate being a first-hand witness to everything one seeks to discuss. Nor does a first-hand witness offer anything constructive to a discussion if he does not state precisely what he had witnessed.

Moreover, the implication of falling prey to argumentum ad experientiam is the absolute discrediting of the ability of one’s own mind to form its own conclusions and judge every issue independently, based on reason, not blind faith in authority. The ad experientiam argumentator effectively states to his adversary: “You must renounce the integrity of your thinking mind and submit to me, the authority.” If anyone had dared say that openly and expect voluntary subordination, they would be laughed out of the discussion, and rightly so. For, if anyone ever sought to impose such subservience coercively, he would be termed a tyrant. In the words of George Orwell, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

And freedom occurs when anyone can say it, regardless of “experience.”
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