What should we value more – experience or knowledge?


My stepfather is a 60 year old retired minister of the United Church. His shtick is helping old people find meaning in life and discovering ways to “age well”. He is pretty well-read, was university educated, which, coupled with his personality and the fact that he has been in a position of authority for most of his life, makes him pretty pompous and arrogant whenever we discuss any sort of serious issues. So… we fight a lot.


A few weeks ago, I and my stepdad were talking about my deceased grandmother, who had saved up a quarter of a million dollars before she died by living very frugally. She had planned to use that money to travel and see the world, but she didn’t plan for cancer taking her at 70. One time, she had the opportunity to visit Egypt – something she always wanted to do – but didn’t because it would have cost $5000. I said that it was a big shame that she didn’t get to do that, and my stepdad went bananas.


He insisted that because I am only 25, I have absolutely no frame of reference to evaluate what money meant to my grandma, and therefore I have no business saying anything about it. I argued that I knew she lived through hard economic times, and that I can at least relate on an intellectual level. He kept that because I have no life experience, I cannot possibly understand.


This then turned into an all-out battle about how I know nothing about the world despite being a Masters student just because I have no life experience. What really stunned me was my stepdad’s single-minded insistence that experience alone is the only criterion of importance and those without experience have no claim whatsoever to true knowledge.


I value experience a lot. Experience is what allows me to distinguish between good and bad information. As we gain experience through learning, living, seeing and thinking, we develop useful rules to evaluate new information. I don’t think however that anyone who doesn’t have 50 years of experience has nothing at all to say or contribute to a conversation. Even though I didn’t live through poverty, I can understand that people who have value money more. There are methods through which people who don’t have the experience can learn from those who do, and it doesn’t have to take a lifetime to master this skill.


For instance, if I have a medical question, I would first try to look it up on the internet, visiting Wikipedia first. I would look at the sources of these pieces of information to gauge whether or not they are from experts in medicine. I know from reading and education that those who claim that they have easy cures are often unreliable, while research scientists and doctors are more reliable. I also know that if there is a consensus between many experts on the problem then it is more likely to be true. Thus little by little I can form an educated opinion on my question. This process of critically analyzing information is accessible to people of any age and experience, although those who have more experience doing it can probably doing faster.


The main problem with my stepdad’s position is that he thinks opinions of people with more “experience” should automatically be considered more valuable. But very experienced people can still be dead wrong about an issue. His experiences could have biased him to think a certain way, they could have been limited and incomplete, or they could have been in certain areas not pertinent to the issue at hand. Blindly asserting that experience is the be all and end all is just an excuse to dismiss opposing opinions. Moreover, it can be used by older people to silence the opinions of young people, which is ageism.


Many forms of pseudoscience hide behind “experience”, claiming that all the experiences of practitioners are enough to prove them right. However, one of the most important lessons that science has taught us is that personal experience alone is not enough to get us to the truth – we have to also experiment, analyze, and criticize our experiences. Humans are very flawed animals – our senses and the way we process information are easily misled and misbehave frequently. We should thus always be suspicious of our experiences and be open to criticism.


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Katie is a graduate student from Canada studying the environment and systems theory. She also loves dinosaurs and baking cupcakes. Follow her on twitter @katiekish

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