January 26, 2007

If You Haven't Done X, You Can't Talk About X: The Personal Experience Myth

One of the most common challenges heard by helping professionals who treat persons with substance-related problems is that people who have not personally experienced these problems having nothing useful to offer. "Have you ever been an alcoholic? If not, who are you to help me? You can't possibly understand what I'm going through." The erroneous claim that personal experience is a prerequisite for competence extends far beyond this scenario. It has been used by a couple readers to challenge me on some recent posts about parenting practices. It also has larger implications for understanding the religious mind (consider the concept of personal revelation). This is a myth worth exploring.

Much like the person suffering from a substance-related disorder challenging the competence their therapist, some readers ask, "Are you are parent? If not, what gives you the right to say anything about parenting?" The implication is quite clear. If I am not a parent, I hereby lose all credibility when it comes to parenting. It doesn't matter how much scientific literature I've digested. None of my opinions should be considered valid. It doesn't matter whether I've conducted scientific research on parenting practices, attending professional trainings on family law, parenting skills, or related topics. I have nothing of value to offer. You could pick any parent at random, and this individual would know far more about appropriate parenting than I could (unless of course I had children).

The nature of the claims I have just discussed provides a revealing insight into what psychologists call "dichotomous" or "black-and-white" thinking. If you have children, you are an expert on parenting. If not, you can offer nothing of value. No shades of gray are permitted. Not surprisingly, research has documented a relationship between this style of thinking and religious fundamentalism.

There are too many ways to shatter the personal experience myth to consider them all, so I'll focus on one. There are many ways to obtain knowledge, and personal experience is often relevant. However, it is widely recognized throughout the sciences that personal experience is deeply flawed with biases, cognitive errors, and a host of other human flaws. For this reason, it is rarely considered a valid form of knowledge in the pursuit of science. In fact, personal experience is considered alongside authority in virtually every introductory psychology text when the scientific method is introduced. Students learn that expertise is based on scholarly research and familiarity with the process of science, not on authoritarian pronouncements and personal experience. The books typically follow this presentation with several examples of how science has destroyed what was previously accepted as "common sense."

When believers say that their belief is based on personal revelation, they are treading on similar ground. They make claims about the natural world, justify these claims on the basis of religious dogma, and then attempt to validate the dogma through personal revelation. They know the words in their bible are true because they feel the presence of their god. How do they know they are not mistaken? Because they feel the presence so strongly. Why won't their god reveal itself to us so we can understand? Because we don't believe. Personal experience in the form of revelation trumps all.

Time to simplify this a bit to wrap up. The question: "What are the psychological effects of spanking on children of a certain age range over a specified interval of time?" How do we answer this question? Do we simply ask a parent? To answer this question, I want scientific research conducted by qualified experts. I want their qualifications to include advanced degrees because this tells me that they have vast expertise in many areas which will be relevant (e.g., child development, research design, statistics, etc.). Beyond this, I want replication of their findings by an independent research team, and I want everything peer-reviewed. It makes no difference to me whatsoever if these researchers have children.

A small minority of my readers may disagree. They would evidently take the word of pretty much any parent over the scientific process I described. And they question my credibility?

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