Some time ago I found myself in the middle of a discussion about race relations and minority experiences. When it was my chance to speak, I mentioned some statistical data that appeared to challenge the common narrative that racism is widespread and systemic. My interlocutor’s reply was that he simply did not care about the data—his own experiences as a person of color were more important and trumped any appeal to statistics. Another party to the discussion agreed, saying that people matter more than numbers.
The title of a recent article by Dawn Butler, a British MP, echoes this sentiment: “Unless you have lived experience of racism there’s no guarantee you’ll understand it.” A host of other politicians have leveraged appeals to lived experience in support of their policy goals. Elsewhere, a reporter for Time describes her lived experiences as a “source of expertise” as opposed to an “emotional bias.” Lived experiences have taken on a near-sacred status under which they cannot be questioned. Case in point: the Facebook group for the news website Vox bans “comments that invalidate the lived experiences of group members.”
But are lived experiences really that special? No. Quite simply, appeals to “lived experiences” are exercises in bad statistical reasoning.
To see why, let’s suppose that I made the argument that smoking causes cancer, and that I backed this up with a mountain of scientific data and peer-reviewed studies. Now suppose that someone responded to all of this with the following: “But my grandpa Bob smoked cigarettes all of his life and never developed cancer! So smoking doesn’t cause cancer after all!”
Would you be convinced by this reply? I hope not. Smoking is a contributory cause of cancer: those who smoke have a much higher likelihood of developing certain cancers than those who don’t because the act of smoking contributes something toward that outcome, even though that outcome doesn’t always happen. So, just because some smokers don’t develop cancer doesn’t mean that smoking plays no role in causing it.
I frequently use this example when teaching causal reasoning in my logic and critical thinking classes. The point behind the example is that personal anecdotes do not invalidate statistical generalizations, which are by nature probabilistic. Most students have no difficulty seeing this point, perhaps because the link between smoking and cancer has been made abundantly clear to them. Yet students will often turn around and commit this error later on when talking about issues that they might have a personal stake in.
For example, in response to the claim that marijuana use increases the likelihood of developing certain mental illnesses, students will sometimes cite the fact that they have personally smoked marijuana without developing mental illness. Yet these experiences are irrelevant. Even if it turns out that marijuana use isn’t a risk factor for mental illness, citing one’s personal experience with marijuana does absolutely nothing to show that. This is because we are dealing with statistical probabilities.
Another example: in response to the claim that children raised in single mother households fare worse compared to those raised in two-parent families, students will sometimes cite their own success stories being raised by a single mother. There is no doubt that these examples exist, but they do not falsify the statistical generalization that single mother households on average fare worse. Affirming this does not detract from the dignity of these students or their parents.
Lived experiences as bad statistical reasoning
In fairness to my students, it’s an easy error to make when it concerns something you’re invested in, which might explain why it’s so widespread. We see it present in the appeal to “lived experiences” as a special source of knowledge. These are the experiences of minority groups who live under oppressive power structures. They are said to hold special epistemic weight because they offer unique insight into the nature of oppression and structural injustice from the standpoint of those who are dominated.
Lived experiences are often vividly used by progressive activists as evidence of widespread injustice, accompanied with a call for action and social change. Yet basing one’s entire case for widespread injustice and sweeping social change on lived experiences is, quite simply, bad statistical reasoning. Why should one’s personal experience of (say) racism carry any special weight? Should the experience of the smoker who never developed cancer also carry special weight? What about the experience of the unvaccinated person who never got a preventable illness? Or the experience of the chronic gambler who managed to keep his life intact?
The point is not that experiences of racism are like these other experiences or to cast real experiences of racism in a negative light. The point is that one cannot prove or disprove generalizations simply based on personal experiences. This is a pretty basic rule of statistical reasoning that seems to have been lost on many people who should know better. Just because one experiences racism (as I have) does not show that racism is widespread or deeply ingrained, any more than one’s experience with a smoker who did not develop cancer shows that smoking doesn’t cause cancer.
Even if one redefines racism, sexism, and the like (as critical theory does), the point remains: lived experiences cannot be used to make (or disprove) statistical generalizations about the prevalence of social injustice, whether it be police violence, sexual harassment, or economic disparities.
Every experience is “unique” in the sense that it is from the standpoint of an individual person who is not identical to any other person. We might say then that all experiences are “lived” experiences. If one has special weight, they all do. But if they all do, then there’s nothing really special about them.
To be fair, it’s not just progressive activists who will build cases on experiences or anecdotes. When others do it, the reasoning is equally flimsy. But progressive activists are unique in that they view these experiences as sacred and unquestionable. While most recognize that experiences are useful illustrative tools, lived experiences take on the status of quasi-divine revelation for them.
Retreating to postmodern epistemology doesn’t help
Now critical theorists might object to what I’ve said on the grounds that we have ignored the proper context for considering lived experiences. That is to say, we cannot understand the “logic” behind lived experiences without understanding their role in the larger postmodern epistemic framework upon which critical theory is based. They argue that there is a difference between mere experiences and lived experiences.
But this response makes things worse, for it means that lived experiences lose their persuasive power. Here’s why: critical theory starts with a set of postmodern “axioms” from which lived experiences are supposed to derive their special weight. Only those lived experiences which are in harmony with these axioms can “count” as legitimate sources of knowledge. Now this setup might be fine if we’re reasoning from within the critical theorist’s own internal system among those who already accept it, but it is obviously circular reasoning if used as a means of persuading those outside the critical theorist’s framework to accept its claims about oppression, structural injustice, and the like. Why? Because those who don’t already accept the critical theorist’s radical postmodern framework (which is most people) will have no reason to treat lived experiences as authoritative. Yet this is exactly how many activists will use lived experiences when arguing about their pet issues.
In other words, if lived experiences only derive their weight from a specific epistemic framework, then using lived experiences as a way of proving that framework is rigging the game by assuming the very thing in question.
One might fall back to the claim that lived experiences are normatively authoritative within the postmodern framework of critical theory (and thus can no longer function to prove claims outside the framework), but then they become inept as tools for activism and social change. And progressive activists don’t want to relinquish that weapon.
So those who wish to accord special argumentative weight to lived experiences face a dilemma. Either lived experiences have special weight on their own merits, or they have special weight within the context of a larger postmodern epistemic system. If the former, then according special weight to lived experiences amounts to nothing more than fallacious statistical reasoning. If the latter, then it is circular reasoning, which is also fallacious.
Either way, things don’t look good. If we want to talk about lived experiences, then we should just talk about them as just being experiences, subject to the same rules as other experiences. There is nothing particularly special about their being “lived.”
Tim Hsiao is an assistant professor of philosophy and humanities at Grantham University. His teaching and research interests are in applied ethics, social philosophy, and environmental ethics. Hsiao’s writing has appeared in journals such as Public Affairs Quarterly, the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, and Sport, Ethics, and Philosophy. He has also written for several popular outlets, including the Federalist, Public Discourse, Arc Digital, Human Events, and the Foundation for Economic Education.
You can learn more about Tim by visiting his website.