Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Misc. » Blog | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap

Illustration of assumption and lack of deliberation


The below text is something originally published on my blog. It is present here mainly to have a preservation independent of the external blog site. I make no guarantees that it is worthy of reading or that it makes sense out of its original context.

I recently received a comment on an earlier entrye, which ironically demonstrated (albeit imperfectly) the point I was making, namely that people tend to jump to conclusions and give advice/make remarks that show a too shallow understanding of the issue—while also believing that they are helpful. It also partially illustrates a point from an earlier article: People often make assumptions about intentions that are not (or only partially) correct, and evaluate an issue based on these assumptions, rather than the issue it self. Below, I will discuss the comment.

The comment (with some minor typos corrected):

Why does this bother you?

People can only base their opinions on their own experiences. If they have not experienced what you have been through, how can you expect them to be any wiser than you on the subject?


Does not this comment look reasonable in context? Yes, it does—which should be a warning sign to us all that our own, perfectly reasonable seeming, comments can on occasion be simplistic. (And with that I do include my own comments.) In particular, this article should not be seen as a criticism of the poster, but as a critique of the phenomenon.

Let us look at this comment sentence for sentence:

  1. “Why does this bother you?”

    While the commenter is not wrong in his assumption that I am bothered (or, more accurately, annoyed) by this, the assumption is of only minor relevance—while, in my impression, coloring the rest of the comment. (Obviously, this impression is also an assumption, and therefore dangerous; however, some amount of assumption is unavoidable; and the discussion made here would still be a valid illustration of the principles involved, even if my assumptions are incorrect in this specific instance.)

    In reality, the reason for my post is that I try to spread the insights I have gained (for what they may be worth), point to problems with the world, etc., in the hope that I can make a at least some minor difference. Specifically, as discussed in an earlier entry, I have a backlog of minor items that I currently try to channel over my blog, because they are too small to incorporate into my website in my usual manner.

  2. “People can only base their opinions on their own experiences.”

    A semi-truth: Own experiences is likely the most important factor when building opinions; however, other factors play in too—including what has been read in books and papers, and heard from others. (A nit-picking epistemologist might take the position that even reading is an “own experience”; however, such wide a meaning is unlike to have been the commenter’s intention, when considering the typical, every day, use of the word.) Depending on how “base” is intended, we may or may not need to additionally consider various kinds of thinking, reasoning, and similar.

    Further, this statement does not make sense in the interpretation of my text that I intended, but does so under the apparent assumptions of the commenter.

  3. “If they have not experienced what you have been through, how can you expect them to be any wiser than you on the subject?”

    Well, for one thing, they do not necessarily have to be wiser—almost everyone has something to learn from almost everyone else, in at least some area. (Although it will not necessarily be what he wanted to learn—or what the other wanted to teach.) For another, they could have built wisdom on another route than I have taken, e.g. by making different, but still applicable, experiences—and the opinions of someone who has taken another path are usually more interesting and worthy of attention than those of someone who has taken the same path.

    Notably, however, the statement misses the point I was trying to make: Firstly, many of the people who have disappointed me in this regard have been people who have claimed expertise in a certain area, people where I have had reason to assume expertise, or people where I have hoped for a second opinion, a different perspective, or similar. Secondly, the central issue, to me, is not their lack of expertise, but their lack of reflection: Even a true expert can make amateurish misstatements, when spitting out answers without reflection; even a beginner can say something worth-while, when taking the time to reflect. A rapid answer should imply that the question is easy, that it is something that has already been considered, or similar—unfortunately, however, it is often just a lack of thought.