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Midday Matinee – Is Experience the Best Teacher?

December 10, 2012

Midday Matinee

Midday Matinee – Is Experience the Best Teacher?

My late father-in-law used to say, when a bug hit the windshield, “I bet he won’t have the guts to do that again.” Obviously I’m not talking about that kind of experience. (More)

Midday Matinee is our people watching, people doing and people being feature. Join the Woodland Creatures for an afternoon break.

What got me to thinking about experience was the weather. I’ve been in Florida a couple of weeks and it hasn’t rained at all. Previously I came to the same part of Florida numerous times for business and the locals told me that there was a thunder storm every day in the late afternoon. Up until now, I was reliably informed by my experience that it did indeed rain every afternoon. I was missing the wet season/dry season distinctions.

I also traveled to Seattle for business. I remember sunny, glorious days with the mountains clearly visible. My hosts took me boating on Puget Sound. My ‘experience’ of Seattle is of a warm, sunny place with great people.

Seattle’s weather reputation as rainy and gray doesn’t match my experience or the complete meteorological records.

Despite being on the margin of the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, the city has a reputation for frequent rain. This reputation stems from the frequency of precipitation in the fall, winter, and spring. In an average year, more than 0.3 mm (0.01 in) of precipitation falls on 150 days.

Surprisingly, Seattle proper was not listed in a study that revealed the 10 rainiest cities in the continental United States. … Seattle receives the largest amount of rainfall of any U.S. city of more than 250,000 people in November, and is in the top 10 through winter, but is in the lower half of all cities from June to September. Seattle is in the top 5 rainiest U.S. cities by number of precipitations days, and it gets the least amount of annual sunlight of all major cities in the lower-48 states. Thunderstorms are rare; the city reports thunder on just seven days per year. By comparison, Fort Myers, Florida reports thunder on 93 days per year, Kansas City on 52, and New York City on 25.

Did you notice the 93 days of thunder a year in Florida? Me too. Florida is a big state though.

Experience can be like snapshots that reveal that a couple of times in my life I had really bad hair days. Clearly with the hair, I have other photos with okay hairstyles, okay but dated in some cases. Experience is an unreliable predictor of many things beyond the weather. I know this intellectually but my experiences are imbedded in my memory in a way that just the facts are not.

I think this is but one more reason why story tellers are much more powerful shapers of our culture than statisticians, although we do need them both. Experience may not always be the best teacher.

  • winterbanyan

    This interested me, especially your conclusion that experience may not always be the best teacher. I lived in Oregon for 4 years, outside Portland, and my memory is of endless rain and the constant jokes: “Oregon is 38 million umbrellas with feet” and “We call the sun a UFO.”

    Whether it was the rainiest place I ever lived is open to debate: I lived in a town in upstate New York that had 68 sunny days per year at the time. I do remember once the whole town started counting and we reached 63 days during which it never stopped raining.

    Yet when Iook back at it, I remember sunny summer days. 🙂

    When it comes to weather, experience is probably a lousy guide, but I can think of a whole lot of things where it wouldn’t be: like choosing a life partner. Hah!

    • addisnana

      Using experience with the weather becomes even iffier when climate change is thrown in. The phrase “experience is the best teacher” has a ring of unchallenged truth to it. It may be true if people learn from their experiences, but alas, watching the GOP try ‘learning’ doesn’t offer much hope.

  • NCrissieB

    Part of the problem here is the availability heuristic, the flawed but very human tendency to estimate the probability of an event by how easily we can recall an example of that event. Simply:

    — “If I can think of examples off the top of my head, this must happen pretty often.”


    — “If I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, this must not happen often.”

    That feels like it should be true, but when you factor in negativity bias and other memory-skewing factors – most of which are reasonable albeit irrational – what we remember most easily is not a reliable model of how often events happen. The classic example is airline crashes: most of us can remember several examples, and estimate that airline travel is far more dangerous than the per-passenger-mile data show.

    The flip side is that if we get lots of practice with the same event, and if we get immediate feedback for various solutions, our experience-based, intuitive probability estimates can be very reliable.

    That “(lots of) practice (plus immediate feedback) makes (as close as humans get to) perfect” also becomes part of our experience … and it leads us to be far more confident than human frailty supports.

    • addisnana

      That “(lots of) practice (plus immediate feedback) makes (as close as humans get to) perfect” also becomes part of our experience … and it leads us to be far more confident than human frailty supports.

      Indeed the sense of confidence is too often misplaced. The weather just brought it home for me once again.