Experience Versus Information

I am reading David McCullough‘s The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. (Yes, I like McCullough very much.) In a passage about the fundamental differences between Brooklyn and New York (i.e., Manhattan), McCullough writes:

People then were still inclined to form opinions more from experience than information and it was the experience of most Brooklyn people that between their city and the other one, there was no comparison.

The time he is writing about is the late 1860’s. The observation that fascinates me is that “people then were still inclined to form opinions more from experience than information.” This strikes me as both a) true and b) profound, though I am willing to be argued out of either one. It also makes me wonder further:

1. In the modern age, do we primarily treat information as a substitute for experience?

2. If so, do the benefits outweigh the losses?

3. If McCullough is right, doesn’t it make bad information that much more dangerous?

4. If McCullough is right, might we approach a point where information distrust and overload encourage people to return to experiential wisdom?


I would posit that the situation is not necessarily that we value information compared to experience differently than 19th century Brooklynites. People of both times value experience about the same ... i.e. quite a lot. What has changed since the 19th century is that we have more information to collect and weigh against our experiences.

The change that has taken place since the 19th century is that we now have available to us considerably more "information" compared to our "experiences." Our basic, inherent ability to collect and process "experience" is the same in the 21st century as it was in the 19th, we just have more "information" going along for the ride.

This leaves us 21st century folk considerably more conflicted about things, generally. Whereas in the 19th century people had experiences, and might occasionally pick up a piece of information that conflicts with it, because we are exposed to so much more information, we're faced with these conflicts more more frequently.



'There is no such thing as a good influence. All influence is immoral - immoral from the scientific point of view.

Because to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly - that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.'

-Oscar Wilde "Picture of Dorian Gray" 1890

Brian Miller

"Information" and "Experience" are one and the same. The only difference is the sourcing. It's very difficult for one person to collect enough data on anything with their own two eyes to form an opinion that isn't subject to random wackyness (aka the possibility of being an outlier). Most of the "bad information" we get, is what we collect ourselves.

Or, as Obi-Wan Kenobi famously said in Episode IV: "Your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them."

Stats never lie, but analysts often do.


I think that despite what we want to believe, we do take information and treat it sometimes the same as if it were based on our own experiences. Kids grow up listening to biased news channels that their parents put in front of them, and then fall into the CNN effect. They believe the stories on presidential candidates, wars, etc and fail to see the spin put on the stories or the exaggerations.


Reminds me what I was taught about Doctors. They must "look in the bed". Doctors have bad tendency to rely on lab tests, blood work, etc... and too often forget to "experience" a patient by speaking with him, looking at him, laying hands on him, and asking questions.

Certainly it is the Balance of what you experience plus the information that makes the best decisions.

Jason R.

To point #4:

The converse could also be true. That is, bad experience could potentially be much more dangerous. To take McCullough's imagery a bit further, imagine a person from Brooklyn being mugged in Manhattan. Basing his experience solely on that shouldn't define Manhattan a crime ridden area.


I think information is always filtered through experience. Information is a great reference point, but experience is an anchor we trust.

tom taylor

experience from the past is a good basis,but if the data collected is go see for yourself data then experience has credibility some what.not all you see is what is actually happening always.

be honest and state it that way.


the corollary to 4 may be more subversive- higher levels of info distrust may lead to cynicism, rather than encouraging enlightenment


1. Yes. As education increases, people tend to become more and more specialized and ignorant about subjects outside their realm of expertise.

2, Up to a point, but once your ability to apply info begins to degrade, you shift into the loss column. Information is useless if you have no idea what to do with it, and worse than useless if that's the case, but you mistakenly think you do. I've seen a couple of Six Sigma blackbelt solutions implode upon application because the team got lost in the metrics and failed to include anyone who would actually have to work under the proposal and would have been able - in an instant - to point out why it was ridiculously impractical. In one of the cases I'm thinking of, there was even a clamor from lower level employess for senior management to punish the team by forcing them to work under the parameters of their proposal.

3. Yes.

4. Yes.



I find the differentiation between information and experience itself an interesting topic. Is experience not just information that one has gathered him/herself? And is information not just the collection of experiences of other people? The substance is not different, just the method of collection.

I think the point to be made here is that people tend to trust themselves more than others and need to be convinced otherwise. In an extremely individualistic society such as ours, this seems perfectly natural. Though I wonder if this dynamic is present, or as strong, in more communal cultures, such as China.

experiencing the joy of the keyboard

1-yes---many moexperiencing the joy of the keyboardre sources of information

2-no and yes

3-Two words: Rush Limbaugh

4-no--we'll just refine our sources

Another Paul

Here is my take as a technology worker: Information is critically important, but experience separates the great from anyone who relies just on information.

Take driving a car. You can read a bunch of stuff about driving a car correctly -- following distances, checking mirrors, attending to stop lights, etc. But until you have the experience of a pedestrian walking in front of you against a light, or driving on ice or snow, or dealing with a blown tire, you are not as good a driver as someone who has those experiences behind them.

In computer science it is the same way. You can read lots of information about why this or that or the other approach is the best. And, generally, all the approaches are correct in some circumstances. But you need the context that experience provides to understand when to apply a given principle and how to weed out the redundant or unnecessary guidance from that which is useful.



While we suffer from information overload, we heavily rely on information. Experience, however, is what we use to interpret the information. While we are often not conscious of the process, experience shapes our reaction to, and the way we assimilate the information into our various processes.

Science Editor


Your Guide to News Around th Web


The information can be of good/bad. But you need experience, in interpreting the information and you go by that.

With only information, you could end up like the good old frog experiment, where a scientist cuts all the legs of the frog, and decides, if u cut all the legs the frog goes deaf.