Key Terms and the Inference Continuum

Overview: This page defines inferences and explains the mechanism of an inference continuum.

Inferences: An inference is an educated guess based on available information. There are two types:

Causal Inferences – Looking for the cause of something (before)
Predictive Inferences – Guessing at possible effects of something (after)

An inference is either strong or weak based on its correspondence with our experiences. This is tricky, because we all have different experiences. If we want to increase our ability to evaluate inferences, we need to engage in a broad range of activities that will increase our experience. These would likely include: 1. Asking lots of questions, 2. Going to school, 3. Having lots of conversations, 4. Reading books, 5. Travelling, 6. Taking social and intellectual risks, etc.

An inference continuum can plot claims and predictions for a given statement:


Sample Application: For any statement, we can list causes and predictions and arrange them from strong to weak on the continuum. For example, if we start with Lots of bees are dying, a class might generate continuums that look like this:


Of course, it’s highly debatable whether or not the alien inference is really stronger than the angry bear inference, but in my experience, angry bears have difficulty organizing a dinner party, much less a protest.

For most questions, a strong inference pops into our heads quickly. For example, if a student comes into class late, dripping with water, we will quickly infer:

It’s raining outside
She was the victim of a prank

If we look out the window and find that it’s not raining, we might turn to her and say, “Goodness Harriet, who did this to you?”

Depending on our experiences on the campus, we might also infer that:

She was hit by a sprinkler
A drinking fountain or some other water pipe burst
She was engaged in a spirited squirt-gun war.

If Harriet continues to shake her head and say, ‘That’s not what happened,” we are forced to come up with some possibilities that are less familiar, and presumably, less likely. Once we have run through all of our strong inferences, imagination is required to come up with some weak ones.

She was in a play in drama class that included a baptism scene
There was a fire in the cafeteria and the overhead sprinklers went off
She spilled acid on herself during a chemistry lab and had to use the emergency power-shower.
Mean-spirited firemen drove by, saw her, and doused her with a fire hose.
Aliens were somehow involved. Or ghosts.

Aliens and ghosts are two of our culture’s default answers for events that aren’t easily explained with strong inferences. It’s entertaining to come up with weak inferences, but it’s also difficult. Many schools hang posters of Albert Einstein with his famous quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Usually the poster has a picture of Einstein making a silly face, so we’re meant to infer that Einstein felt that being silly and enjoying life is more important than being a serious scientist. It seems to me that Einstein was saying you need imagination to be a great scientist because you are constantly forced to search for seemingly weak inferences to solve hard problems.

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