Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Problem of Assumption

One thing I like to talk about with my kiddos when I'm out on an outreach is the problem of induction. To be fair, typically these kids are in like fourth or fifth grade, so I don't call it that, but when I talk about the scientific method I also talk about the fallibility of science as a method for knowledge. Usually, I say it like this:
"If you ask ten people what their favorite ice cream is, and all ten of them say 'vanilla,' is it safe to claim that one hundred percent of people like vanilla ice cream the best?"
"No," they usually chorus.
"What if you ask a hundred thousand people, and they all say they like vanilla? Is that better?"
"Yes," they usually chorus.
"Now here's the problem," I usually say. "Can you say that all people like vanilla ice cream the best?"
There is usually some disagreement about this.
"Is there a chance that there is one person in the world who doesn't like vanilla ice cream?"
"Oh," they usually say. "Yes."
"Now," I usually say, and rub my hands together gleefully, unless I have a white chocolate mocha from Starbucks, in which case I usually pause significantly and sip from it. "What if you test everyone in the world, and every single person says they like vanilla ice cream the best? Is it safe to say it then?"
Usually, some kids have caught on and say no, but usually they mostly say, "Yes."
"Is there a chance that you have made a mistake, and you wrote an answer down wrong?"
"Yes," they admit.
"Is there a chance that someday, someone will be born who likes chocolate ice cream better?"
"So can you ever know anything one hundred percent for sure?"
"No," they say.
"Does that freak you out at all?"
They usually think about this, and one of them usually says, "A little bit."

It is kind of unsettling, epistemologically speaking. But today I realized that the ability to admit that there is always a chance I could be wrong is possibly the most valuable skill I have gained.
Trusting myself, and my feelings, can sometimes be a good thing, but not always. Taking the time to think about myself and my feelings, and to evaluate them with the possibility in mind that I could be wrong is a good thing way more often, and rarely ever a bad thing.
For a long time, I think I went into most situations assuming I was wrong, which is way different. I think assuming yourself to be mistaken is a bad thing, because it discounts the possibility that other people can be wrong, or that your skills and knowledge are at least equal to, if not better than, other people's. If you are most often accurate in assuming you are wrong, you should probably take a year off and go work on your skill set with a talented shrink. Assuming you are wrong is jumping to conclusions (God, will we ever be able to reclaim that cliche from Office Space? I want it back). Admitting to the possibility that you could be wrong, and taking the time to explore that possibility, is leaving yourself open to all outcomes. It is the habit of never failing to question. It is good science.
But assuming you are wrong is deciding on an outcome beforehand, and it is just as bad as assuming you are right. It leaves no room for possibilities. In most human situations, where we are all as clueless and wind-tossed as the baby Perseus, it is not more likely that anybody is right, but it is very likely that somebody is wrong, and just as likely that it's you as someone else.
It's been good that I've learned to hold my own opinions and needs and skills in higher esteem; but I think lately I've been letting that go a little too far. I've been too judgmental, too sure of myself. And I think I need to go back to being a scientist, and remember to always reevaluate, however long it takes, and however painful it is to me to admit of the possibility of being mistaken. I need to remember to always ask the question.
Besides, I like cookies 'n' cream the best.


  1. I love most all your posts and usually they make me laugh out loud at some point (and I'm sorry I don't always comment when that happens, I always intend to give you positive feedback but don't always get around to it). But I want to tell you I LOVE this post.

  2. Loving the post. Hating that I can't always say to myself I'm just fine in all that I'm doing. : )

    And mint chocolate chip is the best ice cream flavor. EVER.