Preferring inductive over deductive reasoning makes science communication more effective

Outside their speciality, scientists need inductive communication from their colleagues

Scientists are, all too often, notoriously bad communicators. Why is this? These are intelligent and thoughtful people, who consider carefully and think deeply about what they do. I fear the problem lies with the rest of us, non-scientists, who quite simply don’t do that. Either because we don’t have the time. Or we don’t have the capability. Or because our thinking processes are aligned with very different, much more urgent matters. Stopping and listening to people who stop and think is not so easy. We think in other ways.

There is a name for these things: deductive versus inductive reasoning. And understanding how they work is essential for communicating scientific ideas to the wider public, and even to scientists in other disciplines.

Deductive reasoning was codified by the great French philosopher, Descartes. The important thing to know about that is that to do it he locked himself in a small room, for a long time. He did away with all that others had told him, and deduced the nature of the world from the facts that he could observe, building his view of the world one fact at a time into a concrete, objective vision. This was an enormously powerful philosophical tool. It shunted alchemy and its bizarre search for essences and replaced it with science.

Science and deductive reasoning took off like a rocket. And within a few years, another French scientist, Lavoisier, was demonstrating that diamonds could be burnt, with enough heat, and that criminals could be painlessly executed. Deductive reasoning is a slow, painstaking, careful process.

Scientists are concerned with exactness and precision because the world works in an exact and relentlessly precise way. Their communications are no different, but the rest of us don’t have the time to lock ourselves in small rooms to appreciate this all fully.

The rest of us, non-scientists, use shortcuts. We don’t have the time or the energy to dedicate to building each problem from the ground up or to observe all the relevant facts. So, we use a mess of inherited, inconsistent and simplified methods – learnt as children, from bitter experience or just made up – to muddle through. This is called inductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning gives you an answer, but not the answer. An answer is weak or strong, not wrong or right. The point is that an answer is useful.

I’ve only seen white swans, so all swans are white is a useful conclusion. It isn’t correct, some swans are black, but it will do you 90% of the time. It’s a bit sloppy, after all, did you ask yourself whether you’ve seen enough swans to reach such a conclusion? You didn’t, but you still have a useful answer.

This is different for scientists. When a scientist writes or speaks about their subject, they must give exactly the right answer, painstakingly deduced. Their self-esteem, professional standing, and even their consciences demand it. They use specific terminology not to obscure what they are saying but rather to be more precise.

However, in general communication with the lay public or even between scientists in different fields, that terminology doesn’t help matters… The layperson doesn’t need to know that a scientist’s answer is good in only 96% of cases and not in the other 4% where
complications set in. For the layperson, in most cases, 96% will do.

A scientist once said to me, ‘[X] statement, while generally true, is wrong in nearly every particular’. For the layperson, generally true is good enough – the core of the idea, the simple takeaway is enough. This is also true of scientists operating outside their speciality.

It’s not often appreciated that Newton, author of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the deductive treatise which explained the orbits of the planets, was also a prolific alchemist, steeped in its inductive reasoning.

Outside their speciality, other scientists need inductive communication from their colleagues.

After all, how much time do you have to look at swans?

Jonathan Mills, CFO, SciencePOD

 

Photo credit: Unsplash user Kasturi Laxmi Mohit