Interferring with Caution

To a great extent, our lives are guided by the inferences we make, yet most of us never give this critical process a passing thought.

A good definition of inference is “the act of deriving conclusions from premises known or assumed to be true.” There is, of course, a big difference between knowing something to be true and assuming it to be true.

The serious seeker of truth always looks to his own experience first, to reason (inference) second, and to authoritative sources third. Though experience is clearly the most reliable method of verifying facts, life is filled with illusions. Which means that even our firsthand experiences can be deceiving.

For example, I would be willing to wager that not every one of the thousands of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens have actually experienced such an encounter. Yet, when you hear them talk about it, all of these people appear to believe that it really happened to them.

Hey, who am I to say that someone wasn’t actually abducted by an other-worldly being? On the other hand, I feel totally comfortable in saying that it hasn’t happened to every single person who has ever made such a claim.

My point is that a person cannot always be 100 percent certain when it comes to verifying a fact, even when he relies on his own experience. Worse, most of our actions are not even based on experience. They’re taken as a result of our inferences, because we can’t possibly possess firsthand knowledge of every situation we come up against.

For example, if you’re driving down the street and see a huge billowing of smoke in the distance, you will probably draw the inference that there’s a fire somewhere. You could be wrong, but, based on your firsthand experience and reasoning powers, you would be likely to draw such a conclusion – and likely to be correct.

On the other hand, if a person assumes that the stock market or real estate market (or any market, for that matter) will continue to go up simply because he has observed firsthand that it has risen for a long period of time, his observations would have led him to a false premise.

This is precisely what occurred with the infamous dot-com collapse of the late nineties and early 2000’s. Contrary to what stock-market “chartists” would have you believe, the past movement of a stock is not a reliable indicator of whether it will go up or down in the future.

So, even when you have been able to observe something firsthand, you must still employ your powers of reason. In the stock-market example, a detailed knowledge of a company’s industry and its products, profit margins, earnings, management, etc. are much more important when it comes to drawing an inference about the future performance of its stock.

Thus, the greatest obstacle when it comes to drawing solid inferences is the avoidance of false assumptions. It’s interesting to note that, by definition, an assumption is something taken for granted or accepted as true without proof.

In other words, an assumption is a supposition. Which is why, if you rely on your reasoning powers to draw an inference, you have to make certain that your reasoning isn’t based on one or more false premises or assumptions.

False premises and assumptions come in many forms, but the absolute worst is the a priori argument. Ideologues love to begin their arguments with an a priori statement (a statement not supported by facts). You have undoubtedly noticed that most political debates are saturated with suppositions based on false premises.

Put another way, politicians are masters when it comes to positing a conclusion as a premise – i.e., a starting point. I include this cute little tactic in my list of the “Ten Dirty Tricks of Debating,” And I highly recommend that you steer clear of people who employ it as it can lead to the dismantling of sound judgment.

It has been my observation that most of the blunders made in the business world are due to unfounded assumptions. Not just major mistakes, but those little day-to-day irritants such as packages failing to get mailed … or getting mailed to the wrong address … or getting mailed with the wrong contents.

But assumptions go way beyond simple business mistakes. They can, in fact, lead to fatal errors. If you cross the street at an intersection and assume that the driver of an oncoming car can see you, you may not live to realize that you were wrong.

On a macro scale, an example of a false assumption leading to a false inference would be the near-unanimity of opinion that computers would dramatically reduce the amount of paper we use. Virtually everyone held this view in the early years of the “Computer Age,” based on the assumption that people would not be inclined to print out much of their work.

But this widely held assumption turned out to be dead wrong. Instead, computers have had the exact opposite effect and have drowned us in a sea of paper beyond anything we could have previously imagined.

You can’t do anything about such macro inferences. The only inferences you can control are your own. And when it comes to drawing inferences, your success ratio will be pretty much in line with the accuracy of your powers of reason and the soundness of your intuition.

Intuition is a “gut” feeling – or “sixth sense” – that you have about something or somebody. Reasoning power and intuition are your best allies when it comes to drawing an inference, whether it involves love, finances, spirituality, or just about any other aspect of life.

Again, the three methods of verification – in order of preference – are experience, inference, and authoritative sources. But, like it or not, inference is the source of verification you must rely on a majority of the time.

That being the case, you would be wise to make it a habit to constantly question your inferences. Are they based on firsthand experience? If so, your success rate is going to be very high, provided you mix that experience with a generous dose of sound reasoning. Or are they based on reason alone? If so, your success rate will pretty much coincide with the accuracy of your powers of reason. And that accuracy will often be dependent upon how addicted you are to relying on premises based on assumptions.

Making unfounded assumptions is a hard habit to break, but so is smoking … and both of them can kill you.

If all this sounds a bit confusing, don’t worry. It confuses me as well. Experience, inference, authoritative sources, premises, assumptions … and how they all fit together. It’s very heavy stuff. It’s a lot to think about, but well worth the effort because it plays a major role in how your life will turn out.

“Euclid taught me that without assumptions there is no proof. Therefore, in any argument, examine the assumptions.” – E.T. Bell