A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Climbing the Ladder of Inference

A commonplace in management training is The Ladder of Inference.  The ladder was described by Chris Argyris, and later included in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge. The ladder is used when teaching problem-solving, management decision-making, and similar skill sets.  The awareness of the ladder and the errors it leads to serve to warn against "jumping to conclusions."

A better phrase, in keeping with the metaphor, might be "climbing too fast."

As described at The Leadership Mind site and in training material used by Oriel/Stat-A-Matrix, the rungs of the Ladder runs up like this:
(Full disclosure: I worked as a consultant with the firm Stat-A-Matrix for more than 25 years: training and consulting in statistical methods, problem-solving, quality management, ISO 9001, Six Sigma, etc.)
  1. I observe objectively - Observation by itself is not a biased activity. When I observe I see what happens, hear what was said, or experience a situation - no more and no less.  This would be what a camcorder "sees" or an audio recorder "hears."
  2. I select data from what I observe - Here is where the filtering begins. I create assumptions about which parts of the observed event are important. This assumption about importance is based on how the things that have been observed affect me, or fit into my cultural experience.
  3. I add meaning to what I have selected - At this point, I imply meaning using the norms of my culture, or experience.  Heinlein notwithstanding, no fact is self-explaining.  It only "makes sense" within a context. 
  4. I make assumptions based on the meaning I have added - This process begins to fill in gaps in knowledge. Where I don't know something about the event, I naturally assume that the motivations, behaviors, wants, desires, likes and dislikes should match my own. These assumptions take the guesswork out of understanding the situation.
  5. I draw conclusions, which prompt feelings - Now that I understand the situation, and have filled in the gaps with assumptions, I can draw conclusions about why the person is behaving that way. And, of course, I immediately begin to have feelings about these conclusions.
  6. I adopt beliefs about the world - Based on my conclusions, I can now see that there are things within the world that are out of alignment (or in the case of a positive conclusion, in alignment). I am having either negative or positive feelings about the situation. And, at this point, I believe some form of action, whether it is a physical act, spoken words, or other behavior on my part, is necessary.
  7. I take action based on my beliefs and feelings - I now fully understand (or believe I understand) the entire situation and take the necessary action. This is often an emotional, rather than a rational response. 
A Classic  Example
A classic example is the reaction of the Powhatan confederacy to the English settlers at Jamestown. The settlers were under strict orders from the Virginia Company to trade with the Indians for pelts and maintain cordial relations.  But what the Indians saw was:

1. A company consisting solely of men, arriving on a big canoe with blankets on sticks, building a stockade, and offering wares.  So far, bare facts.  
2. The key fact that the Indians homed in on was that the Others were all men.  
3. To a European, this meant "we don't send women and children into dangerous territory before building a protected place."  But to the Powhatans, "all-male party = war party."
4. They immediately applied their own cultural assumptions to the Other and assumed that the traders had the same motives in forming an all-male party that a similar band of Eastern Woodlands Indians would have
5. They concluded that the Others had come to make war, which immediately conjured feelings of fear and bravado.  
6. The world is out of alignment and must be set right.  
7. So the Powhatan confederacy attacked the settlement in what seemed to the English to be an unprovoked act of aggression.  Things went downhill thereafter. 
So What?
So, all of natural science is based on inference, and climbing the ladder means proceeding from empirical fact to physical theory.  But recall that no fact speaks for itself, but only in the context of a theory.
When Xenophanes observed marine fossils in the mountains of Greece, he concluded that there must have once been a world-covering flood deep enough to cover the mountains.  This entered folklore the world over, so we assume others made similar empirical observations.  The World-Flood was perfectly reasonable scientific theory when you think on it.  Ol' Xenophanes knew of no other natural process that would deposit marine life on land.  It was only later, in the Middle Ages, that St. Albertus Magnus (unless it was Albert of Saxony) reasoned that there had to be a counter-process to erosion, otherwise all the hills would be worn down.  This postulated 'uplift' of mountains gradually caught on and provided a different natural mechanism for marine fossils being in the high-up hills. (Ibn Sinna took a different approach: bone-into-stone smacked of alchemy, and he did not believe in alchemy; so he said the fossils were rocks that just happened to look like fish and shellfish.) 
The lesson is that if you rely on inference, you must prepare to be wrong.  This is pretty much why Popper has become Popp-ular.  (haha.  OK, I'll be good.)  There is also a theorem in logic that through any finite set of facts one may draw an indefinite number of theories.  That is, there is always more than one way to construe the given facts.  So theories are always on shaky ground. 

Important caveat: The folks climbing the ladder too quickly are not generally consciously aware of doing so.  To suppose that the Other is merely being hypocritical is precisely the mistake oft made in Step #4.  For example, when Dawkins misrepresents the Cosmological Argument, he is likely not aware of climbing the ladder.  When Dawkins sees the word "motion" in the precis of the "First Way," for example, he probably does not think in terms of either κίνησις (Gr.) or motus (L.), but rather of "local motion" only, that is: of change in locale and applies a template that says the First Way is a physical theory intended to explain local motion by invoking God.  It would be equally incorrect on the other side to assume that Dawkins really does know about matter and form, essence and existence, the distinction between per se and per accidens, etc., and simply prefers to misrepresent them.

Similarly, in a contest announced by J. Coyne, TOF's entry in the contest,  and the astonished response that anyone actually did enter the contest, the basic problem seems to be that Coyne wanted to deal with fundamentalist literalists and was nonplussed to find that Orthodox and Catholics do not work from the same premises.  At one point, he responds to a Catholic philosophical position by saying It's Not in the Book! -- a familiar trope oft heard from fundamentalists -- apparently unaware that neither the Eastern nor the Western Church ever insisted on historico-literal readings.  Note how this is an example of #3, applying a certain belief about the world in order to construe facts; in this case, the belief that all texts must be read as if they were scientific papers: a bald narrative of facts to be understood literally.  (It is no coincidence that Biblical fundamentalism arose at the same time the term "scientist" was invented.  The Geist was in the Zeit.) 
At another point he or one of his commenters suggest that philosophers make up their arguments "on the fly" (and in a later post, Coyne cites an authoritative cartoon to this effect) despite the fact that many of the arguments date to the 5th century or the 13th century, and the youngest distinction was made first in 1964, long before he announced his contest.  So facts can even be invisible in Step #2 to a settled worldview. 
How to Fall Off the Ladder
Now the insidiousness of the Ladder comes into play.  There is a feedback loop falling down from #6 to #2.  Once I have formed my "beliefs about the world" ("scientific theory") those beliefs will influence what data I henceforth think are important, and will lead to "cherry-picking," "confirmation bias," "paradigm science," and all what have you.  A fundamentalist reading the Bible for his own self is impervious to reason and traditional Christianity.  Once he has a thing in his head, there is no room for anything else.  Similarly, the Virginians' retaliation cemented the Indians' beliefs about their warlike intentions, a self-fulfilling prophecy.  And in complementary fashion, the Virginians, who saw the initial attack as utterly unprovoked -- they never realized that an all-male party would be seen as a provocation in itself -- the belief in Indian treachery became likewise embedded. 

Kuhn overstates his "paradigm science" thesis IMHO, but it is true that once a theory becomes embedded in scientific thought, new data are selected in conformance with that theory and judged credible or incredible depending on the fit.  Consider the reaction to the supposedly FTL neutrino recently.  There must be an error in the data.  (Reasonably so: something that has "worked" for so long should not be discarded on a single datum.  One of the things I teach in statistics is to always question first the measurement system.)  Tycho's geo-helio model is mathematically equivalent to Copernicus' model, and fits all the same data, including the later discovery of the phases of Venus.

Even the sorts of experiments or observations that are made will be informed by good ol' #6.  Any anomalous data will be explained away as experimental error,  be re-interpreted to fit the theory, or (in extreme cases) the scientist will be denounced, undermined, or accused of fraud, as for example Semmelweiss was and many in the climate science game are today.  There is no trait of an existing species than cannot be given an "adaptation story."  Recall how in the early 1900s, many Darwinian scientists climbed the ladder of inference all the way out of science itself and into politics when #7 turned out to be eugenics: controlling the reproduction of the unfit (i.e., of poor people). The inherent contradiction of this -- why should a natural law need human assistance? -- escaped notice. 

Applications to Skiffy
Now to cases.  How does this affect the writing of Science Fiction? 

Characters.  First, it reminds that "skim milk masquerades as cream" and so the narrative of events can appear differently to different characters.  A reviewer remarked about Up Jim River that  much of what happened meant  different things to different characters.  For example, when a band of travelers ask the way to Oorah Mesa, they think they are only asking for directions; but to the people of Dacitti, they are volunteering to be human sacrifices.  Much distress could result from this!  A textbook case is George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, in which it is fair to say that not a single factual event (#1) is ever understood the same way by any two characters (#3 and #4).

But it's important that the different characters draw different conclusions from their own generally coherent body of beliefs (#3).  So when (#7) A says "Fight" and B says "Run" the reader understands why each has come to that point.  Possibly the most difficult thing for a True Believer to understand is how two people, given the same facts, can come to different conclusion.  Because to Adam, the facts clearly add up to X, that Betsy comes to the conclusion Y can only mean that Betsy is stupid or irrational.  If the writer thinks like Adam, the story becomes melodrama, with Betsy doing Wrong Stuff just to be Wrong.  We see a lot of such cardboard villains in badly written fiction.  Think of the regulators in Ayn Rand books; or the businessmen in most left-leaning books.  They cannot possibly see the world from a different perspectives for which they have what seems valid reasons.  They must be Eeeviiil. 

Readers.  Secondly, what applies to two characters applies also to readers and author.  The Ladder may warn you that the way the reader construes the plot events, that is, what meaning they assign to them (#3-4, again), may differ radically from the meaning the author thought he was assigning.  I have sometimes been startled by what reviewers have thought they found in my stories.  Well, some of that may be Mr. Subconscious at work; but still...  Readers sometimes dislike characters of whom I have grown fond or ascribe different motives than what I thought I had limned.  An example is the story "Captive Dreams," which the TOF hopes will appear Real Soon Now, as soon as I finish the new material for the anthology.

available in Kindle $6.99
Idea & Plot.  Thirdly, it may give you story ideas when you ask "how else might these facts be construed?"  This might be an alternate physics, always great fun; but it might also be a way of constructing a plot out of some real world events by construing them differently.  In the Country of the Blind did so by having key historical events the outcome of manipulations by the Babbage Society.  In my story "The Common Goal of Nature," the translations of the aliens speech does not always mean in English what it means in Hraani.

Again, Martin's Ice and Fire saga takes bits and peaces of the War of the Roses, the Norse sagas, Robin Hood, medieval Venice, etc.  Harry Turtledove created his Videssos series by turning the map of Byzantium upside down and rewriting the actual history of the Byzantine Empire - but with magic.

The Ladder of Inference can also help set up a Tragic Irony as a Character persistently construes events incorrectly to his doom; or as a Conflict with others who see things differently.  There's a timer on a bomb displaying minutes.  Lots of time left, you think.  But what if these people use timers that count up?  In Nancy Kress' "Nano Comes to Clifford Falls" everyone sees the wonderful benefits of the new nanotechnology and what it will mean to their town; but bit by bit (so to speak) matters do not work out as expected.  Again, in Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye, the same facts appear very differently to the humans and to the Moties.  In The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco takes great delight in making every logical deduction of his "detective," though leading to a correct conclusion, turn out in the end to be wrong. 

So climb the Ladder, my fan.  Whoever you are.  But not too fast.


  1. "The Name of the Rose" is in my stack of to-reads. Spoiler warnings, please!

    In all seriousness, though, while your post is good, I've become cautious lately about cautiousness. It's true that the easier error is unwarranted confidence, but the opposite error of unwarranted skepticism does exist too. The problem is if you take this cautiousness too far, you end up with extreme skepticism and end up doubting you should even climb the ladder in the first place. I've been hounded by too many of the fundamentalists you mention who claim this very tentativeness in science as a reason to reject science altogether and just "accept the Bible" as a science text instead. Everything we think we know today might just be turned on its head by evidence tomorrow, right?! So just take it all on faith -- the Earth is only 6,000 years old and is motionless while the Sun orbits it. Modern science is just a tentative guess anyway!

    In other words, I'm "cautious" to point out that good methods of gaining knowledge (like sound science) are worthwhile and lead to truth, however ultimately incomplete such knowledge might be.

  2. Good Lord, I tried going through those comments you linked to, but the sheer level of vitriol and small-mindedness astounded me. You're a stronger man to wade through that and reply to those objections, even keeping it light-hearted and humorous!

  3. Don't worry about The Name of the Rose. It hasn't been spoiled. Though I never though a book from that long ago needed protection. My apologies!

    But it isn't cautiousness per se. It is being aware of when you are adding your own preconceptions to the actual objective facts by cherry picking or construal.

    That the sun was embedded in a sphere that rotated around the earth was the settled science. It was not taken on faith, but on empirical evidence. See here for details:
    + + +
    Yeah, they're cure, aren't they? They don't even seem to realize when they have contradicted one another.

  4. Yes, agreed, re: both cautiousness and the at-the-time empirical basis of geocentrism. I'm just a bit sensitive on the issue because of the number of times I've heard it brought up to basically argue that science a pointless exercise.

  5. Science is not at all a pointless exercise, just so long as it is always kept firmly in mind that the probability of any of its theories being correct is zero.

    In this way we can have cell phones without being hornswoggled into accepting multiverses and non-human humans as part of the "bargain".

  6. PS: Geocentrism was not taught by the Church as a scientific doctrine, nor did the Church's geocentrism involve crystalline spheres.

    Geocentrism was taught by the Church as a Revelation of God from Scripture.

    Unsurprisingly, four centuries later on, there exists no experimental (that is to say, *scientific*) demonstration of any motion of the Earth.

    In fact, the shoe is now on the other foot.

    It was Einstein's theory which provided an explanation for the failure of all terrestrial experiments to measure the (universally assumed) motion of Earth around Sun.

    OPERA, anyone?

  7. Sheesh, I went to the Coyne site, and all I can say is, Mike and Mark, you have now had a chance to understand why your equivocations and novelties will certainly fail with atheists.

    The thread on NCR shows why they will fail with Catholics.

    At some point someone might consider challenging the unexamined assumptions built in to the atheist victory dance concerning population bottlenecks and junk DNA.

  8. One comment at a time, please. This post is about being to quick to climb the ladder of inference. Any problems with how it is possible for one metaphysical human among many biological humans to be our ancestor should be put on that post. Any problems with the law of gravity or the work of Canon Copernicus or Father Lemaitre should be placed in a post on geocentrism, if and when.

    you have now had a chance to understand why your equivocations and novelties will certainly fail with atheists.

    I never expect a rational argument to succeed with the irrational.

    Useful reading here:
    Third catechesis by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn on December 4, 2005 in the cathedral of St. Stephan in Vienna. Translated by Prof. John F. Crosby.
    The others are also available on-line.
    and here:
    Kenneth W. Kemp, "Science, Theology, and Monogenesis," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2 (2011)
    the latter of which references:
    Andrew Alexander, C.J., “Human Origins and Genetics,” Clergy Review 49 (1964): 344–53

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. For the record, I've always enjoyed reading your comments on these matters. But the fact that you waded into Coyne's backyard, calm and cool, is really something. "Surprised" is a mild way of putting what I'm sure the reaction was.

    And you've got a real easy to read manner, which strangely is lacking with a lot of writers.

    Regarding convincing the irrational, I agree. "Did it convince a cult of Gnu member?" isn't exactly the yardstick I'd use for a good argument.

  11. Well, he did announce a contest. I was actually responding to John Farrell, a good friend. Then I learned that Coyne was cracking on in his spider hole about my comments, which apparently offended his sense of sola scriptura or something. So I thought I would clear up some misunderstandings revealed there.

    It's fun. Like shadow boxing. I get a chance to think out loud, see some objections -- some commentators really do have something useful to say; others may indicate where I was unclear. Most are sheer noise, but that's just the Internet for you.

    Thank you for your comment re easy to read. Go buy my books and see if you change your mind.

  12. I find you easy to read, Sense 1, yet difficult to "read" Sense 2.

    You use language precisely and well; it's your **intent** which is as twisty as a Klein bottle.


  13. Mwahahah. But, no Klein bottle. Jameson's, if you please.

  14. I enjoyed reading your comments on Coyne's blog. On the other hand, I regret that I spent almost an hour of my morning wading through other people's comments for context.

  15. I'm posting just to say that I had no idea that TheOFloinn and Mike Flynn were the same .. person? Neat!

    And to second the comments on your bravery to deal so charitably with these folks; I tried following the discussion for awhile, but their mockery withered my resolve. I've felt clammy inside all afternoon, going about my chores, awed and ill by what they seem to be saying, and how they say it. You are an example I'll learn from.

    At all events, praying for you, Mike.

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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