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."
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.)
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 ExampleA 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 LadderNow 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 SkiffyNow to cases. How does this affect the writing of Science Fiction?
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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.