Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Statement About The Unknown


"An inference is a statement about the unknown made on the basis of the known.”

This is a lovely definition by S. I. Hayakawa from his book, Language in Thought and Action.

Hayakawa was an English professor who later became a United States senator (from California from 1977 to 1983).

 Yesterday we talked in my class about making inferences. In teaching reading this  is one of the more exciting topics and we bring up countless examples of making inferences in reading and in real life.

I gave my students the guidelines: when we infer we use the information available, our experience and our common sense.  Still our experience is not always helpful in making a valid inference.  To illustrate this point I used the following example: I took a friend to lunch at a good restaurant, we got there at noon and the restaurant was empty. My friend asked  “Are you sure that this restaurant is still good? I see that it is empty.” My friend knew from experience that good restaurants were always full, and inferred that this one wasn’t. I answered “It is still early for lunch here in Tel Aviv”. Indeed, within the next twenty minutes that good restaurant became full. 

Our inferences depend on the quality of our information as well as the depth and breadth of our experience. Every fan of the detective story genre  knows that the more detective novels you read, or detective films you watch, the better you become in guessing "who did it." 

One of my students asked, “so what is the difference between an inference and an opinion? They seem the same to me.” My answer was that while inferences are  based on evidence, an opinion could be what you think or feel about that fact or evidence. If we go back to the example of the detective story, an opinion here could be that you don’t care for that genre and prefer to read historical novels.

In an earlier post (December 28th 2012 Intellectual Inference: A Useful Tool) I discussed “intellectual inferences,” a concept introduced by the art historian Ernst Hans Gombrich. He explains that in our mind we complete a picture through an “intellectual inference,” giving the example of the music–making angels, from the Ghent altarpiece a work by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck.

 I showed  the painting to my students to illustrate how we make  inferences.  If you look closely at the painting you see at the side of the panel a glimpse of red and brown, which are the hair and garment of an angel working the organ bellows from behind. In order to interpret those red and brown colors correctly, the observer has to know how the organ works. Gombrich argues that van Eyck trusted the informed observer to know this. It is not a matter of opinion that the glimpse of red and brown are hints of the angel in the back, but rather a valid inference based on previous  experience and knowledge of the organ.

I realize that the example which I showed my students to teach them about inferences is somewhat obscure; there are thousands  illustrations that would better clarify the concept. But as "an inference...is a statement about the unknown made on the basis of the known,” I thought that it was great opportunity for my students to make this leap through the clever interaction of van Eyck with his audience.

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