TFY-IM-chapter 4: Inferences
This chapter and the preceding one on facts make up the core of this book. When students can differentiate facts from inferences and use each with conscious awareness, then they have the basics of critical thinking. In addition they have the basics of descriptive and expository writing. Even when I teach developmental English, I introduce my students to paragraph and essay writing through the four steps of observation skills, word skills, facts, and inferences.
The Core Discovery Writing Application Using Facts and Inferences to Describe a Photograph beginning on page 119 is of central importance and should not be omitted. The task of listing facts with derived inferences consolidates the skills learned through this first section of the book; it is a strenuous thinking exercise, and it teaches what no bare reading or study of this material can. (Be sure to try it yourself and experience what a mental workout it offers.) All the photographs chosen for use in this text involve situations that could invite stereotypical interpretations; nevertheless, in each case, closer inspection reveals that they are complex and subtle. Each photograph challenges student skills of observing and describing.
Scoring sheets for this photo/inferences assignment should prevent some frustrating problems for the instructor, such as students’ tendency to forget the conclusion. The use of the two columns should help them realize how difficult it can be to state facts and how carelessly they may habitually draw inferences .
The second Core Discovery Application on pages 124-126, “Analyzing the Use of Facts and Inferences in a Newspaper Article” is also one that I never omit. It will stretch mental muscles and teach some sound critical reading habits. Once they have successfully completed this exercise, students will have a mental model for evaluating information that is both simple and efficient.
The reading selection, “Tougher Grading Better for Students” appears on the surface to report findings from a reliable study; but the kind of careful reading this assignment requires may radically reverse that opinion. This assignment can teach caution about accepting headlines too readily. As the students work with the columns, they will begin to note that it may not always be clear whether the journalist is making inferences, as in the headline and first sentence, or whether the inferences are drawn from his or her sources. Also they will discover that although many of the quotes can be verified as authentic, their content may contain inferences. Also the work using columns showing facts and inferences side by side can reveal that some of the inferences appear to be hasty conclusions. They will find pertinent missing information such as the author of the article and the name of the national survey, or the funding for their studies. From the statistics given, they may have many questions, such as how much did the test scores decline, how was the study conducted, where were the schools located, what social classes were represented, what ethnic groups, and what standardized tests. They may wonder if there were significant variables in the schools with students who got better grades. They will wonder what Betts means by “bad.” They may wonder who funded the study of Betts and Boedeker over a five-year period and why they, as economists, were considered qualified to do this study. They might wonder why Betts finds a 6 point difference to be “huge, ” and what could be meant by “other policies to help weaker students.“ Students may also wonder if it is fair to compare students in the US to those of Europe or Japan where there are less diverse populations. Also some may note the human cost of tougher grading in Japan given the high suicide rate among Japanese students. On page 127, paragraphs 10 and 12, some will wonder who is being referred to as “Bishop.” Finally, students may wonder why the author of the article raises no questions or presents no opposing evidence.
As for the last column, students will learn to make a conscious separation of their own inferences from those found in the article itself. Some will not find much to place in this column, taking the article at its face value. Others will note the favorable slant of the article as indicated by the use of such words as ironically, enormously, striking, slack off, etc. They might notice that inferences are often made even before the evidence is discussed, and that in general the article is more persuasive than informative. They may discover that there are no dissenting opinions. Some students will comment that their reading shows the economists (and perhaps the journalist) are clearly committed to standardized tests and less money for public schools, but the facts given do not seem to support these conclusions and these alone. Some may conclude that if they had read the article as quickly as they usually read, they would not have realized how little concrete information was given to support the conclusions offered.
INFERENCES AND THE STUDY OF LITERATURE
Once students can recognize the nature of inferences, they have a new tool for understanding literature. As the reading of “The Stone Boy” so well illustrates, a whole literary work can be analyzed in terms of supplied information versus and omitted information left to the reader’s imagination. With this awareness in mind, the student begins to appreciate the skill and craft required of an author who must decide what information to supply, what to suggest, and what to withhold. He or she will also begin to notice author strategies for guiding the reader into making correct or incorrect inferences. Awareness of a work of literature as a game crafted for mental engagement adds a new dimension to literary appreciation. The reader can thus become a conscious rather than manipulated participant. Literary criticism thus extends to noting how what is not said is just as important as remembering what is said. If you find your students enlivened by this approach to stories, this could be a good time to bring in some poetry where this interchange can be even more crucial. Haiku poems illustrate this principle most effectively through their presentation of a few images with undefined meanings. They can evoke long flights of inferences in the reader’s mind. The most moving aspect of the haiku can be the drama inferred between the lines. Consider, for instance, the following haiku:
We’d never see
White herons in morning snow
If they had no voices.
This autumn morning
I stare into the mirror
At my father’s face.
Murakami Kijo (1865–1938)
Piercing cold under my foot
My dead wife’s comb
There on the bedroom floor.
Taniguchi Buson (1715–83)
CHAPTER CONVERGENT QUESTIONS TEST
1. Define an inference with examples.
2. Why is it important to distinguish inferences from facts? Give an example from your own experience, or use the story of Archimedes in the problem-solving series.
3. What are generalizations? Through what mental process do we arrive at them? Give an example.
CHAPTER THOUGHT QUESTIONS TEST
1. The fairness of jury trials depends upon the jurors’ ability to differentiate facts from inferences. Yet who tests the jurors to find out whether they truly understand the difference? A 1976 mock jury trial study of 96 Kansas State University students found that the majority (71.4 percent) confused the two, tending to remember statements that implied facts as being factual. For example, when they heard “I ran up to the burglar alarm,” they inferred that meant I rang the burglar alarm. And when they heard “The hungry python caught the mouse,” they concluded the mouse had been eaten.
This study does not prove that such confusion typifies U.S. jurors. Nevertheless, if it were to be proven, what recommendations would you make to remedy this tendency? Make at least three suggestions and explain each with an example. (For more information about this Kansas State study, see Richard J. Harris, R. Ros Teske, and Martha J. Ginns “Memory for Pragmatic Implications from Courtroom Testimony,” Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 6, 1975: 494–96.)
2. Study the Doonesbury cartoon on p. 123. Do you think Trudeau is being fair to the students? What is he telling us about thinking, learning, and traditional college education?
3. Explain what’s so funny––and not so funny––about the two chapter cartoons by John Heine.
REVIEW TEST ON PART ONE
Rate each of the following statements as true or false. If you decide the answer is false, rewrite it to make it true.
_______ 1. People never agree on subjective feelings.
_______ 2. Some “facts” that laymen often take for granted, as in the fields of physics and mathematics, are considered only to be “probability statements” by scientists in these fields.
_______ 3. Stipulative definitions are found in dictionaries.
_______ 4. Solomon Asch demonstrated that group pressure does not affect perception.
_______ 5. News on American television shows us true reality.
_______ 6. In “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” none of the blind men realized he was confusing the part of the elephant he could touch with the whole of the elephant.
_______ 7. The ability to distinguish facts from inferences is basic to critical thinking.
_______ 8. A characteristic of facts is that they can be verified.
_______ 9. Facts are determined by thinking rather than by observing.
______ 10. People tend to feel uncomfortable and isolated when they cannot get others to agree with what they think is real.
______ 11. Subjective feelings such as excitement are not facts.
______ 12. A knowledge of etymology can help us understand the history of root ideas behind a word and thus perhaps lead us to a clearer interpretation of its meaning.
______ 13. There are no guidelines for determining what is factual and what is not.
______ 14. People can argue in circles when they use words left undefined.
______ 15. Interpretations are a form of inferences.
______ 16. Generalizations are not inferences.
______ 17. Understanding cartoons sometimes means waiting for an experience of insight.
______ 18. Perceiving is closer to thinking than sensing.
______ 19. Accurate observing requires discipline over our mind’s tendency to label, categorize, file, and dismiss.
______ 20. Describing ordinary everyday objects can be extraordinarily difficult.
Supplementary REVIEW Test on Part One
Rate each of the following statements as true or false. If you decide an answer is false, rewrite or reword it to make it true.
1. All feelings are subjective and therefore get in the way of obtaining true facts.
2. Four standards that we use for determining facts are verifiability, reliability, plausibility, and subjectivity.
3. Psychologically we seek others to confirm our perceptions before we really believe them.
4. Facts have to be stated with precise language.
5. Facts are one thing; our inferences, interpretations, or conclusions about them are another.
6. “The Blind Men and the Elephant” is a fable that shows how we can distort reality to make it conform to our expectations.
7. Television tells us what is real and true and what is not.
8. Facts can be determined by observing.
9. Feelings, when consciously observed, can give us valuable factual information.
10. A knowledge of etymology can help us understand the history of root ideas behind a word.
11. There are no guidelines for determining what is factual and what is not.
12. Facts are not absolutes but statements of probability.
13. When Humpty Dumpty said that when he uses a word it means what he chooses it to mean, he was offering a persuasive definition.
14. Definitions of words involve the term, its class, and its characteristics.
15. When we clear up the definitions of words unclear to us, we also clarify our thinking.
16. Understanding cartoons sometimes means waiting for an experience of insight.
17. Thinking is a mental process quite different from sensing.
18. Accurate, perceptive observing requires discipline.
19. Inferences built on top of inferences can lead thinking astray unless each inference is checked against the facts.
_20. Describing something simple and ordinary can nevertheless challenge our vocabulary.