I realize that we’re approaching the end of the semester and I, like all of you, am very tired. Indeed, I feel like a dehydrated man crawling painfully through a desert lusting after the cool, refreshing waters of yon oasis. Granted, yon oasis is, in my case, a mirage since the end of the semester is always punctuated by a hurricane of grading, but I digress. My point is that I understand and, indeed, sympathize with your exhaustion. All that having been said, there is a small matter that we really need to discuss- a problem that I have noticed several times over the course of the semester. A problem that I have actually explicitly addressed with the class as a whole and with several of the more egregious offenders in person. That problem is simply this:
The words that you use to describe the reasoning process? Yeah- they do not mean what you think that they do.
Let’s start with the word “assume”. To assume does not mean “To make an a@~ out of you and me” as many hackneyed grammar teachers might quip, but rather is to take something for granted, as if it were true, based upon presupposition without the preponderance of facts. In other words, an assumption can be thought of as something we accept as given, even though we can’t prove it, so that we can move our logical reasoning forward. Assumptions are a necessary part of logical reasoning- for example, I assume that I am communicating with someone just now rather than simply rambling in my own demented fever dream*- but nevertheless, we must always keep in mind their status as unproven beliefs.
Next, let’s consider the word “conclude”. A conclusion is a logical consequence of some thing or things that we know to be true. So, for example, if the statement “All frogs are green” were true,** then the statement “Kermit the Frog is green” would have to also be true. In the context of a social science or, indeed, any science, conclusions are generally based on evidence- so, in other words, rather than deriving from formal logical statements, our conclusions reflect the quality and nature of the empirical evidence we have produced. The critical point here is that, unlike an assumption, a conclusion is something we take to be true based upon explicit evidence. Thus, in this case a conclusion might be something like, “Given that we found using a large, nationally-representative data set that female incomes tend to be lower than male even while controlling for a variety of confounding factors, we conclude that gender plays a role in determining compensation.” Note than a conclusion can be erroneous while, yet, remaining a conclusion.
Finally, let’s consider the term “inference”. To “infer” something is to make a guess based on the balance of evidence, but regarding a subject about which you do not have direct evidence. So, in other words, an inference is sort of mid-way between an assumption and a conclusion- it’s supported by some evidence, and therefore isn’t an assumption, but the evidence doesn’t support it directly, and thus it is not a conclusion. An example of an inference is something like, “One of my students was doing consistently poorly and then, before the last test, came to tell me that he needed to take it late because his grandmother had died. Given my knowledge of the Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome, I infer that this student is most likely lying to me.” I don’t know that the student is lying to me- my evidence doesn’t speak directly to that point- but I have evidence that leads me to infer that he most likely is.
I bring all this up because you are driving me to madness by insisting upon writing things like, “Based on her evidence Bethany Bryson assumed that people avoid liking the musical styles of lower-status individuals.” And you see that’s just not right- if it’s based on evidence, it’s not an assumption. It might be a conclusion, or it might be an inference- depending on the nature of the evidence and the claim- but it isn’t an assumption. This may seem like a trivial matter, but these terms denote very different parts of the reasoning process and very different levels of certaintly. And, frankly, it distresses me more than a little that college students- even advanced college students- cannot discern the difference between a claim that is taken to be true, despite a lack of evidence, in order to facilitate reasoning and a claim that has strong evidentiary support. I realize that a variety of media outlets seem almost to be conspiring to stamp out good, rigorous thinking,*** but that is no excuse. And frankly, every time I read a paper where someone says “assume” when they mean “conclude,” or “infer” where they mean “assume,” my train of thought spectacularly derails, killing masses of helpless neurons.
Please, please stop.
All the best,
Drek the Uninteresting
* Given the quality of my writing, the fever dream option may be far more parsimonious.
** In point of fact, all frogs are NOT green, but give me a break here.
*** I'll decline to specify whom I am referring to here. Fill in your own preferred villain at your leisure.
As a side note: No students were directly quoted in this post.