AKA Observation vs. Inference.
Lay’s has recently introduced a limited edition run of potato chips in three flavors: Sriracha, Cheesy Garlic Bread, and Chicken and Waffles. The idea is that people will try these flavors and vote on which one should become a permanent flavor.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an empty shelf in the potato chip aisle before, let alone two. Yet there before me were several cubic feet of disappointment.
Of course I assumed that the store had the coveted flavors at one point and sold out some time before my arrival. But do I know for sure that’s what happened? All I had to go off of was a couple of empty shelves. Anything could have resulted in those empty shelves, including, but not limited to:
- creative shelf-stocking
- spontaneous combustion
- isolated velociraptor attack
I don’t even know for sure that the shelves ever contained the specialty flavors. They could have originally contained anything- again, including, but not limited to:
- baby otters
This all sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I came to the store and observed that they’d sold out of the flavors…didn’t I?
Nope. That isn’t what I observed, it’s what I inferred. An observation is something you know for sure; you can see it, taste it, measure it, etc. An inference is a conclusion you draw based on information you observed; it’s intended to explain those observations. I observed that two shelves were empty. I inferred that the store had the flavors and sold out some time before my arrival.
In this particular case, my inference was probably the only logical one (though you can never be too vigilant when it comes to velociraptors). But in science, people infer different things based on the same observations all the time. An inference becomes stronger as more observations support it, which is why scientists experiment; they’re trying to observe more data, which will allow them to figure out which inferences are more likely to be correct. (But recall that inferring incorrectly does not imply failure.)
This is one of the many, many times that a scientific thought process can be applied in non-scientific situations, even when you’re not in the grocery store. Let’s say you wake up one morning and observe the following:
- your cat is pink
- your niece’s friend is in your apartment
- your living room is full of holiday lawn decorations
What can you infer happened last night?
(Shout-out to Modern Family.)