Tag: meta

Inductive-Deductive Loop

Last year I went looking for an “inductive-deductive loop” image (I was trying to convince stone-cold scientific method biologists that it really is okay to start science from observations), but I couldn’t find anything close to the simple diagram I was envisioning.  So, I drew my version on a Post-it note, and I’m sharing it now for posterity and for Google Images.

My talking point here is that scientific inquiry is both inductive and deductive.  Although many disciplines privilege a single type of reasoning, it’s better to integrate both approaches. With a circular view, we are free to enter problems where it’s most straightforward to start them — exploring the data, taking hypotheses or patterns to their conclusions, or considering how known theories might manifest — knowing that we’ll do a complete investigation in the end.  We trace as far as we can through the loop, verifying our interpretations through multiple methods.  Sometimes we cycle around the loop multiple times.

For instance, if you’re heavy on data and light on abstractions, you might start by trying to find patterns in the observations.  Once you identify some patterns, you formalize those patterns into a theory.  Given theory, you can generate some hypotheses based on the implications of that theory.  You then collect more data to disprove those hypotheses.  The new observations might suggest new patterns, starting another round of the loop.  You don’t limit yourself to collecting data only to disprove hypotheses, though — you also look at data that hasn’t been deliberately collected under the premises required by your hypotheses.  By looking at all the observations, you can start to investigate when the premises themselves hold.

The inductive-deductive loop is the structure of scientific inquiry.

Theory produces Hypothesis produces Observations produces Pattern produces Theory; the first three are deductive; the last three are inductive

Critical discourse analysis: Skulls in a Smithsonian exhibit

My current client is extremely interested in how “us vs. them” dynamics manifest in language. Most manifestations are subtle, but I’ve spent so much time in that headspace that I’m now getting insight flashes from Critical Discourse Analysis everywhere I look. I gotta say, actually seeing these power dynamics is like having my eyes opened to something I expect I’d have been happier not seeing. (It all reminds me of the Matrix. Or maybe Amazing Grace would be a better analogy. Something between the two, anyway.)

Here’s an example that I can’t stop thinking about. I visited the “Written in Bone” exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. One of the exhibits was a set of 3 skulls – a Native American skull (left), a European skull (center), and an African skull (right). I think the message they were aiming for was “everyone’s background is written in their skull” – a fitting message for an exhibit about skeletal analysis, forensics, and what bones can teach us about history.

Fuzzy shot of three skulls in a museum display

I took a poorly lit and poorly focused shot of the "ethnic skulls" display.

The display text is:

  • Left: Individuals with Native American ancestry have proportionately wider faces and shorter, broader cranial vaults.
  • Center: Individuals with European ancestry tend to have straight facial profiles and narrower faces with projecting, sharply angled nasal bones.
  • Right: Individuals with sub-Saharan African ancestry generally show greater facial projection in the area of the mouth, wider distance between the eyes, and a wider nasal cavity.

Interesting facts! But the language choices stopped me cold. The text gives the Native Americans and sub-Saharan Africans a series of comparative “-er” adjectives. Every time a “distinctive feature” is mentioned, it is as a comparative (to something else that goes unnamed). But the European language is different. Three of the four adjectives are pure, non-comparative words. To boot, the visual design also echoes “European-as-normative” in its use of the (literally whiter!) European skull as the centerpiece.

Likely the visual design was deliberate – museum designers certainly are well-versed in visual metaphors – but I would be surprised if the author really intended to say, “I am white, and I am designing this exhibit for white people”. It might be true, but that message is so blatantly racial that it’s hard to believe anyone intends to give it in 2010.

It’s hard to unsee the constant unintended us-vs.-them signalling baked into human communication once you start seeing it.