The tagline on my old blog was “Observation are gold; hypotheses,
silver; and conclusions, bronze.” This reflects my
philosophy, that observation is the fundamental source of all
knowledge. The father you go from your raw observations, the
more likely you are to make a mistake.
To illustrate: When I was about 14, one day my sister came to me and
asked me if I could take some links out of her bicycle chain.
For some perverse reason, I had this habit of trying to make a lesson
out of everything for my little sisters.
I knew that it was possible to remove links, but I also knew that it
required a special tool, which I did not have. So I was not
do it. “Why do you want me to do that?”
“The chain is too long.”
I knew that the bike worked fine yesterday, and the chain did not
suddenly get any longer. Probably, the rear wheel had gotten
loose in its mount. The mount was shaped like a slit, so that
it was possible to move it forward or back a bit.
“What makes you say that the chain is too long?”
“It just is. The chain is too long.”
“No, what I mean is, what do you see, what is it that happens, that
makes you say the chain is too long?”
My father, less Socratic that I, but also better at phrasing pointed
questions, chimed in: “What happened just now with the bike?”
“The chain keeps falling off the gears.”
Back to me: “So, what you see is that the chain is falling off the
gears. What you concluded is that the chain is too long.
But it could be that the rear wheel needs to be adjusted
“Just fix it, will you!”
And sure enough, I just had to loosen the nut holding the rear wheel,
slide it back a fraction of an inch, and tightening up really tight.
It’s easy to say that a person should not make assumptions about what
they observe, but that misses the point. In fact, you have to
make all kinds of assumptions all the time, just to get anything done.
The point is to be careful about the assumptions you make; it
helps to be mindful of the fact that there is an extra step in between
the observation ad the conclusion.
That extra step is so easy to make, it becomes automatic; it’s often
A lot of the conclusions we draw are based upon a process of
elimination. If you only see one possible explanation for
your observation, the process of elimination seems unnecessary.