Common Patterns of Inductive Reasoning

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, you'll find out what type of arguments we use just to get through everyday life. We will explore the variety of ways inductive arguments determine what is most likely, and probable.

Definition of Inductive Reasoning

Here's a weird question for you: How do you know that when you go to bed tonight, you are going to have the same number of teeth in your mouth as you did when you woke up this morning?

It seems pretty likely that you'll get through the day without losing any of your teeth (or growing any new ones), right?

Since your argument about your teeth is what is likely and probable, you are using inductive reasoning to argue that you'll go to bed with the same number of teeth you had upon waking.

Unlike deductive reasoning, which establishes what will necessarily follow the premises, inductive reasoning is still a type of assumption. In other words, our argument that we will have all of our teeth at day's end is our best educated guess based on reasonable premises.

Inductive Generalizations

Let's talk about some of the patterns used when we are thinking inductively.

The first is an old friend: generalization. We are making a generalization when we observe a pattern in some specific situations and then apply those observations to a much larger group or situation.

Example: Perhaps you believe that most people have some sort of dental hygiene routine, like brushing their teeth every day (or at least most days). You probably think that this is true because of the cases of people you know who brush their teeth regularly. Then you generalize to the larger population, concluding that it's likely most people do this.

If everyone you know brushes his teeth every day, you may generalize that most people probably do this.
Man brushing his teeth at the sink.

As human beings, we generalize a lot. It essentially gets us through the day. If we didn't generalize, we'd have trouble talking with others, making decisions, or expressing our preferences.

Generalizations can get us into a lot of trouble too. Think about the prejudices people hold about your particular age group, ethnic group, or gender, for instance. Not every generalization will be accurate for a whole group, and so it's important to recognize that generalizations have their limitations.

Predictive Arguments

Example: ''Every time I stop flossing my teeth, I start to develop gingivitis. If I stop flossing again, I will develop gingivitis again.''

This is an example of a predictive argument. This type of inductive reasoning uses past experience to conclude that something that happened in the past will likely occur again, if the conditions are the same.

You might not get gingivitis after all, but your experience tells you that this will likely happen if you drop flossing from your regular routine.

Arguments from Authority

Example: ''Dentists agree that it's important to brush and floss daily. This will help to prevent dental problems down the road.''

This argument isn't about my personal experience or about the experiences of people I know. This conclusion is reached as a result of an argument from authority. In other words, I'm deferring to the opinion of the experts who likely know about this topic.

Not a bad approach, right? Of course, like any inductive argument, there is a chance with arguments from authority that the experts won't know all of the answers, or that the answer could change over time as more is known in their field.

Causal Arguments

Example: ''When children eat a lot of sugar, they get more cavities. Therefore, sugar causes cavities.''

Here, we have a causal argument that labels sugar as the culprit in the formation of cavities. Notice that in this argument there is a cause-and-effect relationship between two things: sugar and cavities.

When we say something causes another, it is because we believe that the two events often occur together so frequently that the best explanation is that they are directly linked to one another.

In research, the word ''cause'' is not used as frequently as the word ''correlated''. Why is that? When we look deeper into a topic (such as what causes cavities), we can find other factors that also contribute. So while this is a common pattern of inductive reasoning, it's also one that needs its fair share of caution.

Statistical Arguments

Example: ''90% of toothpaste sales are for toothpastes that include the additive fluoride. Using fluoride is probably good for dental health.''

Statistical arguments don't just rely on our own experience. They reference studies that have researched a phenomenon or polled others for answers.

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