Fair Judgments and Good Inferences

Throughout these blog posts, we have examined some of the different kinds of statements we typically come across each day: statements of fact ( Facing the Facts ), opinion ( Is Everyone Entitled to an Opinion? Are You Sure?  ), value judgments, assumptions, metaphysical or belief claims ( Do You Believe or Do You Know? ), hypotheticals, predictions and so on. Each of these kinds of statement has identifying qualities that help us categorize the statements and organize our thinking. In this post, we’ll discuss two more statement forms that can cause problems if they aren’t handled with care.

th-2

JUDGMENT

Judgment is a word that has acquired a strongly negative connotation. People say, “Don’t judge me.” Or they say they want “judgment free zones.” Some seem to think that the Cosmic Scales of Justice are hanging over them, they are about to be found wanting, and they’ll be sentenced to some awful eternal punishment. Or they fear that others will make negative judgments about them. It’s impossible to go through life without assigning at least a few values. And on top of that, if you act, you can be sure you will be judged; but that’s no reason to sit in the corner doing nothing. A judgment is a statement expressing a person’s approval or disapproval of objects, events, persons or ideas. It is a form of opinion, and like an opinion, a judgment is usually based on evidence of some kind, and also open to dispute because the evidence may or may not be logical. Or the evidence for the judgment may be inadequate.

For example, suppose your family bought a car from a salesman named Jimmy Jones, and he promised to put new tires on the car before you come to close the deal. When you come to pick up the car, it still has the old tires. You ask Jones when he is going to put new tires on the car, and he denies ever making such a statement. Your first reaction probably would be “Jimmy Jones is a crook,” and you might make that statement to your friends. But wait. Even though Jones has wronged you, to call him a crook is to say that he has been a crook in the past and will continue to be a crook in future business dealings. On the basis of one example only, such a judgment is not justified. About all you can say is that in this situation you think Jones behaved unethically.

Or suppose you bought a Float-o-mobile two years ago and have now driven it for 85,000 miles with only a few minor repairs. You might well say, “The Float-o-mobile is an excellent car.” Yet the fact may be that yours is the only Float-o-mobile to go over 50,000 miles without a major overhaul. Again, on the basis of experience with one car and one model, such a judgment is not justified. It is a hasty generalization.

Infer what this dog wants

INFERENCES

An inference is a conclusion, a guess about the unknown based on the known, a statement based on evidence. Again, this evidence may or may not be logical, it may or may not be adequate and, therefore, it isn’t necessarily valid.

Imagine yourself in a situation like this: You observe a young man you have seen many times before, and you turn to your friend and say, “There goes that wealthy guy I see all over town.” Your friend says, “Really? How do you know he’s wealthy?” “Well,” you reply, “he wears obviously expensive suits, he drives a large SUV, and he lives in a house on the beach that anyone would call a mansion.” “That doesn’t prove anything,” your friend says. “He may just be deep in debt.” Your friend would be right; you have not proved your point. You did, however, draw an inference about the young man.

To infer is to conclude, but an inference isn’t necessarily a valid conclusion because there are other conclusions you could just as logically come to based on the evidence. For instance, suppose in the middle of a meeting in the conference room the person sitting next to you suddenly bangs her laptop closed, makes a horrible face, rises and stomps out of the room. You might say to yourself, “Something was said that made my colleague angry.” But again you might be wrong. Your colleague may have had a sudden and uncontrollable stomach cramp from something she ate and had to leave the room at once. There are other inferences you could draw on the basis of this evidence only. Even with more evidence, the inference you draw can be hasty and faulty. We jump to conclusions because we have a tendency to emphasize similarities and ignore differences in the experiences we’ve had.

Judgments, inferences, assumptions and opinions should never be stated as if they were valid conclusions or absolute truth. Stick to specific, factual details. Or, if you decide to use opinions, judgments or inferences as evidence, be sure to qualify the conclusions you reach. Be accurate and specific. “Jimmy Jones is a crook” will become “Jimmy Jones behaved unethically towards me.” And “The Float-o-mobile is an excellent car” will become “My Float-o-mobile is an excellent car.” The revised, qualified statements are more accurate and specific. And that makes them more convincing.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, He has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide and has been a top-rated broadcaster.