Alien Abduction or How Science Reasons

“Ah. I understand the source of your misperception, but this is not sleepwear, and I do not have a ‘missus.'” — Data to Jack London (Time’s Arrow, Part ?)


The fancy word for today is abduction. Not the kidnapping type. Abductive reasoning is a way to make an inference. A way to reason. A way to get at the truth of things. Science uses it a lot. Let me illustrate it with an example. Suppose I walk into my house and find on the table a nicely decorated chocolate cake, the kind with beautiful red frosting roses gracing the sides. Moreover, (I love that word, it just sounds so philosophical, moreover, it adds a sense of grace to your argument) in the sink you find some cake pans piled on the kitchen counter with that dark bit of cakey stuff that sticks to the bottom of recent baking events. In the sink are soaking some bowls in a milky white liquid that reminds you of diluted batter. Sticking out of these bowls are some beater heads that go to the mixer in your kitchen. On the counter are the bags used for squeezing frosting out of decorative little metal things that no one knows the name of and the little metal things. Red frosting is all over these things. In the garbage are two empty boxes of Betty Crocker chocolate cake mix and two empty cans of chocolate frosting. On the fridge is a note pinned by a magnet from my son to my wife that reads, “Mom, The RS pres. called to remind you to make a cake for homemaking tomorrow, the theme is ‘Keeping romance alive through chocolate.’ ” The note was dated yesterday (don’t your children date their notes?). I know that my wife has been the only one home because my kids all left for school before I did and they had plans after school that I know will keep them away until dinner and my wife said she was not going anywhere today, because she was going to catch up on her reading of the Mormon Feminist Housewives Blog.


So here is my explanation of the cake: Despite what she said she was going to do, my wife went and bought a cake at Cosco. My son must of have come from school early because he is the only one that likes pancakes, which explains the batter in the bowls and mixer. My neighbor came by and asked to use our garbage and disposed of her cake baking packaging. My other son must have brought the dirty pans from his HomeEc class to wash where they made cakes, and my son must want his mom to make a cake for some reason because he obviously is lying about the Relief Society president calling. Also my daughter has been using her mother’s cake decorating accessories for playing scientist again. I’ll have to speak to her.


Or maybe my wife is an international spy! She had to make it look like she was home all day to trick the other spies who are watching her, so her man Q made the cake and supplied the supporting materials, including calling my son with a voice digitizer-disguiser thing claiming he was the RS president.


The other explanation is my wife made the cake and the leftovers are still lying about.


Why is one explanation better than the others? All are possible. Both explain the evidence. Why does the last seem more reasonable? Well, it explains everything without adding any new hypotheses. It seems more probable. My son has to come home to make pancakes in the second. Every single piece of evidence has to be explained with a separate story. From a strict scientific view both explanations cover the data. The last explanation, however, just requires one hypothesis, the others keep adding them. We call this parsimony or inference to the best explanation. We take the inference that requires the least cast of supporting hypotheses. The first or second could be true. It could have been what happened, but my heavens we had to believe a lot of coincidences or conspiracies came together to get those.


Abduction: Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do or do without.

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3 Responses to Alien Abduction or How Science Reasons

  1. smwaters says:

    So, the message is that if you see a nicely decorated chocolate cake sitting in the kitchen, one can assume that there is an intelligent designer (or designers) of the cake? Hmmm. While I can appreciated the parsimony of the second explanation of the designer, I rather like the polytheistic implications of the first explanation. I’ll have to abductively think about this for a while.

  2. Don’t we usually just call this Occam’s Razor?

  3. Clark says:

    Nope. Ockham’s razor (which as used in science typically isn’t actually his razor) is more about simplicity. It’s a way of guaging guess.

    One way to think about abduction is that it is the logic of making guessing that are unusually right. They still need tested though. Typically one forms a hypothesis with abduction, works out implications with deduction, and tests the implications with induction.

    My favorite philosopher of all time, Charles Sanders Peirce, is actually the one who developed abduction.

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