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What Is Inductive Reasoning?

By Melissa Barrett
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Inductive reasoning is a method of drawing a probable conclusion from an emerging configuration of data. In its purest form, this type of reasoning occurs by analyzing unbiased observations and discovering common patterns. When patterns repeat for an extended period of time, an analyst can logically predict that those patterns will continue to repeat. This inference, commonly known as generalization, can produce scientific deductions so probable that they are widely accepted as fact. Any theory involving generalization, however, can be disproved by one instance of inconsistency.

One form of inductive reasoning is the application of certain circumstances to a likely cause. A simple instance of cause-and-effect inference would be the repeated discovery of dead livestock in an area where coyote tracks are also present. While it is theoretically possible that the animals died from natural causes, it is much more likely that their demise was a result of a coyote’s actions.

In medicine, this type of inductive reasoning can be a very powerful diagnostic tool. As a specific illness often presents with a particular list of symptoms, it is reasonable to presume that a patient who exhibits those indicators also has that malady. Most physicians acknowledge that these types of conclusions may be wrong in some instances. In emergency medicine, however, many more lives can be saved by treating the probable condition than are lost by misdiagnosis.

Often, future behavior may be reasonably predicted by inductive reasoning. Logic says that an object that has always behaved in a certain way will continue to behave as such. To simplify Isaac Newton’s work, barring interference, an apple that detaches from a tree will always fall to the ground.

While inductive reasoning of this sort is natural, it is inherently flawed. For example, every day in the history of humanity, the sun has risen, and it can be safely assumed that it will rise tomorrow as well. Scientific evidence, however, shows that the life of a star is long but not unlimited. As such, there will likely come a day when the sun does not rise. In essence, the rising of the sun is not only just a theory but one that is liable to be disproved.

In many ways, the fallibility of inductive reasoning actually increases its strength as a scientific method. Sweeping statements often encourage thorough testing. It is likely, then, that any theory based on inductive reasoning will be challenged repeatedly. Those that survive can be expected to be so accurate that they may be acknowledged as truth.

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Discussion Comments
By anon352384 — On Oct 22, 2013

Thank you so much. This was so helpful to me. My math teacher is going to be so proud of me, honestly!

By anon241394 — On Jan 18, 2012

The example of the sun rising used in this article is flawed. Save for those stars that explode (go nova), a star that dies will still "rise" even when it no longer emits light. For the example itself to be true or accurate, the star in question would have to cease to exist as a cohesive body.

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