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4 Step Process of Discovery: Possibility versus Probability as used in that process

Mar 06, 2002 04:28 PM
by Daniel Caldwell

In the realm of NORMAL historical inquiry, the
historians Barzun and Graff point out:

"If you receive a letter from a relative that [1]
bears what looks like her signature, that [2] refers
to family matters you and she commonly discuss, and
that [3] was postmarked in the city where she lives,
the probability is very great that she wrote it."

"The contrary hypothesis would need at least as many
opposing signs [of evidence] in order to take root in
your mind---though the possibility of forgery. . .is
always there."

Please note that the hypothesis that the letter is
really written by your relative is supported by three
positive signs of evidence. But as Barzun and Graff
point out, even in spite of all that, the POSSIBILITY
or PLAUSIBILITY of forgery is ALWAYS there! An critic
using the UNPACKING method [see:
could take the ball at this step and try to "explain
away" the three pieces of evidence.

For example, the skeptic could "reason":

"Isn't it possible or plausible that [1] the
relative's signature was forged, and, isn't it
possible or plausible that [2] some "forger" was
somehow privy to family matters, and, furthermore,
isn't it possible or plausible that [3] the forger
could have mailed the letter in the city where your
relative lives to throw you off the track?"

And if you (the level-headed researcher) objected to
such speculation by your resident skeptic, he might

"Prove to me that the three statements, I just listed,
aren't possible or plausible! Didn't Barzun and Graff

But the perceptive researcher should point out to his
skeptical friend that POSSIBILITIES and PLAUSIBILITIES
[at step 2 in the 4 step process of discovery] are not
to be confused with PROBABILITIES [at step 4]. [See
the chart outlining the 4 steps at: ]

Barzun and Graffe clearly enunciate an important
dictum for the researcher:

"The rule of 'Give Evidence' is not be be violated. .
. .No matter how possible or plausible the author's
conjecture [at step 2] it cannot be accepted
as truth [at step 4] if he has only his hunch [which
is not evidence] to support it. Truth rests not on
possibility or plausibility but on probability.
Probability [at step 4] means the balance of chances
that, GIVEN SUCH AND SUCH EVIDENCE [at step 3], the
event it records happened in a certain way; or, in
other cases, that a supposed event did not in fact
take place."

Unfortunately, far too many skeptics become fixated on
"possibilities" AND "plausibilities" [at step 2] and
never progress beyond to considering "probabilities"
[at step 4]. Such skeptics---after pointing out that
if two or more explanations are possible or plausible,
none are 
proved---SEEM TO BE UNINTERESTED in the question of
where the WEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE lies. Many of these
skeptics fixate and speculate (almost ad infinitum and
ad nauseam) on various possibilities and
plausibilities --- hoping that careless readers will 
ASSUME that 'something' has been proven or disproven
by such rhetoric. [See:
for a good example of how a critic can use this
"possibility/plausibility" method of argument.]

Daniel H. Caldwell
"...Contrast alone can enable us to appreciate things at
their right value; and unless a judge compares notes and
hears both sides he can hardly come to a correct decision."
H.P. Blavatsky. The Theosophist, July, 1881, p. 218.

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