Bertrand Russell’s Inductivist Turkey

A turkey, in an american nurture, decide to shape its vision of the world scientifically well founded (a wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung, according to the Logical Positivism by the  Wiener Kreis).

Bertrand Russell portrait
Bertrand Russell – from Wikipedia

The turkey found that, on his first morning at the turkey farm, he was fed at 9 a.m. Being a good inductivist turkey he did not jump to conclusions. He waited until he collected a large number of observations that he was fed at 9 a.m. and made these observations under a wide range of circumstances, on Wednesdays, on Thursdays, on cold days, on warm days. Each day he added another observation statement to his list. Finally he was satisfied that he had collected a number of observation statements to inductively infer that “I am always fed at 9 a.m.”.

However on the morning of Christmas eve he was not fed but instead had his throat cut.

It doesn’t matter how many cases we list during our inductivist reasoning, nothing guarantees that the next case will lay in this inference we deducted from our observations, as the possible experiments and observations are infinite by number and type.

The only valid scientific method is to test the theory using the assertions which can be deduced.

23 thoughts on “Bertrand Russell’s Inductivist Turkey

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  3. Paul Desmond Parker

    “The only valid scientific method is to test the theory using the assertions which can be deduced.”

    You’re trying to give deduction a certainty that it does not enjoy in reality. Deduction requires one or more premises. Those premises can be based on yet other deductions, or ultimately, on an induction; although often obfuscated as a “self-evident truth.”

    A self-evident truth is merely an induction with a preponderance of trails. In the context of a statement like “the sky is usually a shade of blue,” the observation may have been made trillions of times, and shared and exchanged culturally billions of times. At what point an induced conclusion becomes a “self-evident truth,” is anyone’s guess.

    Induction is messy, it is uncertain. The temptation is to sweep the inductive steps in the scientific method under the carpet and concentrate on the useful products; and on the formally correct deductive reasoning that can extend knowledge. Unfortunately, deduction can NEVER be divorced from the building blocks it manipulates; and those blocks are always inductively arrived at.

    The scientific method does not rest on bedrock. It rests on a sea of induction; floating and reacting to observations. The impulse to fasten the scientific method to a false and arbitrary bedrock results in a slower response to new observations that must modify the artificially identified bedrock.

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  7. The turkey’s failure did not lie in his choice of an inductive approach. It lay in his failure to consider the full ramifications of the problem. He only asked, “When do I get fed?” He never asked, “Why do I get fed?”

  8. In the same sense that ‘climate change’ is different from ‘weather,’ a sample size of one is not the same thing as ‘science.’

  9. Nathan Redshield

    If the turkey hadn’t been killed–it would have been fed at 9 AM. I regard Russell (grandson of the British PM Lord John Russell whom he remembered) as a “useful idiot” of the Left and therefore suspect.

    1. ihsan

      Or the farmer died? One can give many reason not being fed at 9:00am.

      Assume that there is a periodic event. But the period is so large that no body notice it in the future. Without any past recording you cannot observe that is periodic.

      Think Halley, if the period is 1M year. Can you say it is random event or not?

      With inductive thinking you can only think inside the box not outside the box.

  10. Jonathan Fuller

    Russell was a great mathematician, a pretty good historian, and a fair philosopher. But he was never a scientist, so his pronouncements as to the methods of finding “validity” in science must be a bit suspect. But there is an important point here. The strength of a scientific theory is found not in its ability to explain previous observations, but in its ability to explain new phenomena. Whether to predict the orbits of undiscovered planets or to explain shifts in magnetic field orientations on the ocean floor, a theory is finally accepted when it shows a robust ability to explain (or in retrospect, predict) new observations.

  11. I appreciate you posting this, but...

    I suspect the original last line is “deduced,” rather than “deducted”….?

      1. Jena-Auerstedt

        Actually, in British usage, “deducted” might have been more accurate. Watson was forever saying things like, “Clever deduction, Holmes.” In 19th Century England, it was common to refer to a “deduction” as making a conclusion from the gathering of evidence — see also Daffy Duck and Porky Pig in “Deduce, You Say!” in which “Dorlock Homes” is busy “deducting” — on his taxes, that is. That usage was common, but today is incorrect — deductive logic is the logic of the syllogism, and not what we now refer to as induction — as with Russell’s turkey.

  12. stop killing turkeys!

    its a shame a poor turkey had to die for Russell to prove his point R.I.P. turkey!

  13. Andrew Robertson

    It’s a lovely critique of induction, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that there is no role for induction in science. I’m sure there’s a deductivist chicken that can be shown to be equally absurd in the extreme. It’s moving back and forth between the two (in the forms of theory and experimentation) that enables the creation of reliable knowledge.

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