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“Inductive” vs. “Deductive”: How To Reason Out Their Differences

Inductive and deductive are commonly used in the context of logic, reasoning, and science. Scientists use both inductive and deductive reasoning as part of the scientific method. Fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes are famously associated with methods of deduction (though that’s often not what Holmes actually uses—more on that later). Some writing courses involve inductive and deductive essays.

But what’s the difference between inductive and deductive? Broadly speaking, the difference involves whether the reasoning moves from the general to the specific or from the specific to the general. In this article, we’ll define each word in simple terms, provide several examples, and even quiz you on whether you can spot the difference.

⚡ Quick summary

Inductive reasoning (also called induction) involves forming general theories from specific observations. Observing something happen repeatedly and concluding that it will happen again in the same way is an example of inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning (also called deduction) involves forming specific conclusions from general premises, as in: everyone in this class is an English major; Jesse is in this class; therefore, Jesse is an English major.

What does inductive mean?

Inductive is used to describe reasoning that involves using specific observations, such as observed patterns, to make a general conclusion. This method is sometimes called induction. Induction starts with a set of premises, based mainly on experience or experimental evidence. It uses those premises to generalize a conclusion.

For example, let’s say you go to a cafe every day for a month, and every day, the same person comes at exactly 11 am and orders a cappuccino. The specific observation is that this person has come to the cafe at the same time and ordered the same thing every day during the period observed. A general conclusion drawn from these premises could be that this person always comes to the cafe at the same time and orders the same thing.

While inductive reasoning can be useful, it’s prone to being flawed. That’s because conclusions drawn using induction go beyond the information contained in the premises. An inductive argument may be highly probable, but even if all the observations are accurate, it can lead to incorrect conclusions.

Follow up this discussion with a look at concurrent vs. consecutive.

In our basic example, there are a number of reasons why it may not be true that the person always comes at the same time and orders the same thing.

Additional observations of the same event happening in the same way increase the probability that the event will happen again in the same way, but you can never be completely certain that it will always continue to happen in the same way.

That’s why a theory reached via inductive reasoning should always be tested to see if it is correct or makes sense.

What else does inductive mean?

Inductive can also be used as a synonym for introductory. It’s also used in a more specific way to describe the scientific processes of electromagnetic and electrostatic induction—or things that function based on them.

What does deductive mean?

Deductive reasoning (also called deduction) involves starting from a set of general premises and then drawing a specific conclusion that contains no more information than the premises themselves. Deductive reasoning is sometimes called deduction (note that deduction has other meanings in the contexts of mathematics and accounting).

Here’s an example of deductive reasoning: chickens are birds; all birds lay eggs; therefore, chickens lay eggs. Another way to think of it: if something is true of a general class (birds), then it is true of the members of the class (chickens).

Deductive reasoning can go wrong, of course, when you start with incorrect premises. For example, look where this first incorrect statement leads us: all animals that lay eggs are birds; snakes lay eggs; therefore, snakes are birds.

The scientific method can be described as deductive. You first formulate a hypothesis—an educated guess based on general premises (sometimes formed by inductive methods). Then you test the hypothesis with an experiment. Based on the results of the experiment, you can make a specific conclusion as to the accuracy of your hypothesis.

You may have deduced there are related terms to this topic. Start with a look at interpolation vs. extrapolation.

Deductive reasoning is popularly associated with detectives and solving mysteries. Most famously, Sherlock Holmes claimed to be among the world’s foremost practitioners of deduction, using it to solve how crimes had been committed (or impress people by guessing where they had been earlier in the day).

However, despite this association, reasoning that’s referred to as deduction in many stories is actually more like induction or a form of reasoning known as abduction, in which probable but uncertain conclusions are drawn based on known information.

Sherlock’s (and Arthur Conan Doyle’s) use of the word deduction can instead be interpreted as a way (albeit imprecise) of referring to systematic reasoning in general.

What is the difference between inductive vs. deductive reasoning?

Inductive reasoning involves starting from specific premises and forming a general conclusion, while deductive reasoning involves using general premises to form a specific conclusion.

Conclusions reached via deductive reasoning cannot be incorrect if the premises are true. That’s because the conclusion doesn’t contain information that’s not in the premises. Unlike deductive reasoning, though, a conclusion reached via inductive reasoning goes beyond the information contained within the premises—it’s a generalization, and generalizations aren’t always accurate.

The best way to understand the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning is probably through examples.

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Examples of inductive and deductive reasoning

Examples of inductive reasoning

Premise: All known fish species in this genus have yellow fins.
Conclusion: Any newly discovered species in the genus is likely to have yellow fins.

Premises: This volcano has erupted about every 500 years for the last 1 million years. It last erupted 499 years ago.
Conclusion: It will erupt again soon.

Examples of deductive reasoning

Premises: All plants with rainbow berries are poisonous. This plant has rainbow berries.
Conclusion: This plant is poisonous.

Premises: I am lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerant people get sick when they consume dairy. This milkshake contains dairy.
Conclusion: I will get sick if I drink this milkshake.

Reason your way to the best score by taking our quiz on "inductive" vs. "deductive" reasoning!

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