I realized this morning that some people are left deeply confused by life’s little mysteries. Perhaps they’ve never played Clue or read a Sherlock Holmes story or watched an episode of Scooby Doo, or if they did they weren’t able to make much sense of it. Clues? Evidence? Deductive reasoning? All very strange and perplexing concepts, I know. So I decided to make a quick little PSA explaining how to solve a simple mystery, one step at a time. The example I’m going to use is called The Missing Recycling Bin, because recycling bins are something most people are at least vaguely familiar with. Ready? Okay, here’s our scenario:
You come out of your house and notice your recycling bin is missing. Where has it gone?!
First, let’s look for clues. Clues are things that might help explain what happened, like information or physical items. You may want to jump right to creating a theory, but without clues your theory is just a made-up story. A theory is an idea that’s meant to explain something that has happened, and it’s supposed to be based on facts – like clues! See, this is easier than you thought. But where can we look for clues? In the house? Probably not. In the garage? Okay, look there. Is the bin there? No, it isn’t, so let’s try looking around the place the bin is supposed to be, right beside your house. I know, the bin isn’t there. But is anything else there that might help us figure out where the bin went?
Is there trash on the ground that could have come out of the bin? There is! That’s our first clue. Let’s look for another one!
Look, there’s more trash on the ground. Could it have come from your recycling bin? Look at the trash closely to see if you recognize any of it. Yes, that is your trash. But why is it making a little path into the neighbor’s yard? We need more clues to help us figure this out. Let’s follow the path of the trash.
The path of your trash goes right across your neighbor’s yard, and then it stops. Hmm, something funny is going on here. Did the neighbor steal your recycling bin?
Probably not. The neighbor’s recycling bin is in front of their garage. Why would they want to steal yours? That was a bad theory. Let’s look around for more clues.
Now that you’re looking, you see that a lot of other neighbors’ bins are tipped over – there is even a recycling bin laying on its side in the street just past your neighbor’s house. Another clue? Yes! But we may have to think about this one for a minute. Why would so many bins be tipped over? There was a big wind storm last night, could that have tipped all the bins over? It could have – it even knocked down a tree, which knocked out the power, so that wind could easily have tipped over some bins. We may have the beginnings of a theory here. If the wind tipped over these other bins, could it have tipped over yours? That sounds like a good theory. That theory is supported by facts.
Could your recycling bin being tipped over by wind be the reason there is trash on the ground? You’re really getting the hang of this now. Let’s look at the trash again. Some of it is wedged up against your neighbor’s car. Wind could have done that, right? Yes, it could have – wind pushes things until they run into something else and can’t be pushed anymore. Now we have a pretty good theory going: The wind from the storm last night pushed your recycling bin over and blew the trash that fell out across your neighbor’s yard. Where is the recycling bin, though? It’s still missing. We haven’t solved this mystery yet. We may need to look at the evidence again – evidence is all of the clues put together – to see if that makes things any clearer.
- Your recycling bin is missing.
- There is trash on the ground that belongs to you.
- There is trash in your neighbor’s yard that belongs to you.
- There was a big wind storm last night.
- The wind blew over many bins.
- The wind also blew your trash across your neighbor’s yard.
Could the wind have blown your bin out of your yard? We could infer that from the evidence, yes – infer means to form an opinion based on the facts you have by using reason. What is reason? That would take too long to explain, and today is trash day so you need to find that bin. So we have inferred that the wind may have blown your recycling bin out of your yard, the same way it blew the trash that came out of the bin. What else can you infer from the evidence? The direction the wind was blowing things in? Yes, because the wind blew the trash into your neighbor’s yard, and all of the tipped-over bins have been tipped over in the same direction. So is it possible that the wind blew your recycling bin in the same direction as it blew the trash and the other bins? Could that recycling bin in the street, just past your neighbor’s house – the one the path of trash is pointing to – be your bin? You could go look. If the rest of your trash is inside that bin, then you will know that is your missing bin and the mystery will be solved. Yay you! Sherlock Holmes would be proud.
Or, you could go take a tipped-over bin from some other yard and put it where your bin should go and just pretend that is your bin because they all look alike. That is not what Sherlock Holmes would do; that is what Shaggy would do, and then Fred and Velma and Daphne would yell at him for it. And that is also part of the reason why your neighbor is going to stop being nice to you for a while. I did not infer that, that is a fact. Is it a clue? It could be, but probably not for you. 🙁