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MidnightMuse
07-22-2006, 03:19 AM
If I were to say "Look for Zebras" would many people understand what that meant?

I'm not sure if the saying "When you hear hoofbeats, look for Zebras" is common everywhere, or just particular to the medical profession I used to be in.

TheIT
07-22-2006, 03:21 AM
I'm from Illinois originally (transplanted to California), and I've never heard of that saying. What does it mean?

jvc
07-22-2006, 03:24 AM
I've never heard this one Muse. I have to second TheIt's question - What does it mean?

MidnightMuse
07-22-2006, 03:25 AM
Well in the medical field, it means when you're looking for a cause, you shouldn't always assume it's something simple and known. You need to not assume - when you hear hoofbeats - that you're about to see horses. It could be zebras.

Kinda like a "think outside the box" saying.

TheIT
07-22-2006, 03:28 AM
So it's a variation on, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." Might not be fire, might be zebras. Neat.

I could see having a character in the medical profession using it to someone outside medicine and needing to explain. Could be good characterization.

MidnightMuse
07-22-2006, 03:30 AM
Okay, cool - thanks ! I'll have the MC use the saying, then have to explain it.

Perfect :)

Start using that in your regular conversations - people will think you're wise :D

veinglory
07-22-2006, 03:30 AM
I know it but with the reverse meaning. i.e. the most common explanation is probably true hoofbeats (unless you are in Africa) means horses not zebras.

i heard it for the first time when I was in my 20s--not at all connected to medicine-- and would not think of it as a common saying

newmod
07-22-2006, 03:31 AM
Put me down as another who has never heard it and would have had no idea what it meant. FYI I´m from London and have no medical background.

MidnightMuse
07-22-2006, 03:33 AM
Okay, super - I'll have the character explain it. It's easy to forget (well, for ME to forget) that something you pick up in a particular field or region might not be well known outside that field or region.

The reverse meaning is a variation of Occam's razor - the simplest solution is often the right one.

Thanks everyone ! :)

rugcat
07-22-2006, 03:46 AM
I thought it was a common expression - almost a cliche. I don't have a medical background. Maybe I've seen too many TV medical dramas.

Rather than explain it, why not try to write it in a context so that the meaning of the phrase becomes obvous to the reader? Those who are familiar with the saying will get it right away; those who aren't will think you're extremely clever.

MidnightMuse
07-22-2006, 03:49 AM
Well, knowing that I am extremely clever :D In the context it will occur, there will be actual Zebras.

Trust me, it'll be hilarious!

Peggy
07-22-2006, 03:49 AM
I have heard it, but in the version Veinglory described: "When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras". I can't remember where I heard or read it, but it was probably in the context of scientific experimentation - a warning to not to discount the simplest explanation, just because it's the simplest. (There is a tendency for some young scientists to create convoluted explanations for data, when often a simple one would suffice.)

So, to answer your question, if someone just said "Look for zebras", I wouldn't know what they were referring to.

Cath
07-22-2006, 06:18 AM
Never came across it in the UK, I got the gist though.

Tish Davidson
07-22-2006, 06:18 AM
I have heard it, but in the version Veinglory described: "When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras". I can't remember where I heard or read it, but it was probably in the context of scientific experimentation - a warning to not to discount the simplest explanation, just because it's the simplest. (There is a tendency for some young scientists to create convoluted explanations for data, when often a simple one would suffice.)

So, to answer your question, if someone just said "Look for zebras", I wouldn't know what they were referring to.

I've always heard it the way Veinglory did too. It was used in science classes, especially biology classes, to mean that the simplest and most common explanation was most often correct.

asorum
07-22-2006, 07:05 AM
Not me! Moose or caribou maybe?

TheIT
07-22-2006, 07:06 AM
Personally, I'd rather look for unicorns or hippogriffs. ;)

Fern
07-22-2006, 07:17 AM
Oklahoma - no medical background - never heard of it either.

Perks
07-22-2006, 07:25 AM
Oklahoma too (not right this minute, but originally) - no medical background - but I have heard it. Go figure.

Cabinscribe
07-22-2006, 08:46 AM
I believe I've heard about it, but in the context of "If you hear hoofbeats, don't think they're zebras".

In other words, it would be more likely that the hoofbeats would come from horses than zebras.

This is is similar to Sutton's Law which is used in medicine. I can't quote it exactly, but the idea is to look for the most common diagnosis that coincides with the symptoms, not the rarest.

This comes from the famous bank rober, Willie Sutton. He denied saying this, by the way, but the story is that a reporter asked him why he robbed banks, and he said,

"Because that's where the money is."

reph
07-22-2006, 08:53 AM
I've seen it, as a maxim taught in medical school, in the form (roughly) "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras." I haven't gone to medical school. I just read a lot.

katiemac
07-22-2006, 09:38 AM
I first heard it, "Just because you hear hoofbeats, don't assume zebras." And yes, in the medical profession. It was within context, and therefore had no problem figuring out what it meant.

Steve W
07-23-2006, 04:07 PM
Hi,

I'm in the UK - I've only heard it used on US TV. I might be wrong, but wasn't it used in House not so long back? (I love that show. The dialogue's so sharp.)

Cheers,
Steve

Jamesaritchie
07-23-2006, 04:56 PM
I've heard it, but the same way as most of the others. "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras." It means the simplest explanation is probably the right one. In other words, if you hear hoofbeats, it's probably a horse, not a zebra.

This is the way it's always used in med school, and with doctors.

It's very common this way, but it doesn't make sense to say, "When you hear hoofbeats, assume Zebras."

http://medscape.typepad.com/thedifferential/2006/01/seeing_zebras.html

alleycat
07-23-2006, 08:15 PM
I've never heard the expression. If I saw it I would think something else because I've heard the expression "Like being a zebra in lion country" used in investing a lot. If I read "look for zebras" out of context my first thought would be "look for suckers".

Just a thought . . . although not much of one.

johnnysannie
07-23-2006, 10:37 PM
I've heard it, but the same way as most of the others. "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras." It means the simplest explanation is probably the right one. In other words, if you hear hoofbeats, it's probably a horse, not a zebra.

This is the way it's always used in med school, and with doctors.

It's very common this way, but it doesn't make sense to say, "When you hear hoofbeats, assume Zebras."

http://medscape.typepad.com/thedifferential/2006/01/seeing_zebras.html


The saying appeared within an article in this morning's PARADE magazine in my Sunday paper as "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras" in an article about rare diseases. Within the article it stated that it's a common expression in med school and the medical professions.

MidnightMuse
07-24-2006, 05:09 AM
Wow, how can you guys be online in this HEAT? I'm fainting, but I was having withdrawals.

Anyway - interesting toughts on the saying. We learned it in Veterinary medicine as a way to diagnose something that was eluding regular diagnosis. This is after you've ruled out the 'horses'.

I'll have to decide if it's necessary to my WIP - especially seeing as how this is an off-beat fantasy, and it will hold a different meaning. I'd just said it a few times to people outside the field, and realized they'd never heard it before, and that's when I wondered if anyone else had :D

thanks for all the responses!

alleycat
07-24-2006, 05:12 AM
Uh, we have air conditioning. It's 72 in my house.

I still get to eat ice cream and watermelon however.

smallthunder
07-30-2006, 10:42 PM
Hi -- yes, I have heard of the expression, but I'm a voracious reader and came across it in a medical journal while waiting at the doctor's office for my appointment.

In any case, using this type of colorful-if-perhaps-arcane expression is exactly the kind of thing I like to come across when I (alas, rarely) read fiction. So, please use it -- but slide it into your manuscript smoothly, please. The only thing that takes away from the pleasure of coming across & learning such an expression is when the writer incorporates the expression in a clumsy/clunky way.

It's the difference between noticing an interestingly colored pebble, picking it up, and slipping it into your pocket with a smile & the thought that you've serendipitously acquired something special ... versus having someone taking an interestingly colored pebble and throwing it at your head (BONK!).

MadScientistMatt
08-07-2006, 03:58 AM
Okay, super - I'll have the character explain it. It's easy to forget (well, for ME to forget) that something you pick up in a particular field or region might not be well known outside that field or region.

The reverse meaning is a variation of Occam's razor - the simplest solution is often the right one.

Thanks everyone ! :)

I, too, have only heard it in the reverse version - "When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras." I can see why it would get turned around in the medical profession, though - the high cost of failing to spot a rare but dangerous disease.

plkiger
08-07-2006, 09:59 PM
I was in the medical profession for seven years and never heard it. I was in Pennsylvania at the time. Maybe it's a regional thing, or specific to certain schools.

Jamesaritchie
08-07-2006, 10:50 PM
I was in the medical profession for seven years and never heard it. I was in Pennsylvania at the time. Maybe it's a regional thing, or specific to certain schools.

No, I've heard it several times in Pennsylvania. My doctor there used it, in fact.

rtilryarms
08-07-2006, 11:51 PM
I never heard the term. My Assistant Manager is also a Paramedic, formerly from NYC, he never heard it either. He says the closest thing he can think of is called "S1 Gallop", one of the 3 types of sound a heart makes.

ColoradoGuy
08-08-2006, 12:04 AM
I was taught this version early in medical school: “When you hear hoof beats, don’t think of zebras.” It is a common phrase in medicine, so much so that you will often hear someone remark "that's a real zebra," to describe something unusual.

The corollary to this saying is: “Common things are common.” There is another corollary, which goes something like this: “When you see something weird, it is more likely an uncommon manifestation of a common thing than an uncommon thing.”

Sassenach
08-08-2006, 02:11 AM
I've read versions of it in fiction.