Generic language in science

Generics are generalizations that are not explicitly quantified, such as ‘Ravens are black’. These sentences are common in everyday conversations but can also be found in every scientific discipline. Scientists often communicate the results of their research by using generic language. Examples include:

  1. Americans overestimate social class mobility.
  2. Sound waves carry gravitational mass.
  3. Infants expect leaders to right wrongs.

This research project examines the epistemic role of generic language in science. Natural languages, such as English, provide scientists with the ability to quantify, specify, and hedge; so why do they also talk generically about their domain? What is the purpose of uttering generics such as (1-3) versus other – more specific – types of generalizations?

To answer these questions, it is important to understand what generic sentences mean. It is well-known that generics are not universal or majority generalizations. In my work, I argue that they also do not express normality content or probabilistic content, as others have argued. Instead, I have proposed that generics express kindhood generalizations and that their specific content therefore depends on the contextually operative criteria for being a kind.

For example, my account argues that the scientific generic ‘Americans overestimate social class mobility’ uttered in the context of social psychology says that overestimating social class mobility is one of the properties based upon which the category American counts as a kind for social psychology. What this sentence entails crucially depends on the (contextually determined) criteria for counting as a scientific kind for social psychology.

According to this theory, generic language is used in science not to support probabilistic reasoning about the members of a category, nor to facilitate reasoning about the normal members of a scientific category, but to facilitate kind-based reasoning. Furthermore, it explains the benefits and dangers of using generic language in science. Specifically, it highlights the dangers of misinterpretation, especially when read by novices who interpret these sentences according to their own folk understandings of kindhood.