Scientific generics

Generics are generalizations that are not explicitly quantified, like ‘Tigers are striped.’ We use a generic to state a general fact about a kind without having to specify how many of its members we are talking about. Instead of saying that ‘Most tigers are striped,’ for example, a generic generalization simply says that ‘Tigers are striped.’ Although generics appear to be very simple generalizations, they have puzzled linguists and philosophers for decades. To understand why they are so puzzling, consider the following examples:

  1. Tigers are striped.
  2. Lions have manes.
  3. Ticks carry Lyme disease.

Spelling out what these sentences say about the world (i.e. their truth conditions) has proven very difficult. This is partly due to the fact that different generics seem to mean different things. Whereas (1) appears to convey a broad near-universal generalization, other generics like (2) and (3) are true even though only a minority of the kind instantiates the predicated property.

To account for this truth-conditional complexity, the best semantic theories for generics hold that they can be true in several different ways. Some hold that generic sentences are semantically ambiguous, others that they are semantically context-sensitive. Still others, like me, believe that there are different types of generic relations that can exist between a kind and a property, and that the meaning of a generic sentence is indeterminate with respect to which of these exists.

Whatever one’s views about the complex truth-conditions of generics, however, several questions arise when aiming to account for the epistemic and communicative role of generics in science. Scientists regularly use generic generalizations to characterize the kinds in their domain, stating for example that ‘Metals are excellent conductors of heat.’ Given that generic sentences can be true in several different ways, however, one question that arises is how these sentences can license predictions or feature in successful explanations. Furthermore, given that generics can be true in several different ways, how are speakers and hearers in a scientific discipline able to coordinate on how these sentences are to be understood? The goal of this project is to answer these questions.