Constraints on generality: The (mis-)use of generic propositions in scientific prose

Joseph Wil­son
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Con­straints on gen­er­al­i­ty: The (mis-)use of gener­ic propo­si­tions in sci­en­tif­ic prose

Abstract. Gener­ic propo­si­tions are state­ments that make gen­er­al claims about ‘kinds’ that are found in a wide vari­ety of writ­ten gen­res and speech. By def­i­n­i­tion, gener­ics do not include in their struc­ture any ref­er­ence to the con­di­tions under which they hold true. Their mis-use in pop­u­lar sci­en­tif­ic writ­ing, how­ev­er, can erode the public’s con­fi­dence in the process of sci­ence itself when they dis­cov­er that con­clu­sions are high­ly con­tin­gent on cer­tain truth con­di­tions. The lan­guage used in schol­ar­ly sci­en­tif­ic papers often includes qual­i­fiers and hedges, the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal con­se­quences of which have been explored by Bruno Latour, Thomas Kuhn, Ian Hack­ing and oth­ers. Some research shows that abstracts, how­ev­er, often include gener­ic state­ments that are not war­rant­ed by the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence described in the full text. Sim­i­lar­ly, when accounts of sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies appear in pop­u­lar media, jour­nal­ists often remove qual­i­fiers, hedges and con­text mark­ers that exist­ed in the orig­i­nal study. Stud­ies in anthro­pol­o­gy by Joseph Dumit, Annemarie Mol, Har­ris Solomon and oth­ers explore the human reac­tions to such pro­nounce­ments. One pos­si­ble solu­tion to the over-use of gener­ics in sci­en­tif­ic abstracts, espe­cial­ly for stud­ies that rely on human sub­jects, is the inclu­sion of a manda­to­ry sec-tion enti­tled “Con­straints on Gen­er­al­i­ty,” as sug­gest­ed by Gutiér­rez and Rogoff (2003). Oth­er sug­ges­tions include using less nom­i­nal­ized verbs and more past-tense descrip­tions of what actu­al­ly occurred in the par­tic­u­lar study.

Key­words: gener­ics, jour­nal­ism, lin­guis­tics, pub­lish­ing

DOI: 10.5840/dspl2020316


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