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The Digital Scholar: Philosopher's Lab

Volume 3, Issue 1, 2020

Joseph Wilson
Pages 51-66

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

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 misuse 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, of-ten 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 section 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.

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