Why are bold, broad, and terse depictions of science perceived as more important, robust and generalizable than nuanced ones? In episode 63, we’re joined by Susan Gelman from the University of Michigan, who talks with us about her research into the use of generic language in scientific papers. Her article “Generic language in scientific communication” was published with Jasmine DeJesus, Maureen Callanan, and Graciela Solis on September 10, 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Extraordinary Claims, Ordinary Evidence - Susan Gelman
Extraordinary Claims, Ordinary Evidence - Susan Gelman
Extraordinary Claims, Ordinary Evidence - Susan Gelman Extraordinary Claims, Ordinary Evidence - Susan Gelman
@rwatkins says:
Next time, in episode 64 of Parsing Science, we’ll be joined by Mateus Renno Santos from the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida. He’ll discuss his research into how an aging population may be the driving force behind the reduction in homicide that the countries in North America, Europe Asia, and Oceania have enjoyed over the past three decades.
@rwatkins says:
We finished our conversation with Susan by asking if her research has changed her own scientific writing, as well as what suggestions she might have for us to be better readers and writers ourselves.
@rwatkins says:
Listeners might recall from episode 47 that despite headlines such as, “More screentime for teens linked to ADHD symptoms” our guest Amy Orben found that screen time may be no worse for kids than eating potatoes. She arrived at this conclusion by analyzing the millions of ways that researchers could have possibly chosen to carry out their statistical analyses which, of course, is a very complex undertaking. So, Ryan and I were interested in hearing why Susan thinks that we might be prone to favoring bold and broad depictions of science over more nuanced ones.
@rwatkins says:
The second study showed that lay readers deemed scientific communications as being more important if genericized claims were made about their findings, rather than if they use non-generic language. But the size of this effect was rather small, so Susan and her team carried out additional experiments to investigate the use of a broader range of linguistic use, as she describes next.
@rwatkins says:
While their first study highlighted the pervasiveness of generic language in published research articles, Susan and her team conducted three other studies to determine if and how generic versus non-generic language influences non-scientists’ interpretation of the importance and universality of researchers claims.
@rwatkins says:
Susan and her team’s datasets are available online. We’ve included a link to them at parsingscience.org/e63. Before our conversation with her, Doug and I had fun reading through the generic language they found in academic research. So, we were curious to learn if she had any particular favorites among the nearly 15,000 fragments that they coded.
@rwatkins says:
So just how common was the use of generic language in published scientific research. Make your guess now, and you’ll find out the answer after this short break.
@rwatkins says:
Susan and her colleagues define “generics” as being general, timeless claims regarding categories or abstract or idealized concepts. They classified the language used in published research studies as being non-generic, or as using one or more types of generic language, which they coded as a “bare,” “framed,” or “hedged” generic claim. We asked Susan to provide examples of each of these, beginning with bare generic sentences.
@rwatkins says:
In their article, Susan and her team discussed the results of several studies they carried out into the use of generic language in published research papers. The first of these analyzed authors’ use of generics in the published titles research highlights and abstracts in 1,149 psychological articles published across 11 journals in 2015 and 2016. We were curious what led her to explore this topic, as well as what she predicted they might find.
@rwatkins says:
Susan’s interest is in cognitive development, particularly with how we come to understand categories through the use of language. So, Doug and I were interested in learning how and why we sometimes use generic rather than specific language, as well as how this applies to the depiction of scientific findings.
@rwatkins says:
One of the first academic compendiums on the use of generic language was published in 1995. Called The Generic Book, it asserts that there are two distinct phenomena we referred to as being generic. The first is in reference to kind, such as of a genus of plant or animal. For example the statement, “potatoes were first introduced into Ireland in the 17th century,” doesn’t refer to any particular type of potato, but rather to the general class of potatoes. The second way we consider something generic is through statements that report regularities that summarize groups of particular episodes or facts. For example, “John smokes a cigar after dinner,” doesn’t necessarily imply the John always smokes a cigar after dinner, but rather reports a habit the generalizes over typical events. After discussing The Generic Book a bit, we asked Susan why we use generic language in everyday life, as well as how doing so can be either helpful to communication and understanding, or counterproductive to it.
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Hosts / Producers

Ryan Watkins & Doug Leigh

How to Cite

Watkins, R., Leigh, D., & Gelman, S. A.. (2019, November 26). Parsing Science – Extraordinary Claims, Ordinary Evidence. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.11295614

Music

What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers

Transcript

Susan Gelman: If someone says “Well, all people?,” you know, “blah, blah, blah.” You can say, you know, “I didn’t say all people. I just said ‘people.'”

Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science: the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins.

Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. Today, in episode 63 of Parsing Science, we’re joined by Susan Gelman from the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychology. She’ll talk with us about her research into how the use of bold and broad language in scientific papers can make lay readers more likely to believe that those study’s findings are more important and generalizable than ones which make nuanced claims. Here’s Susan Gelman.

Gelman: Hi, I’m Susan Gelman. I’m originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia. I went to college at Oberlin, Ohio where I studied psychology and classical Greek. Then I went to Stanford for my PhD. My PhD was in psychology and I also studied linguistics. And I was very fortunate that my first job after getting my degree was at the University of Michigan, which was my dream job. And I’ve been here ever since. But, I remember, you know, walking across campus of one of my colleagues who was much older than me said, “Oh, you know, it’s so funny when I first came here I thought I’ll be here for a couple of years and then move back to California. And I’ve been here for 40 years.” And I remembered thinking “Well, that’s not going to be me.” Yet, here I am.

Leigh: One of the first academic compendiums on the use of generic language was published in 1995. Called The Generic Book, it asserts that there are two distinct phenomena we referred to as being generic. The first is in reference to kind, such as of a genus of plant or animal. For example the statement, “Potatoes were first introduced into Ireland in the 17th century,” doesn’t refer to any particular type of potato, but rather to the general class of potatoes. The second way we consider something generic is through statements that report regularities that summarize groups of particular episodes or facts. For example, “John smokes a cigar after dinner,” doesn’t necessarily imply the John always smokes a cigar after dinner, but rather reports a habit the generalizes over typical events. After discussing The Generic Book a bit, we asked Susan why we use generic language in everyday life, as well as how doing so can be either helpful to communication and understanding, or counterproductive to it.

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