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.



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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


What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers


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Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science: the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science as told by the researchers themselves.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