Generic comparisons

« previous post | next post »

Last Friday, I heard Sarah-Jane Leslie talk about "Generics and Generalization":

Generic sentences express generalizations about kinds, such as "tigers are striped", "ducks lay eggs", and "ticks carry Lyme disease". I present and review emerging evidence from adults and children that suggests that generics articulate cognitively default generalizations — i.e., they express basic, early-developing inductive generalizations concerning kinds. Further evidence suggests that these generalizations don't depend solely on information about prevalence. For example, "ticks carry Lyme disease" is accepted, but "books are paperbacks" is not, despite the fact – well-known and acknowledged by participants – that paperbacks are much more prevalent among books than Lyme-disease-carrying is among ticks. Similarly, both adults and preschoolers understand that, e.g., only female ducks lay eggs, yet they are more likely to accept "ducks lay eggs" than "ducks are female". Rather than depending solely on information about prevalence, these primitive generic generalizations are sensitive to a number of content-based factors, such as whether the property in question is dangerous or otherwise striking (as in "ticks carry Lyme disease"), or is an essential or characteristic property of the kind (as in "ducks lay eggs"). This suggests that our most basic means of forming inductive generalizations about kinds is not guided by prevalence alone, but also reflects our nature as learners.

When Prof. Leslie says that "these primitive generic generalizations are sensitive to a number of content-based factors", she's relying on experimentation as well as introspection, as documented in several of her recent publications, such as Leslie,  Khemlani, &  Glucksberg, "Do all ducks lay eggs? The generic overgeneralization effect", Journal of Memory and Language, July 2011, or  Khemlani, Leslie, & Glucksberg. “Inferences about Members of Kinds: The Generics Hypothesis". Language and Cognitive Processes, forthcoming.

As she points out, the relationship between mere prevalence and such generic statements is a very weak one. Everyone knows that "Ticks carry Lyme Disease", although only a minority of ticks do so (14% in one study). Everyone knows that "Mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus", though the highest infection rate found in the epicenter of a recent epidemic was estimated at 3.55 per thousand (and the rate was essentially zero outside of the epicenter).

And, of course, everyone knows that "Ducks lay eggs" and "Lions have manes", though in each case the prevalence is at most 50%. In contrast, people generally reject the generic statement that "Books are paperbacks", although it's true that the majority of books are in fact paperbacks.

She suggests that among the "content-based factors" involved in such judgments are (1) whether the property is perceived to be characteristic of the kind, or an essential property of the kind; (2) whether the property is striking and/or dangerous; and (3) whether the members of the kind who lack the property have an equally salient alternative property.

This analysis helps explain why generic statements work in ways that once led me to propose banning them from scientific discourse. More precisely, I half-seriously recommended that a certain type of generic comparison should be avoided ("Mandatory treatment for generic plurals", 9/13/2009):

I propose a voluntary ban on the use of generic plurals to express statistical differences, especially in talking to the general public about scientific results in areas with public policy implications.

In other words, when we're looking at some property P of two groups X and Y, and a study shows that the distribution of P in X is different from the distribution of P in Y to an extent that is unlikely to be entirely the result of chance, we should avoid explaining this to the general public by saying "X's have more P than Y's", or "X's and Y's differ in P", or any other form of expression that uses generic plurals to describe a generic difference.

This would lead us to avoid statements like "men are happier than women", or "boys don't respond to sounds as rapidly as do girls", or "Asians have a more collectivist mentality than Europeans do" — or "the brains of violent criminals are physically and functionally different from the rest of us".  At least, we should avoid this way of talking about the results of scientific investigations.

The reason? Most members of the general public don't understand statistical-distribution talk, and instead tend to  interpret such statements as expressing general (and essential) properties of the groups involved. This is especially true when the statements express the conclusions of an apparently authoritative scientific study, rather than merely someone's personal opinion, which is easy to discount.

This proposal focused on specific types of generic statements, namely those that describe differences in group distributions in terms of a comparison of generic plurals. Looking over some of the many posts in which I've complained about the misuse of generic plurals, both by journalists and by scientists, most of them involve statements that make such explicit comparisons of group distributions. Thus

Having a sister makes you happier. ("How powerful is sisterhood?", 10/27/2010).
Women apologize more than men do. ("Offenses and apologies",  10/10/2010).
Conservatives are more squeamish than liberals.
("Physiological politics", 2/15/2010; "Icktheology", 2/18/2010)
Men are happier than women.
("The Happiness Gap is back is back is back is back", 9/30/2009)
The male retina is substantially thicker than the female retina. ("Retinal sex and sexual rhetoric", 5/20/2008)
Women are more talkative than men. ("Gabby guys: the effect size", 9/23/2006)
Girls hear better than boys do. ("Leonard Sax on hearing", 8/22/2006.

The others generally involve implicit comparisons, e.g.

Heavy multimedia users have trouble filtering out irrelevant information. ("Are 'heavy media multitaskers' really heavy media multitaskers?", 9/4/2010)
Babies cry in their native language. ("Native wails", 11/6/2009

In all of these (explicit or implicit comparative) cases, I've argued that the results are presented in a way that misleads the public — and in some cases, the use of generic plurals in comparatives seems to mislead the scientists themselves.


  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    What about definite generic singulars? E.g. "The tick is a carrier of disease" or "The duck is an egg-laying animal".

  2. Charles Gaulke said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 10:06 am

    An acquaintance once tried to defend such a generic plural to me by actually saying, "All birds lay eggs." When I pointed out that only about half of all birds lay eggs, he didn't quite know what to do.

  3. John Lawler said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    *Sigh* Generics again.
    There are other kinds of generic sentences besides the ones that have plural generic NPs as subjects. It's entirely possible to have a definite subject with a generic predicate, like Bill bikes to work, with the same problems arising — just exactly how often does he have to ride his bike to work, for instance, in order for the sentence to be false? Or true? And how often does a particular dog have to bite somebody to make it true that That dog bites?

    As for the definite generic, Jonathan, that was the very first question that turned up on Ask a Linguist, and I had the honor of answering it.

  4. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    I'll admit I haven't gone through a large set of nouns and properties, but I wonder if it might be relevant that these properties have different effects on topicalization. "It's ticks that carry Lyme disease" seems fine to me (because without knowing anything about Lyme disease we might assume that any animal could carry it), but "It's books that are paperbacks" seems definitely weird, probably because paperbacks is a subset of books. Of course, "It's ducks that lay eggs" seems a bit strange as well, since many other animals lay eggs, but I have the sense that it's not as bad as "It's books that are paperbacks", perhaps again because of the subset relation involved.

  5. Eli Morris-Heft said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    It strikes me that the "books are paperbacks" generalization seems worse because it is using the copula. "Ticks carry Lyme disease" and "ducks lay eggs" seem to talk about capabilities rather than characteristics.

    I suppose you could say "ducks are egg-layers" and "ticks are disease-carriers", but that only deals with the syntactic issue of using the copula, not the semantic issue of capability versus characteristic.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    Is the public really mislead to think that male ducks lay eggs and every woman is happier than every man? It seems to me that Prof. Leslie's model is reasonable. Pragmatics rule.

    [(myl) Either I'm misunderstanding you, or you've misunderstood me. I believe all of the following things:
    1) Sarah-Jane Leslie is right about the meaning of generics;
    2) Specifically, most ordinary people, including quite young children, have a shared understanding of simple generic sentences ("X's are/have/do P"). This shared understanding does not involve the interpretation of a covert quantifier, but rather expresses a more complex notion of salient group properties.
    3) As a result, most members of the public and most journalists are very seriously misled by the kinds of generic comparisons that scientists sometimes use to describe statistically-significant differences in group means ("X's are P-er than Y's").
    4) These misunderstandings often lead to grotesquely irrational public-policy conclusions.

    Please re-read the post, and — if you care about the issues — some of the links as well, for instance the discussions of the "happiness gap", where many instances of the claimed misunderstandings are quoted and discussed at length. Otherwise, you're apparently just spinning out off-the-cuff and apparently incoherent reactions.]

  7. Keith M Ellis said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    Prof. Leslie's findings seem important to me and your application of them to how statistical results in science are presented to the public is extremely appropriate and telling.

    It's interesting that we clearly mean something distinct from mere prevalence when we say and understand generic statements and yet we've also carelessly conflated this with mere prevalence. It's odd.

  8. Mark Mandel said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    Side track: Was anyone besides me momentarily derailed by this?:

    "I present and review emerging evidence from adults and children that suggests that generics articulate cognitively default generalizations"

    To me, "default" can be a verb or a noun, and we very often use the noun as a modifier, as in "default generalizations". But to see that modifier modifIED by an adverb threw me for a loop. (It may also have been relevant that "articulate" can also be an adjective.)

  9. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 11:19 am

    Consider also adjective formations such as in "This nesting area is a favorite of egg-laying ducks." There are at least two interpretation: a) Ducks, which of course lay eggs, like to nest here; and b) Ducks that lay eggs like to nest here. Neither of these interpretations allows ducks that don't lay eggs to be included in "egg-laying ducks" (which includes all of the necessary male ducks).

  10. teucer said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 11:56 am

    Lyme disease is (exclusively) carried by ticks. Rephrase that non-passively, and you get "ticks carry Lyme disease." This is less a property of ticks (though the fact that any given tick *might* be carrying Lyme disease is a salient feature of ticks in general) than it is a property of Lyme disease.

  11. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    'All birds lay eggs' can be read as true if it means all species of birds (as opposed to mammals, only a few of which lay eggs). I'm fairly sure this is a possible reading.

  12. Andy Averill said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    I think the problem with statements like "books are paperbacks" occurs on a level prior to any determination of its validity. I don't know what the correct linguistic terminology is here, but I see it as one of those sentences that would show up in a textbook preceded by a * or at least a ?.

    Take the sentence "presidents are white." It fails the validity test, of course, but wouldn't it have have sounded just as awkward prior to 2009, when it was true?

    Similarly, most people would find nothing objectionable in the statement "women are happier than men", even if there are studies showing the opposite is true. So I think any content-based approach to figuring out which generic statements are acceptable English is not going to come up with the answer.

    [(myl) Up to this point, no one anywhere in this discussion has raised the possibility that these generic statements, comparative or not, are not "acceptable English". We've been discussing what people take them to mean. So either I've completely misunderstood you, or you've completely misunderstood the discussion, or both.]

  13. Rube said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    @Andy Averill: I'm not sure "presidents are white" would have sounded awkward before 2009. Suppose we were to encounter something like"Presidents are white. That's why the Federal Government does nothing for the inner cities." Without worrying about the truth value, nothing about reading that seems awkward to me.

  14. NW said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    I agree 'All birds lay eggs' has an obviously true interpretation, taken species by species (as opposed to 'All birds fly', which has several exceptions).

    I also agree that 'cognitively default' shouldn't work (attempt to use 'default' as adjective: *?This setting is default); but the obvious fix, 'cognitive default', also doesn't work, for some other reason.

  15. davep said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    'All birds/ducks lay eggs' is referring to a reproductive feature, which is understood to be a characteristic of the female'. It's also understood that any particular female duck may or may not actually lay eggs. It seems clear that "laying eggs" is an essential feature of "duckness" (It's hard to be a duck without any egg laying).

    'Books are paperbacks' isn't the same sort of thing since it is describing a correlation rather than a causal-link/essential-property. While most books are paperbacks, it's quite easy (and common) to be a book without being a paperback.

    The "happiness gap" Liberman mentions is another case of making a (weak) correlation (with a large overlap) seem to be a causal/essential-property. In the media (and maybe for the scientific publications that do this), it's either intentional (for better publicity) or careless. It's bad because it makes it seem that things being compared are much more different than they actually are.

  16. John Roth said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    The head-scratcher here in Prof. Leslie's work is why anyone would think these are generalizations or are based on prevalence. They seem, rather, to be summary statements derived from a richer mental model.

    In "ducks lay eggs," the eventual model would most likely include the notion that males and females of a kind have different reproductive strategies, and that all females of a kind usually reproduce by the same strategy. As a summary, it excludes the pieces of the model that would make it logically coherent.

    In "ticks carry lyme disease," the underlying model incorporates some information about disease carriers, including the facts that most members of a kind don't carry any disease, and that many diseases are carried by only one (or a small number) of kinds.

    In "books are paperbacks," the underlying model contains a disjunction: hardcover, paperback, ebook. "Books are paperbacks" does not reflect the disjunction.

  17. Dan Hemmens said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    Similarly, most people would find nothing objectionable in the statement "women are happier than men", even if there are studies showing the opposite is true. So I think any content-based approach to figuring out which generic statements are acceptable English is not going to come up with the answer.

    I'm not sure its about acceptable English, I think it's about what English speakers consider to be a true statement about a class.

    The question is not whether "women are happier than men" is an acceptable statement in English (it unambiguously is, as is "books are paperbacks" or if you want something more naturally phrased "books have soft covers"), it's a question of what that it means for that statement to be true.

    As I understand the original post, the problem is that English Speakers undersand "X is P" or "X is more P than Y" to mean something like "P is a salient quality of X, with direct impact on the way in which one interacts with or thinks about X."

    If I'm understanding right, we do not read "books have soft covers" as a true statement about books, because the capacity of books to have soft covers does not change the way one interacts with books in general. On the other hand we do read "mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus" as a true statement, because the capacity of mosquitoes to carry West Nile Virus is an extremely important factor in the way in which one interacts with mosquitoes.

    The conclusion, therefore, is that one should be careful about statements like "women are happier than men" on the grounds that what it implies to a native speaker is something along the lines of "the happiness of women is so much greater than that of men that it should be taken into consideration when interacting with women."

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

    There are ways to hedge generic statements. So e.g. if one were uncomfortable saying that "NHL players are white," one could say that they are "typically" or "generally" or "usually" etc white, thus blocking a possible misinterpretation of the generic claim as an exceptionless universal claim. The hedged version seems like a more cautious statement than the unhedged, but interestingly enough it seems to have a quantitative claim about prevalence embedded in it that some of the unhedged generics given above do not.

    Obviously, making a generic statement more precise can also make it longer. Compare "ducks lay eggs" with "non-celibate female ducks of reproductive age that don't have certain sorts of medical problems lay eggs." Presumably there are various practices, whether explicit or implicit, in any given speech community that determine whether and when the benefit of the added precision is perceived to be worth its cost.

  19. GeorgeW said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

    myl: "Otherwise, you're apparently just spinning out off-the-cuff and apparently incoherent reactions."

    Yes, incoherent reaction and I didn't follow all the links. I was thrown off by the final comment. The distinction between the 'these' (generic plurals) that are misleading and ones that are not misleading wasn't clear to me.

    [(myl) Apologies for my part in the misunderstanding. I've edited the last sentence to make it less likely.]

  20. James said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

    'All birds lay eggs' can be read as true if it means all species of birds

    I don't get this one. Species don't lay eggs. Only their members do.
    If the idea was that one could happily say,

    All species of birds lay eggs.

    then I guess that's right, because after all ducks are a species of bird and they lay eggs, and so are peacocks and they lay eggs too, and so are…
    But this seems to be another example of the phenomenon in question, rather than an explanation of it.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 2:52 pm

    No, peacocks are half a species. We can't say "peacocks lay eggs" for the same reason we can't say "roosters lay eggs". Which is irrelevant to whether we can say "all ducks lay eggs".

  22. Peter Corbett said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    The bits about ducks and lions; there's a complication from autohypernymy – 'ducks' can be opposed to 'drakes' or 'geese', 'lions' to 'lionesses' or 'tigers' – it seems that many kinds of animals have a default gender.

    That said, I remember a made-up example sentence which went along the lines of "dogs give birth to litters of 3-6 pups and usually live longer than bitches" – the fact that I find the first part perfectly cromulent suggests that that isn't the whole story.

  23. Victor said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    IMO Jonathan Badger and Andrew each have it half-right while the paper is somewhat wrong. Of the three "content-based factors" that "cause" inductive overgeneralization, I see only one as plausible, while the other two, at best, need more study.

    There are three ways to interpret a sentence Xs P, where X is a group marker and P is a verbal description of some property (what Mark wrote as "are/have/do P").

    1. All Xs P.
    2. Some Xs P.
    3. [X] P.

    (where [X] represents the species of Xs)

    [(myl) I'm not sure what you mean by "the paper", but if you're referring to Sarah-Jane Leslie's work, then your "[X] P" seems to be a somewhat naive re-invention of her observation that generic sentences of the type under discussion "express inductive generalizations concerning [natural] kinds".]

    The only real observation here is that 2. is almost never a spontaneous interpretation of "Xs P", while 3. dominates 1., when both are available. "Ducks are female" is true for 2., but not for 1. or 3. "Ducks lay eggs" is true for 2. and 3., but not for 1. "Tigers are striped" is true for 1., 2. and 3., with some rare exceptions for genetically modified tigers (or, for that matter, for tiger cubs who have somewhat different coloring). Still, since the species (in the ontological, not biological sense) "tiger" has property "striped", so the statement would be taken as true irrespectively of the occasional exceptions. Note that I am not saying that people spontaneously turn to 3.–it has to be available in order to appear at all. This is not the same as citing it as a "content-based factor".

    Similarly, statistical statements of the type "Xs are P-er than Ys" are about species [X] and [Y].

    Functionally, there is little difference between statements "Men are taller than women", "Dutch men are tall" and "Dutch women are tall" (the latter two can be combined as "The Dutch are tall", which actually helps in this analysis–"the Dutch" is obviously a species, whereas you need a bit of analysis to say the same about "Dutch men" or "Dutch women"). Does it mean that "All men are taller than all women"? Apparently, no more so than "All Dutch men are tall". Both statements, as generics, are equally demonstrably false (specifically, they can both be disproved by the presence of a single short Dutch male). Yet, the statements are both equally believable (and, in the light of the data in the presentation). Are they believed because they are generics or are they generics because they are believed? The two are not equivalent.

    If what I said is accurate (and I obviously believe that it is), the problem with interpretation of such statement is not that (as MYL put it) "[m]ost members of the general public don't understand statistical-distribution talk"–quite to the contrary, most members of the public "understand" this all too well. Nonetheless, I agree, to a point, with the second part of that statement: "[most members of the general public] tend to interpret such statements as expressing general (and essential) properties of the groups involved". There is nothing wrong with doing this–such statements usually DO express statistical relationships between the groups, not between individuals–what they don't do is make a sweeping generalization about all members of both groups.

    What "most members of the general public" fail to do is differentiate between cases 1. and 3., so that, even when interpretation 1. is desired, they are stuck in mode 3.–or, alternatively, they reject 3. because they don't believe 1. (as is the case, for example, with zealots rejecting hard data in favor of a pre-existing theory that fits their worldview). Superficially, this looks as if there is a problem of interpretation–in practice, there is very little difference where the process breaks down, as long as the net result is the same (and it usually is). But the data actually confirms this–3. dominates the determination of truth value of a generic statement (obviously, 1. cannot be true if 3. is not, so it would be impossible to use the case where 1. is true and 3. is not). But it just as likely to be an issue of accessibility, not interpretation.

    Let me put it differently. Statistical–as much as generic–statements are interpreted as being about the properties OF THE SPECIES rather than of individuals (all, most, or some version of comparative majority). Then the property of the species is transferred–where plausible (in the "common sense" view, not the quantitatively-informed, "scientific" view)–to individuals of the species, while the individuals are still treated in the generic way. When dealing with actual individuals that do not possess the property, the interpretation of the species properties remains, but is not applied to the specific individuals at hand–e.g., a male duck is not expected to lay eggs, even though the truth of the statement "ducks lay eggs" is not questioned. It is not the "default" interpretation, as Leslie claims. It's a competing interpretation, but one that is category-changing, not context sensitive. "Ducks are female", on the other hand, is not about the species, but about individuals–or, at least, it is seen as such.

    [(myl) Again, I believe that you're following, with less philosophical background and no psychological experimentation, the path that Sarah-Jane has already traveled.]

    A real-life sociological example: When confronted with inconsistencies in their generalizations and stereotypes, bigots never alter their perspective of the SPECIES, but they may invent new qualifying properties for individuals that exclude them from the species. This is not a behavior of someone who defaults to the generic overinterpretation–it is a deliberate attempt to distinguish species from individuals.

    There is an old cartoon that is meant to mock how adults get stupid with age. A subject is shown a picture of a bus–an oblong-looking, symmetrical object, with a pair of wheels underneath and a few windows in the side, but one that looks the same on the right and on the left. The subject is then asked in what direction the bus is moving. Adults generally have no clue, while young children (6-10) tend to say that the bus is going to the left. Why is this? Are adults simply stupid, as the "test" claims? Think about that for a second before reading on.

    Children see a generic bus, but they still interpret it as an individual representative of the bus class. Thus they know that even a generic bus must have a door–since the door is not visible, IT MUST BE ON THE OTHER SIDE. Therefore, the bus is moving to the left (except in England and Japan and a few other left-driving countries, but that's small potatoes). Adults, on the other hand, only see the bus species. They do not interpret this bus to be different from any other bus–quite to the contrary, the featureless profile of the bus (sans the doors) proves it. What they don't see is an individual bus that MIGHT have a door on the other side.

    Now, if Leslie wanted to take the same data and try to figure out what triggers the species overcall, it would make for a more interesting paper than the trivial observation that the species context makes an overcall (in some cases). For example, what's the difference between "Human beings have two hands" and "Human beings are left handed"? There is a difference in numbers, of course–that much is obvious. Vast majority of people have two hands, while only a minority (single-digit percentage) are left-handed. OK, what about "Human being are right-handed"? I suspect, this one will prove problematic–while most people will still reject the statement as false, there will be a small number of subjects who accept it as valid. It would be interesting to explore what makes these subjects different.

    Now, compare, "Lightning kills" with "Lightning kills people" and "Lightning kills cattle". The subject is the same, as is the outcome, but is there a difference in the degree of danger or a statistical difference in outcomes or is something else going on? My suspicion (which obviously would have to be tested) is that the first statement would be more frequently accepted as generic and the third less (although cattle is a more frequent victim of lightning strikes than people). Never mind that the generalization is not true about lightning, people, cattle or any killing relationship between them (not all lightnings kill or even strike people or cattle, not all people or cattle are struck or killed, and not all those who ARE struck by lightning are killed). Yet, none of Leslie's factors would predict the differences between these three (unless statements about cattle are inherently internalized as about less danger than statements about people–but that's still only half the comparison).

  24. Russell said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    Based on a quick skim of Leslie's publications page, she appears to have anticipated (at least in part) some of the objections arising in the comments. For instance, the article Generics: Cognition and Acquisition addresses the question of why anyone might thing prevalence (and other ideas in the literature) might be *the* meaning of a generic statement. She's not just shooting down one simplistic theory and replacing it with her own.

  25. hector said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    "I've argued that the results are presented in a way that misleads the public — and in some cases, the use of generic plurals seems to mislead the scientists themselves."

    — the assumption in this statement seems to be that journalists are primarily interested in telling the truth, and are failing at that job. I would argue that they are primarily interested in telling stories, so they skim scientific reports looking for stories that will, they feel, pique the interest of readers. That some scientists also seem interested in telling stories, either through some misguided self-interest ("If we get our names in the papers we'll get more grants!") or because, being human, they, too, like stories, or because the purpose of their research was to tell a story, is, dare I say it, another story.

    "In some cases, the use of generic plurals seems to mislead the scientists themselves," strikes me as a kind interpretation, which doesn't mean it isn't true. I do suspect, however, that there is more going on here than a linguistic failure.

    These "studies show" stories drive me nuts. I always want to know what percentage of the population doesn't conform to the generalization being made.

  26. Dan Hemmens said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    the assumption in this statement seems to be that journalists are primarily interested in telling the truth, and are failing at that job

    That was my thought as well. To put it more conservatively, journalists are almost certainly aware that "X is Y" carries the implication "and this is salient to the experience of the general audience" and make no effort to avoid it, even if it could be misleading.

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    It is sufficiently impressive that someone in the philosophy-department world is engaged in interesting empirical research about language use that I feel like I ought to suppress the automatic reaction that this tells us nada about human cognition without comparable experimental data conducted in a language other than English (ideally a non-IE language in a non-Western cultural setting). Baby steps . . .

    [(myl) In her talk, she mentioned some replications in Chinese.]

    I see that Prof. Leslie is involved with Princeton's "Program" in linguistics, which is a reminder that linguistics regrettably remains so marginal a discipline in the American academy that you can be an acclaimed research university without a proper free-standing linguistics department. But if they didn't decide to upgrade to having a real linguistics department five years ago during the boom when it looked like everyone's endowment was going up at 20%/annum forever, it ain't gonna happen now.

  28. James said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

    Ellen K., of course! Argh. I (once) knew that but forgot.

    (I think I learned it in the context of a riddle: "If a peacock lays an egg on the border of…")

    By the way, I think there is a false assumption running through many of the comments to the effect that males and females are generally evenly divided in species. Definitely not true for fowl, for example. (I have chickens. Roosters are fewer than half of all chickens, but still too numerous for my purposes.)

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

    @James: Having the same feeling, I looked it up. Most duck species have more males than females (since the sex ratio is about 1:1 at hatching, and nesting females are more vulnerable to predation than males).

    The most extreme sex ratio I know of in birds is about 6 males to 1 female in the black rosy-finch.

  30. Robert Hymes said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

    Some of these problems could be fixed, as far as the issue of misleading the public is concerned, by use of the dreaded passive voice: "Lyme disease is carried by ticks" reads to me as 100% true because the implicit quantifier "all" governs the disease not the ticks. (Yes? maybe linguistic intuitions differ about this.) Others could be fixed by fixing the choice of verb. "Ducks hatch from eggs" is exceptionless, right? I wonder if one could find an exceptionless but otherwise functionally equivalent generic statement for many a problematic one. I can't see how to do that with "Women apologize more than men," though.

  31. Robert Hymes said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    Whoops, I missed teucer above. Sorry for repeating your point, teucer!

  32. James said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    Jerry, I am surprised. And now that I've looked at serious articles, I see that even for chickens the ratio is roughly 1:1.
    We hatch our chickens, but buy fertilized eggs. I guess the purveyors of the eggs know how to skew the ratio heavily toward hens.

  33. Victor said,

    November 8, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

    "[(myl) Again, I believe that you're following, with less philosophical background and no psychological experimentation, the path that Sarah-Jane has already traveled.]"

    I suspect I'm revealing about as much of my "philosophical background" as Leslie's abstract reveals about her actual research. I deliberately avoided mentioning "natural kinds" for reasons I don't wish to discuss, at the moment. But if I am following "the path Sarah Jane has already traveled" without the benefit of "psychological experimentation" and her "philosophical background", it seems that I'm ahead of the game, not behind. Not that it makes much difference… I am sure what I wrote in about half an hour could not possibly rival the product of–what?–several months of research?

  34. J. Goard said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 12:45 am

    I haven't read the paper, but my main questions would be: how much is this really a phenomenon of generic nominal phrases in particular, and how much is it even a phenomenon of language in particular, as opposed to induction in general?

    Staying within language, couldn't pretty much the same points be made about the following (pragmatic contrast) pairs?

    1a. John is a murderer. [Done it once –> TRUE]
    1b. John is a skier. [Done it once –> FALSE]

    2a. I use chopsticks well. [70% of the time –> FALSE]
    2b. I play golf well. [70% of the time –> TRUE]

RSS feed for comments on this post