Ban those generic plurals!

An excellent post from language log:

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 and Y 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". (source)

Note that the point is not so much that making generalizations is bad - sometimes you have to make generalizations to talk intelligibly about your work - but that we should avoid making the types of generalizations that we know invite misreading by a public that is not as scientifically literate as we'd like. For example, most people don't fully appreciate that differences observed between large groups do not translate into differences between individuals.

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Yes x 1 million.

By Katherine (not verified) on 14 Sep 2009 #permalink

It's also important, when talking to a lay audiance, to come up with a substitute for the word "significance" or explain how its usage in stats/science differs from its everyday use.

For example: "The contribution of the faulty levees to the flooding was significant" would likely mean to the public at large the levees were largely at fault, whereas in reality, the effect could have been incredibly tiny, but real, or unlikely due to error.

Hmm. Anyone care to offer an equally simple, alternative phrasing?

I've criticized the idea of generalizations in science before, but it is certainly a fine line between a generalization (summary) and a misleading generalization (falsehood). I think it's important to understand that generalizations serve a purpose, but we can be more precise, succinct, and informative with these generalizations that what is frequently seen in headlines.

It seems to me that the problem isn't necessarily the generic plurals, but the verbage used.

Perhaps we should just throw in a qualifying adverb such as "usually" or similar, especially in those crafted phrases we design for the 2-second highlight crowd.

In cases where something like "there are more women that have P than men" is accurate, say that rather than "women have more P than men", which seems to evoke the idea than every woman has P more than any man does.

Then you could reserve a statement like "women are have more P than men", for a statement where the two groups ARE actually exclusive (like say, where P is "two X chromosomes) or a case in which the two statistical distributions do not overlap at all.

Perhaps we should just throw in a qualifying adverb such as "usually" or similar, especially in those crafted phrases we design for the 2-second highlight crowd.

"Usually" and similar disclaimers don't necessarily help, since they tend to be put in a CYA fashion and buried to ensure that the material produces the desired effect. For example, every sciency thing on gender differences I've ever seen intended for any sort of broader audience, including the ones college psychology professors decided were informative, has been "[megaphone]MARS! VENUS! MARS! VENUS! MARS!!!!!!!!!! VENUS!!!!!!!!![/megaphone] [whisper]by the way, these are averages, not absolutes[/whisper]." Unfortunately, I seem to have been the only one in the most recent class who noticed the whispered part, including the professor.

I'm with Russell(#3)... and replace them with what? It's not like these phrases are inaccurate. Maybe the clueless masses need to get a clue instead.

How do these sound?
The average value of heights from a large population of women is smaller than the average value among a population of men.
The location shift of the mean values of male and female height data is significantly less than 0.
The probability that the height of a woman chosen randomly from a large population of women is less than the height of a man chosen from a large population of men is [whatever].

No, I think I'll stick with the generic plurals for now. Especially considering the tight word counts we have to deal with.

Travc, I'm not a big fan of the "it's not my fault people are stupid, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing - even though I know it will be misunderstood" school of thought.

Yes, many people are clueless, and it would be optimal if they'd get a clue, but that's not going to happen anytime soon, is it? I'd rather be pragmatic and make an effort to get the general public to have a more accurate understanding of the science I care about - especially in a case like this, when the misunderstanding in question is completely foreseeable. Yes, it should be unnecessary - but we live in the real world. Captain Grammar isn't going to come to our rescue and make people understand what we're saying.

I'm with Russell(#3)... and replace them with what? !

Well, I just suggested an alternative above.

"There are more tall men than women" is still better wording than "Men are taller than woman", and hardly uses up any more wording.

Plus, it allows people to visualize it as a property of a statistic rather than an individual.

I was being a bit of a devil's advocate.

The audience matters of course. If you are writing a press release, you need to be more careful.

However, I think a better approach is to just be more informative. For this issue, a good way to do that is to include info on the variance along with the means.

Ok - I don't have a problem with expecting academic audiences to understand the difference. They should be sufficiently trained to do it. Of course, you might get problems if a lay reporter tries building a story on primary literature, but you'd get a LOT of problems then, not just this one. Unfortunately the primary literature is just too arcane in many ways for most of the public.

Here, Here!

On a similar but different note a pet peeve of mine is the the exclusive use of masculine pronoun as default when describing or writing material.

Recently, when reading a book I encountered, for the first time!, the author frequently switched between using feminine and masculine pronouns when describing various experimental models, social situations and anecdotes. It was a relief and I found myself able to concentrate and digest the material at a faster and more open level. This is the first time I've encountered this in any material whether scientific or fiction.