The Average Isn’t Normal: The History and Cognitive Science of an Everyday Scientific Practice

In Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Mind, Volume 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
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Within contemporary science, it is common practice to compare data points to the average, i.e., to the statistical mean. Because this practice is so familiar, it might at first appear not to be the sort of thing that requires explanation. But recent research in cognitive science and in the history of science gives us reason to adopt the opposite perspective. Cognitive science research on the ways people ordinarily make sense of the world suggests that, instead of using a purely statistical notion of the average, people tend to use a value-laden notion of the normal. Similarly, historical research on the scientific practices used in other time periods indicates that, prior to the nineteenth century, scientists tended to make use of a notion of the normal that was overtly value-laden. These findings give us reason to rethink certain familiar facts about scientific practice. In particular, they suggest that the fact that scientists so often make use of the statistical average should be seen as a highly surprising fact, the sort of thing that calls out for explanation.

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Joshua Knobe
Yale University


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