February 2, 2021

Evaluating Descriptive Claims


(1) Review types of descriptive claims

(2) How to judge: is descriptive claims correct or not?

(3) What are concepts? How do we make them?

Descriptive Claims

Descriptive claims:

descriptive claims:

claims about what exists (or has existed/will exist) in the world:

  • what phenomena exist (what kinds of things exist?)
  • what is the type of a specific phenomenon (what is this thing?)
  • amount/frequency of phenomena (how much of something is there?)
  • relative amount/frequency of phenomena across different places/times (how much of something is there here vs. there/now vs. then?)
  • what patterns are there in the shared appearance/non-appearance of different phenomena (does this thing usually appear together with that other thing?)

Descriptive Claims: Varieties

  1. “Democracy is a type of political regime.”

  2. “Russia is a democracy.”

  3. “58% of countries worldwide are democracies.”

  4. “Countries in Western Europe are more democratic than those in Eastern Europe.”

  5. “Democracies have been backsliding (becoming less democratic) since 2016.”

Descriptive Claims: Evaluation

In small groups: what would you want to know before you could judge whether this claim was correct or incorrect?

“Democracies have been backsliding (becoming less democratic) since 2016”

Descriptive Claims: Evaluation


define our terms in a way that is transparent and can be used systematically. If concepts are opaque or idiosyncratic \(\to\) STOP!


translate concepts into something that we can (in principle) observe. If variables do not correspond to the concept or correspond to other concepts \(\to\) STOP!


devise transparent and systematic procedures with known uncertainty to observe those attributes of specific cases. If measurement procedure is opaque, likely to suffer from bias, or has high degree of uncertainty \(\to\) STOP!

Evaluating Descriptive Claims:

A useful definition:

In social science we discuss “cases”, not in the legal sense, but in this sense:


a specific individual, organization, entity, event, or action, existing in a specific time and place.

We are often interested in identifying what general categories this specific case belongs to, what is its “type”. Or measuring attributes of that case. (How much of something it has, e.g.)



At a general level:

concepts: abstract or general categories that we (humans) apply to particular cases/instances. They abstract away from the highly particular, complex, and often unique features of reality.

Our thought and our language is rooted in concepts!

On Exactitude in Science

“… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” - Jorge Luis Borges


Why do we need them?

Without concepts/abstraction:

  • all experiences we have are totally unique
  • we cannot anticipate regularities/similarities in the world
  • we cannot predict what will happen next
  • we cannot function/act
  • communication is difficult (this, that)


But… abstraction comes at a price

For example:

  • “Chairs”
  • Forests
  • Proper names of countries: e.g. “Syria”

Conceptual Limits

Conceptual Limits