Being rational with expressions of number

Chris Cummins (NYU)


Numerical expressions in natural language ("n", "more than n", "about n", "at most n", etc.) have been the subject of much recent debate in semantics and pragmatics. From a theoretical standpoint, these constitute a useful testbed for ideas about alternatives in pragmatic reasoning, typicality effects, and modality in semantic representations.

In practical terms, such expressions are also of interest because they are widely used for conveying high-stakes information. A rich tradition of research has studied how people use such information in decision-making, and this has furnished evidence for irrationalities in human reasoning ("cognitive biases"). However, work on rationality has tended to assume that numerical quantity expressions should receive their (naïve) semantic interpretations in reasoning tasks. In this talk, I discuss whether and to what extent the subtleties of pragmatic interpretation of number weigh against the evidence for certain cognitive biases.