On Generalizations

Generalizations are important because they are broad statements about a topic, many times involving related events. In education, making a generalization is a critical-thinking skill because the student must synthesize seemingly independent events into a generalized statement.

On the other hand and by the very nature, generalizations in themselves lack specific details, thus in life, people have the tendency to generalize generalizations, which actually takes them further and further from the truth.

Local weather reporters commonly use this generalization: Hot air rises. On its own, this statement implies that hot air moves upward on its own. Many people also commonly use this statement by focusing on the result, not the cause. For the record, hot air does not levitate. As air temperature rises, its density decreases, thus is displaced upward by denser, colder air that now occupies the space that the warmer air once occupied. Ah come on – don’t you remember the Archimedes story of being in the bathtub, and then running naked through the street yelling I found it!

Life is loaded with misconceptions based on generalizing generalizations that leads us to inaccurate and even incorrect information. Candy does not cause tooth decay, bacteria do; but sugar promotes bacteria activity. Human blood in the veins is not blue, it’s very dark red – yet the blue we see in our arms comes from the interaction of light with body tissues. Plants do release oxygen into the atmosphere as waste in one process, but plants also require oxygen for the same reason as animals.

These are just common examples of misconceptions that are rooted in generalizations. Imagine how many generalizations people misuse and misinterpret in topics as politics and religion. Politicians are masters of use broad, sweeping statements – some of which are accurate and some are not. Some are in the correct context, and some are not. Yet, whether we cheer or jeer the statement largely depends on our view of the one delivering the message, not our knowledge about the topic.

Not long ago, I listened to a pastor’s message to his congregation about creation and evolution. I know this topic is deep, yet I heard a person jumping from one generalization to another. I can only assume the pastor did this to get the message they wanted to deliver. On the other hand, the flock looks to the pastor for guidance and takes the pastor at their word, yet are unknowingly left with inaccurate information as their informational foundation.

The bottom line is simple: No matter the topic, there is a lot to learn about the world. Although new knowledge grows so fast, specialists find it difficult to keep up in their own field. It is difficult to sort through all the factoids in today’s world, thus the responsibility for learning continues to fall on the learner.