Ignorance. Last week’s blog on ignorance got a lot of attention. The idea to increase ignorance and the paragraph that did not make any sense without context brought the most responses. A very clever response that demonstrated understanding was a friend quoting Harry Callahan (i.e. Dirty Harry): “A man has to know his limitations.”
Generalizations are okay if based on evidence. This week, in my continuous pursuit of wisdom, I want to address another excellent point made by Tom Nichols in his book, “The Death of Expertise”. He has found many people do not understand generalizing. Nichols believes when people hear phrases like “boys tend to be… girls tend to be…. whites, blacks or any race tend to be….” they resist those generalizations. One reason is because we all want to feel unique and feel generalizations pigeon holes us into a category.
Proper generalizations are probabilistic statements based on facts. Thus I can say boys tend to be a certain way, girls, blacks, Hispanics, Asians etc. tend to be a certain way and if there is solid evidence to support the generalizations they are proper generalizations.
The lack of understanding of generalizing hinders intelligent conversation and dialog. Generalization is necessary for science and for life; generalization is a good concept to understand. Therefore I want to consider several major points about generalization.
Generalizations are not okay when they are not based on good evidence. If the generalizations are not supported by good evidence then they are not proper. Too often people make generalizations based on limited personal experiences.
I was told one time—I do not trust any white man. In other words–all whites are untrustworthy. That generalization may have been based on some unfortunate personal experiences but it is not true. It is not a proper generalization. In fact, as we will see, it is a stereotype.
Jeny was working in Connecticut installing a computer system in a hospital. A young employee looked at her with a puzzled look and asked, Where are you from? Alabama she replied. He said that can’t be true—my parents told me everyone from Alabama is stupid. A backward compliment if I’ve ever heard one, and another untrue generalization not based on good evidence. Also another stereotype.
Whether it is about race, region, or a whole host of other factors, generalization not based on good evidence causes many problems in our world. Have good knowledge when you make a generalization is good advice.
Generalizations based on evidence are okay, even if the evidence changes. Even in science evidence changes. Sometimes the research techniques improve. With the advancements in technology we can study the brain, outer space, the ocean, our geology and many other areas in ways that were not possible in the past. With improved technology our knowledge and generalizations about our world have improved.
Sometimes the changes in generalizations occur because behavior changes. I do not know the exact percentages but when I was growing up, I could make the correct generalization that very few people had tattoos. That is not true today. On our recent cruise I came to believe if you want to be different in today’s world—you should not have a tattoo! The generalizations can change because the behavior changes.
A challenging generalization. To have a deeper understanding of generalization consider the following statement:
At the elite level, men are better physical athletes than women.
In our politically correct world, I can imagine many people making the following reply in response—“You can’t say that—that is a sexist statement. Men are not superior to women.” People committed to women’s rights might be particularly concerned with the generalization.
Not stereo typing. Often the reaction “you cannot generalize like that” occurs because people do not understand the distinction between generalizing and stereotyping. I believe understanding the difference is important, particularly in the era of political correctness. Stereotyping is taking a probabilistic statement and applying it to all members of a category.
I did not say all men are better physical athletes than all women. That generalization would be a stereotype.
I did not say women are not good or even great athletes.
I did not say women soccer players should be paid less than men.
I said–at the elite level, men are better athletes than women.
The proper response if you are knowledgeable and understand the concept of generalization is to ask “what is your evidence?”
My response would be’ “Track and field. world record holders are the most elite athletes in their field. I look to those records for evidence.” Consider the following:
The world record in the100 meters: Men 9.58; Women 10.49; High-school Boys official record is 10.0.
The world record in the shot put: Men 75.85 feet; Women 74.24 The results look close until you realize the men’s shot put weighs a little over 16 lbs and the women’s a little less than 9 lbs.
The world record in the high jump: Men’s 8 feet; Women’s 6’8”; High-school Boys 7 ‘ 6’’
My evidence is clear — elite men run faster, throw weight farther and jump higher than women. I stand by my statement. My statement does not imply women should not compete in sports or that women’s competition is less exciting than men.
The important point is my proper generalization is not stereotyping women. All men are not better than women. I certainly could never have outrun Florence Joiner or Wilma Rudolph even when I was in my best condition. If a person claims that since elite men are physically better than women, therefore all men are better athletes is stereotyping and that is wrong.
Negative generalizations. We seem to be most troubled by a proper generalization when we think it puts us in a negative light. We become defensive when a claim applies to some aspect of our personal lives in a way we do not like. As I said, Nichols believes this occurs because we want to different; we do not want to be pigeon-holed, especially in a negative light. We dismiss the generalization because we do not like it.
Generalization: At the elite level, men are better physical athletes than women.
Incorrect response: A female basketball player might read the generalization and think—I am a good athlete. I am a better basketball player than most men. I am not like most women. I do not like the idea men are better athletes.
People often improperly dismiss a generalization for other reasons; often by calling upon exceptions to the generalization. Sometimes the exceptions are based on personal experiences that conflict with the generalization. For example:
Generalization: The average temperature on earth is rising.
Incorrect response: I was in several bad snowstorms this winter, so I do not believe the evidence.
Sometimes the exceptions are based on exceptions that conflict with the generalization. For example:
Generalization: Chinese people tend to be shorter than Americans
Response: That can’t be –Yao Ming is over 7 feet tall.
A wise person does not to dismiss a generalization just because they do not like it, because their personal experiences are exceptions to the generalization or because they know of an exception.
As I read and listen to discourse in America I strongly agree with Nichols–we need to improve our understanding of generalizations to improve our civil discourse. We would become a wiser nation.
Have you seen or heard any generalizations that you find troubling?
.Until next week,