On Distinguishing Between Generalizations and Overgeneralizations

My dear friend Swami Omkarananda once said that “all generalizations are false; Including this one.” While there is some truth to this witty saying, the situation is a little more complicated than it suggests. Indeed, some careful thought reveals that although all overgeneralizations are false, many reasonable generalizations are true. If some generalizations were not true, science would be impossible. However, in fact, science has shown many generalizations to be true through repeated, replicatable, and falsifiable empirical testing.

A generalization is simply a general statement that applies to many particular cases. An overgeneralization is an exaggerated statement that claims that a set of cases are all a certain way when, in fact, some are not.

For example, a generalization might say that “many men wear hats,” while an overgeneralization might claim that “all men wear hats.” The generalization is true; we have all seen that many men wear hats, like Rainbowhead in the picture below. However, the overgeneralization is false because it is not true that all men wear hats; I’m a man and I’m not currently wearing a hat (and I am not alone in my hatlessness!).

Another way of putting the difference between generalizations and overgeneralizations is that generalizations accurately point out a commonality between several particular cases while overgeneralizations inaccurately ascribe a property to a set of cases that do not all, in fact, share that property. In other words, generalizations accurately say: “these particular things are this way.” Overgeneralizations inaccurately say: “all of these things are this way” when some of them are not.

Therefore, by definition, all overgeneralizations are false; all overgeneralizations necessarily make false claims about those cases that don’t conform to their overly general rule. This does not mean, however, that all generalizations are true. I might say that “some lawyers have physical tails that shoot spikes, rockets, and acid out of them.” I’m making a general statement about some lawyers here, so this is a generalization. However, there are no lawyers in the world who meet this description. Therefore, the generalization is false.

Examples of false generalizations like this one and of true scientific generalizations, such as that all human beings need water to survive, show that generalizations can be either true or false. Since a generalization can be either true or false, if we wish to avoid false beliefs, it follows that we should test generalizations out before believing them. Reason and empirical data provide us with the tools we need to test generalizations. And this process of testing generalizations (or hypotheses) is precisely the work in which scientists engage.

Scientists are not the only ones who test out generalizations and overgeneralizations, however; we all test out generalizations in our daily lives. For example, we might talk to a cynical friend who tells us that “all policemen are cruel abuse their power.” But then, one day, our home is robbed and a policeman comes to our house to do a report and we find that he is very kind and supportive. This example from experience shows us that what we thought was a generalization from our friend is actually an overgeneralization; the truth is that while some police men are cruel and abuse their power, many others are kind and do their job well.

Trying to determine the truth about any general matter in daily life involves testing generalizations. If we simply believe every generalization we are told, then we become gullible and end up with many false beliefs. If, instead, we are prudent and reserve judgement about generalizations until we examine them against our reason, direct experience, and empirical evidence, however, we end up with fewer false beliefs and more reasonable ones. Being prudent about generalizations is the first step on the path of knowledge and an ongoing step on the path of wisdom.

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