The Use of Generalization in Science

Kenneth Leong
4 min readNov 30, 2023

There is a common fallacy among the general public that all generalizations are bad.

Yesterday, I posted a chart comparing religion with science and superstition. A Muslim friend criticized me for generalizing. In the past, various people have accused me of making generalizations. I would like to address this fallacy once and for all.

First, the method of generalization is widely used in most academic studies, including math and science. Generalization is a very important tool in science for the following reasons:

  1. It allows us to identify patterns in the data.
  2. It helps us in making predictions.
  3. It facilitates the further development of theories. For example, theories developed for a particular situation may be extended to cover other situations.
  4. In education theory, there is the notion of “transfer.” It refers to the ability of a learner to apply knowledge, skills, or concepts learned in one context to another context. It involves the idea that learning in one situation can influence how a person approaches and solves problems in a different situation. Transfer is a key goal in education because it indicates that learning is not limited to specific situations or tasks but can be generalized and applied in diverse settings.
  5. Generalization allows us to acquire knowledge in an efficient manner. If theories are developed only for a specific area and not transferred to other areas, then it slows down the learning process.

Thus, generalization is a major academic tool. But just like any tool, it has its limitations. I taught college-level statistics for four years. One of the most important messages to convey to students is that variability is like a law of nature. There is a substantial amount of variability among human beings, cultures, countries, economies, etc. Thus, a theory that works in one particular situation may not work in another situation. While we should try to generalize from one situation to another, we should be cautious in doing so. However, identifying under what situation a theory works and what situation it doesn’t work is part of the learning. It is not enough to say that a generalization does not work. We must also understand why it doesn’t work.

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human