Generally Speaking? Growth, Education, and Flaws of Generalities

“The curious thing about individuals is that their singularity always goes beyond any category or generalization in the book.”

― Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes

We are now on the verge of discussing what exactly psychology is, but first we must wrap up the generalities discussion. At the beginning of the discussion the question was raised – what is the problem with generalities? At the moment I had no answer. I just spent the last two months thinking about generalities and if predicting was truly all our minds are aiming to do. I just finished building my understanding of the utility of generalities. This was not a foreign word to me – a know a general definition, but I apparently understood very little of its uses and implications. If I now understand the concept and use of generalities at a deeper and more pervasive level, what flaws has this understanding exposed?

  1. Generalities can make us blind and deaf. If we presume to know all that is needed to be known about something we may fail to delve deeper – we may miss the less obvious details that could disprove our application on that generality. We assume that we know so we don’t look further. Life’s full of surprises, sometimes you have to expect the unexpected, but our knowledge of how things should be may make us miss out on details, which are readily available. As we’ve discussed, we cannot perceive in isolation, independent of any thought process, our expectations guide what we see, and if we rely too heavily on those expectations we don’t look carefully enough.
  2. Generalities inform us of what should be, not necessarily what is. In the context of individuals this has the highest risk of error. Have you ever stood on a bus and saw someone and made an instant judgement about them, presumed you knew everything about them? It happens all the time. We see a guy with tattoos on his neck and arms, and a doberman by his side and assume he’s a no good punk, maybe involved in a lot of illegal activities – that’s the generality society has generally taught us. I actually know a man fitting this description – he comes into my work all the time with Cane (a very docile doberman) specifically with the aim of breaking down the stereotype. In reality the dog is the sweetest you could ever see, and the guy actually works in an office environment. He pays taxes, he volunteers on weekends, a fine upstanding citizen. He just happens to have tattoos. If you let your generalities guide you – you never get to see these details, and you never learn to update your generalities, or that with people generalities have very limited utility.
  3. Generalities may be misguided. If the specifics or the thought process (I avoid calling this logic since we’ve already concluded that induction is alogical) is flawed or inaccurate, the generality too will be entirely flawed. Maybe you are basing your generalities on what you thought you saw, not what was. Or maybe you’re basing your generalities entirely on third party information – your cousin went to Thailand and told you about how the Thais are and now you have developed cognitive schemas about Thais without having any first hand experience. What if your cousin’s actions influenced the behaviour of the Thais? Or you rely on popular public opinion, without any exposure, even through those you intimately know, you guide your behaviours based on what your culture tells you is reality.
  4. You include specifics that aren’t there. You see one detail, and due to the nature of schemas and generalities – this automatically means the other details are there without you necessarily having any proof.

If we think we have understood something, we will not seek out a better understanding, we stop entertaining alternative explanations and imagining possible situations. It is only when we accept that our generalities are inherently flawed due to the logic used to derive them, that we can potentially come to a better understanding.

To put this in a basic context – if I believe I have found THE BEST cookie recipe – why would I try making other recipes? Why would I experiment with the ingredients? The only reason I would continue to try out different combinations is if I believe, despite the fact that the last ten recipes have not measured up to my criteria for better recipe, that it is hypothetically possible that a better recipe exists – if I believe that my Theory of Cookie Greatness can be disproved. If I accept that my knowledge of the relative quality of cookie recipes, could be flawed or incomplete, I may eventually find a better cookie recipe, or I may come to believe more strongly that I have found the best already. In case you can’t tell, yes, I am craving cookies.

There does reach a limit to how many times we can check if some theory is right, at which point we accept that the theory or state of the world is likely enough. Doesn’t mean that we will refuse to believe that the opposite is possible, but we accept that the former is more likely. For example, snowflakes are generally accepted as being unique. As I child I remember being told that no two snowflakes are alike. My childhood investigative skills lead me to lay outside one recess examining all the snowflakes that fell. After about 30, of which 29 melted before I could properly examine, I accepted that the teacher was right.

canadian-archaeological-dig-39442As an adult, I can imagine why – each point in time and space has unique conditions.In a storm cloud there may be very similar conditions, resulting in a flurry of snow, but given all the possible variations – each point in that storm cloud and the space through which the snow falls, would have different conditions that would affect the crystalization. Thus, each snowflake being unique seems logically possible. Can we and should we check each snowflake? No. The data collection here in Ottawa alone would be overwhelming. Just like we have not collected every human being’s fingerprint, not even all the twins fingerprints, but we accept that fingerprints are unique, so is DNA (except for identical twins – the exception to the rule). We haven’t collected all the data, but we accept that we have collected enough to make the generality warranted. What if it wasn’t? But we thought it was – well someone may be wrongly imprisoned. Again, logic comes to the rescue – it truly is a marvel though when you think about the potential diversity on a single chromosome – billions of base pairs combine – don’t even ask me to compute the number of theoretical combinations, it is beyond my capacity. The sheer number of possible combinations, serves to bolster our acceptance, that it is feasible that everyone has unique DNA.

If a child thinks they understand how it rains, why would they continue asking questions? Curiously, it is our refusal to accept our understanding of the world. It is our saying “I am missing something.” that leads us to seek out more knowledge, our acceptance that our generalities may be flawed.

“Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”

― Mark Twain

Dr Lamontagne raised the argument that the education system is damaging, that it takes away our ability to understand things on our own. While I somewhat accept that it stifles creativity, or at best places conditions and requirements on it, I disagree that it takes away our ability to understand things on our own, I argue instead that it gives us more information to use in our development of our understanding. Yes, I hate the system of rote memorization, but to a degree we need that – do you want a doctor who has been vigorously assessed for concrete proof that he knows medicine, or do you want a doctor who explored cadavars until he came up with an understanding of anatomy – we don’t have time to explore these things. We need to know that people know these things, and certain types of knowledge cannot really be discovered simply by thinking about it and toying around with your understandings.

I understand where he is coming from – if we are told what we need to know, and strict criteria are established to determine if we do know, how are we to find the gap in our knowledge? If they are always pointed out how can we learn to find them on our own? To which I counter – if we have accepted our understanding as sufficient, why would we try to continue to learn? The education system says no – you need to know more. Maybe the methods, i.e. grading, are flawed, but if you take a more positive view and focus less on the grades and more on whether the student demonstrates understanding (which I think he suggested at the beginning of thw course – a sort of pass/fail system), the system works quite well. Albeit often it teaches you things only to later tell you that what it previously taught you was wrong. Perhaps this inadvertently shows us the fragility of our generalities and knowledge. Which is perhaps what drives students (intrinsically) to university. While I would guess that a large number simply go because they know that to get a job it’s probably a good idea. We still are responsible for choosing programs though, and we choose them based on what we want to learn more about. Or it could just be wanting to go somewhere in life, even if it’s only out of town.

Without formal education there are many things children would never learn. There are also a lot of things that with only school, a student would fail to learn – I have met a number of individuals in my university career, and in general who are incredibly smart, but also incredibly stupid when it comes to things in real life. Usually it’s the science kids and the engineers who are blinded by their scientific knowledge. Science isn’t everything, maybe science argues that something should be the case, but there are many instances where life says no. And sometimes science isn’t even needed.

I come from a small town, I grew up before the dawn of Google, before there was an answer for everything at my fingertips. I understand and have learned much more in the field of psychology, science, and mathematics than anyone in my family – I am the first to attend university. Coming from a small town I had no access to advanced academics, or museums – my high school only have ONE course in psychology – it was combined with anthropology and sociology. I have knowledge now that cannot really be intuitively derived – for example the structure and activity of the brain. Without the education system I am now a part of, I would have never been exposed to the advanced biology, chemistry, or the world religions in such an in depth way (thought that was more a product of learning outside the classroom – point 1 for Dr Lamontagne, but if you think I’m joking, I came from such a all-white-all-Catholic community that at the time we had to drive an hour to get to a mosque). Thus the education system has given me access to areas of knowledge I never would have been exposed to.

At the same time, I see the risk of taking the information or present understanding at face value – what if false information is presented, if we are not presented with all the views when controversy exists, or if we stop trying to learn more? Many of my first year science courses started with “forget everything you learned in high school. It’s basically wrong anyways.” Which always made me wonder why they taught it to us in the first place. Of course, thanks to our newly constructed conception of knowledge – I can see that we cannot understand everything at once, so we build it up slowly, almost paralleling some sort of phylogeny or ontogeny.

We build up our knowledge knowing that at some point it will probably be knocked down, because having some level of understanding is better than having no understanding. Just as I could not understand the true implications of generalities without first understanding the flaw with knowledge and objectivity. So maybe our understanding is flawed, but as long as we keep trying to understand it better, we’re doing okay.

Returning to the education system argument – I cannot find fault with a system that has allowed me access to so many ideas. Maybe I hate the tests, and maybe a lot of my learning has occurred outside of a classroom, but it has occurred because professors exposed me to the knowledge that made me question my previous understanding, they showed me things I didn’t even know were a thing. We are caught up in a system that relies on grades, but that doesn’t mean that the end game is flawed. Most of my professors grade only because they have to, but I have had some pretty amazing professors who have been so passionate about the material that you know it’s not because of the grades – it’s because they care.

So in short – do I hate the grades? Sometimes yes, but as an overachiever, I need some way to measure my progress. Maybe I’m mostly okay with this system because I usually do well in it, but I also see the benefits this system has given me that my own cognitive explorations would not have given me.

The more I think about it, the more I see that though the process may have flaws, the end result is still good in most cases. Could I have gone to a library and read endless volumes of psychology until I understood it perfectly? Maybe, would I have done so necessarily? Maybe eventually, but the education sets a timeline for me to make sure I stay on track. I keep what I need and research further what interests me – it’s the whole point of my thesis, my aim to research in the future. Maybe the process isn’t ideal, but it brings me to a place where I can be a lifelong learner, even if it is simply in the form that I leave with slightly more knowledge than I came with and a piece of paper that says I’m allowed to keep at it.

So a lot went on here. I debated the utility of generalities and came to the conclusion that they’re useful but not perfect – use with caution. I argued why we continue to explore – why recognizing the flaws of generalizing is useful for growth. And I defended the education system, that admittedly drives me nuts at times, but still exposes me to more information – more fuel with which to question what I know.

What do you think? Are generalities so flawed that we should do away with them entirely? Or are the singularities too numerous to be useful anyways?

“It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”

― Jacob BronowskiThe Ascent of Man


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