Critical Thinking as Productive Questions


1.   Why are generalizations both essential and risky?

2.   How would we think critically about a generalization?

3.   How would we distinguish a stereotype from a generalization?

Imagine living your life unassisted by a single generalization. As you swing your legs out of bed, will you rest your feet on the carpet? You probably should not for who knows what that mass of fabric has in store for you? Will it sustain your weight or entangle your toes in a death grip as dangerous as quicksand? You would be paralyzed with anxiety, would you not? Even were you to take a deep breath and plant your feet firmly on the carpet, each succeeding decision would be comprised of unknown units of peril and promise.

But even the best of generalizations are not necessarily reliable. While I have little hesitancy to urge you to step onto the floor next to your bed tomorrow morning, as surely as black swans exist, I may have just endangered your life. Carpet can hide the brown recluse spider, a housemate to rival your most treacherous nightmare. A little caution in following where generalizations invite you to tread is always sensible.

As creators and consumers of generalizations, we always want to focus on the quality of the source for the generalization, but equally important is the strength of the generalization. Generalizations are more or less strong and reliable. A common mistake people make when hearing a generalization is to assume that generalizations have an implied “all” in front of them. Were that assumption true, then a single counter-example ruins the generalization.

Instead, generalizations have an implied “most” in front of them and should be created, deployed and evaluated with that designation in mind. Just as generalizations require systematic, reliable data or experiences to exist, rejecting a generalization requires the same kind of evidence.  When listeners or readers reject a generalization by citing a couple of counter-examples, they are unfortunately and usually erroneously assuming that the generalization was preceded with “all.”

So where do stereotypes fit into the analysis of generalizations? I think the first thing to note is that when someone points out a stereotype, the implication is that the generalization being called a “stereotype” in this instance is wrong or harmful. If I am correct in this observation, then a stereotype is an erroneous generalization functioning as an inaccurate denigration of some group. Hence, a stereotype is an abusive, mistaken generalization referenced when someone says with irritation, “Oh, that’s a stereotype.”

 1.   To what extent is it a valid response to a generalization to say “ah, that is just a generalization.”?

2.   Why are many humans so resistant to the very act of being labelled by a stereotype even when the generalization implied by the stereotype is accurate?

3.   Why is the quality of the evidence for any generalization crucial to whether it is a welcome shortcut to a decision or a misleading impediment to wisdom?

AuthorM Neil Browne