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Biology, Learning, Psychology, Sport, Uncategorized

How important is generalizability?

Are you ready for it? My PhD research was not generalizable. I studied a specific group of people about a specific topic. I cannot make claims about how other people might respond or think about the topic, nor can I make assumptions about how the group I worked with would respond to environmental issues other than climate change. And that is totally okay.

More and more it seems that we are recognizing that extreme generalizability is not helpful. The University of Alberta just put out this article about why medical research is flawed when it makes conclusions for how women and children should be treated based on research done with men.

The National Autistic Society explored the research that indicates that although diagnoses of autism may be made more frequently with boys and men (often the number is about four times higher) this may have more to do with generalized understanding (and stereotypes) for how both individuals with autism and girls/women behave. For example, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder often have highly focalized interests in specific things. However, if a girl with ASD is hyper focused on horses for example she probably won’t stand out from her peers. Or as Rozsa (2016) observes individuals with ASD frequently make less eye contact, if a boy doesn’t make eye contact it “may be a sign of an issue” but if a girl doesn’t make eye contact “she’s just shy”. To be honest, my own experience of working with individuals with ASD is that I have no idea how you could create anything generalizable as they are each so different (the spectrum is not linear in any way).

As a sufferer of a sports related knee injury I am always interested in the developments that show that differences in female body structure (eg., width of the pelvis) affects the force on muscles, ligaments, and tendons differently and therefore what has worked for training men and boys can lead to injury in women and girls. It’s not that women and girls can’t train, or can’t train hard, but that everyone needs to train smarter and that means one size does not fit all.

Education too has been affected by generalized studies. Due to some early research, there is a belief that girls have better verbal skills than boys do; however, if you take the average performance of girls and boys you will find that there are higher numbers of boys with diagnosed learning disabilities. The question should be asked therefore as to whether there actually is a gender difference for the “average boy and girl” (whatever that means) on verbal skills.

What I think is one of the most significant consequences of this tendency to generalize is the potential stereotypes, attitudes, beliefs, and even diagnoses that may be influenced by it. When I injured my knee as a teenager I went and saw a doctor. I showed the signs of torn cartilage but rather than investigate further and treat that injury the doctor continued to tell me for months that I couldn’t have torn cartilage because of my age. I made a conclusion based on a generalization. I didn’t get appropriate treatment until my knee got worse and I had to see someone else.

Generalizability is definitely not all it is cracked up to be.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.



  1. Pingback: Science and Society | Connecting with Science - April 18, 2017

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