Am I A Reductionist? Part I

By Marvin Ross

I must confess that I’m not really sure what that means other than that it has been an accusation leveled at  me. One of my advocacy colleagues told me recently of a conversation she had with a member of the mental health bureaucracy and my name came up. The bureaucrat said he read me and that I was a controversial writer (I try) but that I was a reductionist. I wasn’t sure if that was a complement or an insult.

Then, just recently, someone who did not like Susan Inman’s latest Huffington Post blog critical of the Hearing Voices Movement, accused her of also being a reductionist. I guess it is an insult. Ms Inman is the author of After Her Brain Broke: Helping My Daughter Recover Her Sanity which my company publishes. 

What does our being accused of being reductionists mean? Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker (1996) said Reductionism is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it.” This was quoted in Reductionistic and Holistic Science by Ferric C Fang, the editor in chief of the journal Infection and Immunity.

The abstract for this paper states:

A reductionistic approach to science, epitomized by molecular biology, is often contrasted with the holistic approach of systems biology. However, molecular biology and systems biology are actually interdependent and complementary ways in which to study and make sense of complex phenomena.”

And then the paper goes on to say:

Few scientists will voluntarily characterize their work as reductionistic. Yet, reductionism is at the philosophical heart of the molecular biology revolution. Holistic science, the opposite of reductionistic science, has also acquired a bad name, perhaps due to an unfortunate association of the word “holistic” with new age pseudoscience.”

The author substitutes system biology for holistic biology because it lacks the pejorative nature of holistic. And I don’t want to try to give a precis of this paper but simply to say that molecular biology is an example of the triumph of reductionism. But holism goes back to Aristotle and the two are not mutually exclusive. Again, the author states that:

Each approach has its limitations. Reductionism may prevent scientists from recognizing important relationships……..Holism, on the other hand, is inherently more challenging due to the complexity of living organisms in their environment.” And, “When fecklessly performed, systems biology may merely describe phenomena without providing explanation or mechanistic insight or create virtual models that lack biological relevance”.

Furthermore, “It is difficult to imagine how a number of important scientific discoveries could have been made by any method other than a reductionistic approach.” However, the author points out that the “reductionistic and holistic methodological approaches have been coexisting and thriving for centuries. One can argue that Darwin’s theory of evolution represents an early example in which many reductionist observations on finches and domesticated pigeons were synthesized into a system that unified all of biology……….Nevertheless, there is no denying the revolutionary impact of holistic thinking on the field, both in calling attention to situations in which reductionistic approaches have been deficient and in the generation of new experimental approaches for the analysis of complex systems .”

There are many other sources on the reductionist/holistic dichotomy and you can peruse them if you wish. It is only through reductionistic scientific enquiry that we may find a specific and necessary cause  of a problem  though many other factors contribute. But, it is also wise to have a holistic perspective.

There is no either/or in our search for answers and explanations and to abide by one methodology while ignoring others, is stupid and narrow minded. So, thinking, as some seem to do, that they can dismiss my views or those of Ms Inman as reductionist serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever. It says far more of them than it does of us.

Anyone who is honestly seeking truth needs to be open to reasoned arguments and to the unbiased evaluation of fact.

Next On Models, Concepts, Power, and Politics – Part II by Dr David Laing Dawson

2 thoughts on “Am I A Reductionist? Part I

  1. The Reverend should also think back to his salad days when he wrote on ” Managing conflict constructively in the pastorate,( circa 1987,)



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