The practice of considering a problem in isolation, as if it had no implications for the wider system to which it belongs, and as if interventions could be designed without taking account either of their wider consequences or of their effects over the longer term.

Serial reductionism can be understood as the idea that a complex system can be understood by focusing acutely on parts of it, and then adding them together.R19

Reductionism in its characteristic and familiar form consists of obvious and easy solutions, whatever the problem. Here are some examples:

Too many weeds? → more herbicides.
Expected rise in the demand for air travel? → more runways.
Teenage pregnancy, drinking, drugs and violence? → more education on sex, drinking, drugs and violence.
Too few people going out to vote? → easy ways of enabling people to vote without having to go out.
Youth crime epidemic? → set up a youth club in every neighbourhood.
Young people vulnerable to abuse? → establish detailed vetting procedures which will dry up the supply of volunteers to work in youth clubs.
Evidence that some herbal medicines may be ineffective? → ban them.

To every problem, reductionism supplies a simple and direct solution, often in the form of regulation, prohibition or tax. These one-step responses save the sweat of understanding a system; they can give rise to decisive action; they are easily explained and defended. They do not require a long concentration span. It’s sorted in time for lunch.R20

This is the occupational curse of government and government ministers: they recognise a problem and set out to solve it; consideration of the ways in which their solution will affect other parts of the system is not in the brief. And the only time they are aware of is now. It is the nature of our market-based political economy that it observes problems in terms of separate components—immediately-adjacent causes and immediately-relevant action. And yet, as Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins summarise,

You can actually make a system less efficient while making each of its parts more efficient, simply by not properly linking up those components. If they’re not designed to work with one another, they’ll tend to work against one another. . . . Optimising components in isolation tends to pessimise the whole system.R21

The immediate cause of a problem might itself be only one step in a sequence of causes and effects which has not been considered, but there is no space for this possibility in crowded minds that are focused and narrowed by the need to appear to be in control of the situation. Relative intelligence declines. Simple fixes bring death by a thousand good intentions.

“Cathedral Camps” is a charity which sends young people on week-long camps to help to maintain ancient church buildings while learning traditional skills in cleaning stained glass windows and restoring ancient monuments. After 25 years without causing injury, it was threatened with closure in 2006 owing to health and safety fears, complex risk assessment regulations and the cost of insurance against potential compensation claims. The health and safety hazard that was overlooked was boredom. It leads to things that, from the reductionist point of view, don’t matter, such as depression, resentment, overeating, terminal disease, violence, vandalism, destroyed relationships, and an indolent acceptance that there is no point in being alive. And thankfully, in this case the wider vision—that helping to keep cathedrals upright might be good for our health—has so far prevailed.R22

And yet, reductionism is not always a fallacy. It can take the form of the replacement of ambitious but partial explanations with those that are more humble and more complete—a patient and necessary focus on detail. Our understanding of why algae produce dimethyl sulphide, for instance, helps us to understand Gaia. And if there is one well-defined thing wrong with a system, there is nothing wrong with focusing on that. Scientific discovery depends on a reductionist focus as much as on systems-wide comprehension; René Descartes’ insistence that we have to study one thing at a time holds true, up to a point. Crafts, language, music and systems-thinking itself require an exhaustive grasp of the particular.R23

So it is in its abuse and overstatement that reductionism has its malign influence on our lives. Descartes’ just-one-thing-at-a-time method misleads because there is no limit to the just-one-things. If you add together all the things you have studied so carefully, you still don’t get the whole system: you simply get high on trivia. The sage you took for Descartes turns out to be Mickey Mouse. Reductionists do not recognise the case for placing their work in a wider setting, but if complex questions are considered from just one point of view, then it is not a solution which is reached, but a pathology. Single-issue pressure groups wreak havoc with the complex tissue of forces in tension with each other; when politics addresses one issue at a time, it enters dark territory. Pornography is reductionism for the hell of it.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett writes that the problem lies not with reductionism but with greedy reductionism:

in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers often underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely to the foundation.R24

And yet reductionism accounts for one of the most important ideas of all time—natural selection:

Darwin’s dangerous idea is reductionism incarnate.R25


Related entries:

Ecology: Farmers and Hunters, Precautionary Principle, Holism, Disingenuousness, Reductio ad Absurdum.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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