Tunnel Vision

The tyranny of reductionism

When we attempt to make sense of the world around us, we all make certain basic assumptions. These basic assumptions are rarely acknowledged, but lurk beneath practically every account of the world that has ever been presented. When we attempt to understand a phenomenon, we need a conceptual starting point. In the social sciences, we would make basic assumptions about how humans behave and how society is organized. Most of the time, these assumptions include some assumptions about "human nature" (whether the theorist wishes to admit this or not).

The nature of our basic assumptions typically tend to be driven by two elements:

  1. The widely-shared (but not universal) desire for simple and elegant models

  2. Our moral values/sentiments

While discussing the second point has been an ongoing process for me, I want to focus on the first point for today. I think in far too many cases, our attempt to build "simple, elegant" models lead us to a reductionism that causes us to miss crucial parts of the story. We are constantly attempting to find what is THE most fundamental factor, and reduce our explanations to that. This isn't anything new: the attitude (commonly considered to be a central attitude of the scientific mindset) was recorded as far back as some of the earliest philosophers in the West (the works of Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Pythagoras all exhibit this tendency at times). But I do think that, ironically, as we are confronted with more and more information, our attempts to simplify the world around us have become more intense. Ironically, when we are in need of more complicated and bespoke solutions to our issues, we latch on far more fiercely to the promise of "silver bullets."

We look for metrics that are visible, AKA easily measurable. The problem, of course, is that easily measurable metrics are rarely comprehensive enough to incorporate all of the elements we need to measure. In fact, they frequently mislead. What we get is a surface-level analysis, which tends towards a focus on the BOMBASTIC. BIG solutions take priority over bespoke, customized ones. It is the latter, coupled with a healthy dose of creativity, that we desperately need. Our systems are far too complex nowadays to be able to solve the problems that plague us simply.

Of course, this only gets amplified when the desire for simple and elegant models coincides with our moral values.

It should come as no surprise that the only group of "experts" with a worse track record for accurate predictions than economists is meteorologists. Economists are more shamans than scientists. Part of this is, of course, an alignment of both ideology and interests. The concept of the rational man is a very compelling one (and gives the more well-off plenty of justification for looking down on the irrational proles). Also, it is very difficult to get a man to notice something that he is paid to ignore.

And we should not be shocked at all when people talk about ending meat production instead of focusing on regenerative farming and the positive environmental effects this can have. It also is no surprise Bill Gates went on his latest anti-meat crusade right after becoming the largest private owner of farmland in the United States.

There is no nuance because visible metrics rarely allow for this. Instead, they allow for clear demarcation of Friend and Enemy.

Perhaps this is all due to the fact that, on some level, we are aware of the direness of our situation. Perhaps this is also because we are aware we are faced with a kafkaesque bureaucracy that obfuscates Power to the point it is entirely unaccountable. Perhaps God programmed us incorrectly. Perhaps we are all just insane. I do not know. But we need to resist the allure of "elegant simplicity" if we want to save the world. And there is much worth saving in this life.

(Cover image from HackerNoon)


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