The Other I

August 28, 2010

Fun theory and reductionism

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 9:03 pm
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A friend just sent me the address of a and asked if it was predictable.  What do you think?

Well, no, it wasn’t predictable.  Not in the way traditional reductionism would argue events can be predictable.

In that sense this creative approach to making escalator-walking more appealing is an illustration of the limits of reductionism.  And I suspect that the evidence is almost universally incontrovertible now that this emergent creativity can’t be predicted, that it is intrinsically unpredictable using the scientific method.

But I’ve come in this post to praise reductionism, not to bury it, and the case of the musical escalator illustrates some of the reasons why.

Because it would be too easy to say simply “ah, well, if it’s unpredictable, that’s it.  It’s unpredictable.”  And that would ignore the tremendous contribution that reductionism has to make to our understanding.  Because although reductionism fails pretty miserably in making predictions, it is incomparable in its analytical successes.

The anti-reductionism position (which I share) is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  In other words, the way something is organized actually creates something new, something more.  But that something is still also the sum of its parts.  A symphony is still made up of individual notes, for instance, or a bird is still made of a handful of molecules.

What the reductionist approach does is to analyze those parts and although they may not often say so, looks at how they are put together to make something new.

After the analysis, the reductionist then asks if what has been taken apart can be put together in a new way to make it work better or work differently or not work at all.  So the reductionist examines the elements which constitute a cancerous tumor, for instance, to try to find why it does not stop multiplying the way healthy cells do.  A reductionist analyzes a flu virus in order to develop a vaccine that will inhibit its virulence.  This approach has been repeated in thousands of different fields in thousands of different ways.

In relation to the musical escalator versus the static stairs, it would be a great loss simply to say it was unpredictable.  Once it has happened, what questions might arise from a reductionist perspective?

The key question would be what it is about this situation that led to so many more people using the escalator than before?  “Fun theory” is fun, but it isn’t quite specific enough.  Partly because “fun” is a pretty foggy word.

Let us ask instead things like:

  • how long did people continue to use the escalator instead of the stairs?  Did they switch routinely to the escalator or try it out only once or twice?  In other words, how influential was uniqueness?
  • is this phenomenon widespread?  is it limited to urban populations?   does it occur equally during rush hours and less crowded or hurried times?
  • do people tend to take the escalator more or less often if they are alone?  or if they are with children? is there an age variable?  do men try it out more often than women?  or vice versa?

The advantage of getting answers to the reductionist’s analytical questions like these is that, paradoxically, it opens the way for greater creativity.  If we can understand cancer cells, we might be able to find a way to cure cancer.   If we know the variables that increase the likelihood of cooperation among strangers, we might be able to reduce incidents of violence and exploitation.  If we know the variables that make it more likely that people will enjoy exercise, we might be able to reduce the incidence of heart disease and obesity and cancer.

So hurrah for the reductionists.  They might have thought they could figure out everything.  They can’t.

But they can figure out a lot.  And they are among the most creative people I know.

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