Why is reductionism rude?

People have a similar dislike for many quantification related things:


Individual explanations abound. Being thought of as an object, number, or statistic is ‘dehumanizing’.  Tv-tropes suggest serial numbers and prison numbers make numbers suggest inhumanity. ‘Being a number’ prevents you being unique (strangely – how many people share your credit card number? How many share your name?’).  Being objectified makes others disrespect you as they do objects. Measuring art or culture misses important, indefinable or intangible things. Being a statistic is bad because people don’t care about statistics. Publishing school tests scores misleads parents because test scores aren’t everything, and parents might think they are.

These explanations mostly seem unexplanatory or implausible to me, and the similarity of the concerns suggests that they have a common cause.  The explanations have an idea in common:  quantification destroys important, especially human related, aspects of things.

This seems an odd concern. Measuring things naturally leaves some of their aspects unmeasured, but if you are worried about missing information, refusing to measure what you can is a strange solution. And fear of Goodhart’s law doesn’t account for the offense and disdain these things prompt.

One explanation is that explicit measurement inhibits one using ‘judgement’ to come to preferred conclusions. That is, it restricts hypocrisy. This explanation requires that the things people don’t want to measure are the things they like to lie about the importance of. This tentatively seems to fit – the things we don’t want to quantify are usually manifestations of admirable values that people tend to talk of more than act on. We mind quantifying love more than sex, nice views more than nice timber, friendship more than hairdressing.

It’s been argued before that we like to say ‘sacred values‘ like human life are infinitely valuable. Ascribing infinite value to something that you don’t really sacrifice everything for risks being too obviously hypocritical. Do we claim ineffability to hide this hypocrisy?

Hypocrisy alone doesn’t explain such a broad aversion though. We don’t like quantifying more than just value. What’s wrong with reductionistic explanations of human behaviour for instance? It seems that many interpret such things as implying human behaviour is less valuable. People hate being ‘reduced’ to ‘just’ something or another, regardless of its complexity. Humans and their concerns are fragile magical things that can be sullied or destroyed by trying to pin them down. Why is measurement of non-value features contrary to our humanity, or to importance?

Another theory:  We generally use story thought for important social matters, and system thought for unimportant social matters along with non-social matters. Quantification is pretty much specific to system thought, so using it for a social matter says you find the matter unimportant, and is thus offensive to those who think the matter is important.

Story thought should be useful in social situations. It allows us to fudge matters as in the previous hypothesis. At the same time when we are dealing with important social matters we want to use other story thought features, such as sensitivity to value and social implications, expectation that social rules determine outcomes, attention to agents and especially their unique identities, emphasis on our own perspective, respectful treatment of others as unpredictable agents, and sensitivity to intentions and potential for retribution and reward.

I’m not sure why we would talk about unimportant social issues in system style instead, but it looks like we do more. My friends eat fat because of personal decisions, whereas the poor eat fat because it’s advertised to them. Violence in Aboriginal communities is due to poor social conditions, whereas violence in my culture is due to personal evil.  I recall an article reporting Aboriginal girls being raped, and suggested that if this wasn’t intervened in soon this generation of children may also grow up to suffer from being rapists. Amoral influences seem to shape history and foreign affairs more than they do near social issues. ‘Ferdinand’s death … set in train a mindlessly mechanical series of events that culminated in the world’s first global war’, while Our relationship failed because of YOU.

This seems linked to near and far mode; distant people are unimportant and tend to be in system thought. That’s puzzling though, since in far mode we usually care more about morality style values, which feature mostly in story thought.

22 responses to “Why is reductionism rude?

  1. Some people might fear that they’ll be disappointed by learning the results of quantification. These are the type of people who avoid getting tested for a disease in order to protect their self image. It’s harder to maintain the illusion of superiority once one’s quantified rank is known.

    • They should anticipate some chance of not being disappointed too, or they would already be disappointed. So your explanation could apply as long as they are risk averse. But then why does this not apply to any information discovery. If a loved one may have been hurt in a large scale accident for instance, people are desperate to find out if they were or not.

      • Risk aversion is not an especially scarce trait. People who suspect that their superiority is both credible and illusory might be well-advised to avoid subjecting their status to scrutiny. Those who are content with their current position might be especially prone to status quo bias and hostile to forms of inquiry that are liable to destabilise current self and peer assessed values.

        Different subjects of inquiry and assessment have different risk to reward ratios. Ignorance about the vital status of a loved one who went missing near an accident site imposes a cost in the form of searching and worrying. An indifferent response would appear negligent. Ignorance about the degree to which one is kind, remarkable, likeable, or tasteful is a low-risk position for the majority of people who do not work in politics or the entertainment industry. An excessive or blatant preoccupation with social status can seem narcissistic or self-centred.

        Research by Sedikides & Strube suggests that people are more prone to make self-serving assessments when the when topic being assessed is more open to interpretation or ambiguity.

        The judgemental eye is bound to get poked occasionally. Students rebel against graded work. People experience anxiety before job interviews and complain about beauty pageants. People with positions of authority work to prevent the dissemination of videos that could hurt their reputation.

        Sedikides, C., & Strube, M. J. (1997). Self-evaluation: To thine own self be good, to thine own self be sure, to thine own self be true, and to thine own self be better. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 209-269). New York: Academic Press.

  2. There is an “argument” I’ve run up against my whole life that I find to be irritating to the point of infuriation. I call it the “Cool Kid’s Gambit”. It goes like this: the “cool kid” advances a vague difficult to pin down proposition filled with non-sequiteurs and contradictory premises. I try to generate some slight variation with consistent premises, and fill in some of the gaps in the argument. The cool-kid says, “No, man you just don’t get it…”

    Theologians, Genderqueer Theorists, Authoritarians, Newage proponents, Spiritualists, Lit Crit types, all use this authority presuming rhetorical style. I think it relates to the “rudeness” of reductionism. The end argument is always the same, “I am cool, sophisticated, complicated, suave and debonair, and you are an engineer, a tinkerer and a nerd.”

    “You’re being reductionist. You just don’t get it.”

    How do you get it? By accepting your lower rank and taking another hit off the bong.

  3. Brian Slesinsky

    One possibility: intelligent rivals in a social situation are more threatening to the extent that they’re unpredictable. We can anticipate their interests but they might come up with some clever scheme we hadn’t thought of.

    Reductionism implies that we can anticipate reactions and therefore we are smarter than them, so it’s interpreted as an assertion of superiority.

    • I agree – that’s what I meant by ‘respectful treatment of others as unpredictable agents’, but I should have elaborated.

  4. It seems that the degree to which people dislike being enumerated depends on the power of those doing the numerating. If our neighbor thinks of us as neighbor #5 it bothers us less than if the corner store thinks if us as customer #5 which bothers us less than if comcast thinks of us as account #5 which bother us less than if the government thinks of us as citizen #5. this suggests to me that people are worried that being numerated will have adverse impacts on them via the oversimplified decisions of those making decisions that affect us.

    • I would be more worried about my neighbour numbering me than my bank numbering me. I expect my neighbour to know me more personally and value me enough to remember a name. My bank has to number me for practical reasons.

      Remembering names is easy compared to remembering numbers which all look about the same. If you are a number rather than a name you are less memorable and different to others.

      In a business setting names are less practical than numbers, so when a business deals with you by name it shows they value you more.

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  6. Maybe what we like is uncertainty. When there is no price on life, who knows how much you value it. If someone insists you reveal how much you care you can no longer obfuscate.

    If nobody knows how good a school is the members can pretend they are good (perhaps focus on the thing they are good at). Once you have numbers everyone knows, convenient illusions and rhetoric are harder to sustain.

    I worry your list includes things we dislike for different reasons.

  7. This is a thought-provoking post. My knee-jerk reaction was to cite McNamara’s Fallacy [0] and Taleb’s Ludic Fallacy [1]. Behavioral economists like Tversky and Khaneman have shown how far off the rails a reductionist/rationalist approach can go. And reductionists haven’t (yet) provided a convincing argument for how intentionality can arise from the material. Dennett comes closest, but seems to argue against using reductionism to explain intentionality, for the time being,

    But, in fact, the specific examples you cite are challenging, and could probably keep scores of researchers busy for years doing experiments. Agreed that “hypocrisy” as an explanation is unconvincing for most situations. I bet you are right about “near and far mode” being a key part of the explanation.

    [0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McNamara_fallacy
    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludic_fallacy

  8. Why is reductionism rude? Only a bunch of Asperger-Lite nerds who suppressed their own emotions in order to avoid the pain of life would then wonder why real people don’t want to join them in their box.

    See, we Cool Kids (thanks for the recognition, Sprawn) have our own form of reductionism too, whereby we disempower the enemy. Only we do it with names rather than numbers. And a name can carry the sting of poetic truth, whereas a number, well, it does indeed make you “number”.

    So feel the unfairness of my dismissive “analysis”! Or feel contempt for the idiot glibness of my words! Know that feeling, indulge it, examine it. That’s how it feels to be on the receiving end of reductionism gone wrong. And knowing how it feels is the first step towards knowing why.

  9. I wonder if we have missed a nurture value here. I grew up working class and, as much as I hate to accept it, am a screaming middle class now. But I have always seen the number of taught behaviours, don’t snitch etc, that make no sense when older.

    I wonder if we realise how many of these are social rather than hard written and as such probably much harder to brake. Certain areas of society are taught that you should never think you are better than others, and (personal experience), just because you are educated means you think you know you are better than others.

    Perhaps our tie to our names and to not be measured shares some similar social cause. perhaps something tied to how small communities had to survive years ago (and perhaps more recently). Same as obedience is a strange requirement in any organised group that is needed to overrule personal thought.

    Maybe the thought of being measured / numbered relates to that childhood aspect of being told to not pick on others / accept them even when differences are what we are born to fear and love in equal measures. resulting in an assumption that it shouldn’t happen to you either even when you were pre-programmed to do it as a child.

  10. It seems that what we don’t like about numbers is not the number, but the story associated with the number. That is, if we don’t want to be quantified in any way because we fear that we won’t be the best, or, in other words, that we’re devalued, not part of the group, whatever the group might be at that moment. So, if the numbering isn’t what is most important, but the story that the number tells, then we’re not really talking about a distinction between quantification and reductionism verses story based thought. Conversely, there’s a whole host of story based derived thought that works in a profoundly mechanical and quantitative/reductionist manner to objectify, or categorize, that is also, at times, more efficient than numbering/reducing quantitatively.

  11. Brian Slesinsky

    By the way, one huge area where people have no problem with reductive measurement is sports (and to some extent, all games). I can guess at a few reasons for this: (1) it’s traditional (2) it’s an artificial situation set up with fairness as a goal (3) it’s voluntary (4) you can get better with practice (5) due to being an artificial situation, it’s easy to argue that it doesn’t measure the whole person.

  12. Many of the bulleted items you first list can be explained by an aversion to thinking of our selves as mechanistic, material beings, I think. Most central to this dislike is concern over “free will”. Most people want to believe that they are magically in control of their actions, immune to effects in the “material world”.

    People attribute more respect to independent agents than they do to objects which follow predictable laws. A materialistic viewpoint suggests that we ourselves are essentially objects which follow predictable laws, though those laws are largely unknown and terribly complex, and it doesn’t suggest we don’t still have choice in a meaningful sense. I think that many people view it as a significant detraction to move from “independent agent” to “really really complex physical object”.

    Most of the items you point out seem to be things which treat human beings as objects rather than magically sovereign agents.

  13. Hi Katja

    The question you ask, i.e. “Why do people dislike being quantified?” can be answered, I think, like this: “Quantification is a threat to one’s image and reputation, because it take away one’s freedom to construct and be constructed (socially, religiously, academically, romantically, professionally, locally, globally…).”

    I wrote a novel to entertain and educate: “Constructed”, http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/1482777231. It shows the antithesis to reductionism by stripping away sentiments (noble, mundane, insidious…), leaving the reader with the pure thought of that which remains.

    Deconstruction being in and of itself a reductionistic approach, my thinking was, that in a philosophical quest for the antithesis to reductionism, it would be contradictory if I deconstructed that subject into words. Instead, I wrote a drama, which takes away everything else to leave the reader with the pure idea of, lacking a better word: constructionism.

    I noticed your blog, Katja, because I was browsing the World Wide Web for entries about reductionism, to see if my book, which was just recently published, had begun to pop up.

    With the best regards, Martin Mosfeldt

  14. While there are probably some signalling aspects, I think there’s an entirely legitimate reason to distrust reductionism — the default failure mode of reductionism is to oversimplify things and to optimize what is easily quantifiable, rather than what is actually useful. (In fact, it would be nice if people used this heuristic more, since then the AI alignment problem would be well-known.)

    Economics is a good example — a smart person discovering simple, plausible economical models for the first time might make far worse decisions than they would intuitively, and it can take a long time to discover behavioural economics and remove the oversimplification. Of course rationalists don’t like distrust of reductionism, because it is a special case of distrust of the inside view, and rationalists are better at using the inside view than the average person (confidence levels inside and outside an argument).


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