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Why is reductionism rude? « Meteuphoric

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Why is reductionism rude?
May 23, 2010 · 11 Comments

People have a similar dislike for many quantification related things:

* Being referred to by numbers rather than names (though numbers are befitting for robots)
* Being objectified
* Becoming a statistic
* Attempts to measure, model or derive quantitatively things like art, culture, meaning, relationships
* ‘Reductionism‘
* People who are calculating
* Economics‘ attempts to quantify things that ‘just can’t be quantified’
* Public rankings of school test scores


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.

Categories: Uncategorized
Tagged: fiction, Free will, psychology, signaling
11 responses so far ↓


Kristoff // May 24, 2010 at 12:06 am | Reply

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.

Katja Grace // May 24, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Reply

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.

Sprawn // May 24, 2010 at 12:56 am | Reply

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.

Robert Wiblin // May 24, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Reply


Brian Slesinsky // May 24, 2010 at 2:59 am | Reply

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.

Katja Grace // May 24, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Reply

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

Adam Ozimek // May 24, 2010 at 4:44 am | Reply

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.

Robert Wiblin // May 24, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Reply

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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Robert Wiblin // May 24, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Reply

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.

Katja Grace // May 24, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Reply

Is that different to the hypocrisy argument I made?

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