Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Beyond just nuts and bolts: The problems with scientific reductionism

I took a friend on a walk in the woods one afternoon.  Much as I usually do, I started pointing out all of the different plants and animals and telling my friend the names of each little specimen.  My friend quickly grew impatient with me, and then snapped.  “Why do you need to know the names of each plant and animal you see?” he urgently asked.  “It seems stupid just to reduce everything you see out here into meaningless names and categories!”    My face then started to redden up and as I opened my mouth to give him my defensive reply to such a ‘ridiculous’ question, I found that I did not know what to say.

Years later I thought back to that question and realized what it translated into.   In essence, my walking buddy was asking the “so what?” of assigning names and categories to all of the plants and animals in the natural world.    So what?  Why does it matter?  In most laymen’s eyes, these questions frequently go unanswered.

Science is often boring to most people.  This may be in part because science as seen as something that strips down an object, a mechanism, or some other phenomena into its mathematical units and functional parts.  All of the mystery, say, of a sunrise or the sounds of birds in a forest, are demoralized and secularized into their ‘useful’ and quantitative ‘components.  This scientific reductionism is often rationalized into positive economic terms and as integral in fulfilling the ‘curiosity of mankind’.

And an increasing populous is finding a painful divide between science and religion.  Doesn’t it seem like all of this scientific research and  the use of a strict scientific method take the wonder and mystery out of life?

The problem, it seems to me, is not with science versus spirituality or religion, but is rather a problem with the pervasive use of scientific reductionism.  This view of science can make scientific degrading and analyses appear degrading and dehumanized.  Even those that understand the contribution science has made to society (roads, bridges, iPods, etc.) do not often turn to scientific reasoning to solve problems in their lives and communities such as sexuality, evolution vs. creationism, and the role of humans in the environment1 to name just a few.  In addition, many popular authors depict science – or scientists themselves, as amoral individuals (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Scientists themselves have often been portrayed as eccentric monsters, who are so absorbed with their discoveries and creations that they lose grasp of the 'human touch' of things, as illustrated in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.

The first definition for science on is  “a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws.”  Yet it seems that this definition cannot and does not acknowledge human sentience into its provisions.  Therefore, I’d like to propose a definition of science that appeals to the mainstream while still broad enough that it can encompass the physical, social, and humanitarian science (including my philosophy of study: natural history)2.

In the broadest sense, science could perhaps best be defined as learning about the world (or universe) through accurate information. On an application level, science could be defined as learning about the world (or universe) through accurate information in order to do good. See Figure 2.


Figure 2: Breakdown of my proposed modification of a broad definition of science.

What does it mean ‘to do good’?  This could mean a variety of things, from learning more about ecosystems, to inventing a new product, to creating equality among a socially marginalized group.  This description of applied science, however, is highly debatable and much like the amendments of our constitution, it is open to multiple interpretations.   In ether case, my hope is that “good” implies actions and analyses based upon ‘accurate information’ about our world.

It is unfortunate that science has been viewed in large part as arbitrary reductionism, as illustrated by my nature walk with my friend.  In my field, it is important to learn the names and categories for each individual species so that we can learn about and manage for that organism or group of organisms.  Each species in nature has its own uniqueness that must be distinguished from other forms of life.  Doing this allows habitat managers and conservationists to peace a puzzle together to see the connections, problems, and solutions about our actions on earth.  We’re not doing this because we want to be brainy, apathetic scientists.  We are doing this because we care about the health of the environment that YOU live in.


1  People in the United States often take on an anthropocentric view of humans and the environment, believing that a higher power controls the access the Earth’s natural resource for use and consumption by us.

2  I am not necessarily claiming that this is what the true definition of science is or that this definition the only one that I am going to follow.  Rather, like most of the topics on my blog, I am proposing an idea for public viewing and comment.


science. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved March 20, 2011, from website:


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