The Curse Of Reductionism

Whole

Chances are you’re not particularly interested in reading a book that might tell you your diet is killing you. After all, we tend to pick our foods based on what we like rather than what likes us; moreover, we form a strong emotional bond to what we eat — that’s one reason it’s so hard for some people to lose weight. But while the primary purpose of the book Whole by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. is to advocate for a whole foods plant-based diet (based on half a century of cutting-edge research), you might find it worth reading even if you have no intention of ever altering your grazing habits one crumb. Because more broadly, the book is also a searing indictment of reductionism, which long has plagued civilization in many different ways.

Not that it’s consistently a bad thing. Loosely defined, reductionism means substituting a simpler system for a more complex system. That can sometimes be rather useful. Pidgin English, for instance, can facilitate communication with individuals of limited English comprehension. There are also philosophical concepts of reductionism that may have merit, though they are the subject of debate.

But this book addresses a particular kind of reductionism, one that long has been the bane of progress and of civilization itself: the use of a limited set of facts, perceptions and concepts to dominate a worldview. Or, in other words, the use of a part to replace the whole.

A simple example mentioned in the book from the field of nutrition involves the popularity of vitamin-mineral supplements. Scientists have identified certain elements in certain foods, and certain benefits they provide the body. But those ingredients work in perfectly calibrated conjunction with all the other elements in those foods; if we isolate them, we cannot expect them to provide the full benefit. Taking a vitamin C capsule may be better than nothing, but it’s just not the same as eating an orange.

And it’s not just nutrition; healthcare as a whole is hobbled by reductionism, at least in the United States. As Dr. Campbell comments, American healthcare would be more properly called American disease care, because it’s geared to treating specific symptoms of specific ailments rather than considering all of the body’s systems in conjunction with each other, and focusing on how they should function rather than on how they shouldn’t. In recent years, holistic medicine has made some inroads into the American medical establishment, but it still has a way to go before it moves out of the shadow of stereotypical New Age perceptions.

And it isn’t just nutrition and medicine. Science in general, Dr. Campbell points out, has its neck stuck under the iron boot of reductionism. And the primary reason is that in the U.S., science is driven by the same force that drives everything else: the profit motive. Scientific research in America tends to get funded by corporations that stand to benefit from a particular result. Dr. Campbell’s findings met with a great deal of resistance because myths about nutrition have become deeply ingrained in the American psyche; most people still believe, for instance, that drinking milk is essential to develop strong bones — a notion heavily promoted by the powerful dairy lobby through that pervasive and persuasive propaganda channel known as advertising.

This does not mean that scientists are dishonest or that scientific research is totally unreliable or that the cult of anti-science is correct to discard findings about climate science, evolution or any other topic. (More about this in a future discussion of the ideological assault on science.) Scientists, Dr. Campbell hastens to add, generally do the best they can under the circumstances; it’s just that they have to work within the confines of the American reductionist paradigm.

(Another recent book on nutrition and health, Eat Dirt by Dr. Josh Axe, details how Americans’ reductionist obsession with over-sanitization has weakened our body’s defenses and actually left us more susceptible to disease.)

And it isn’t just in matters of nutrition, medicine or science. Reductionism saturates, and often dominates, virtually every aspect of our lives. Religion, particularly of the fundamentalist flavor, is distinctly reductionist. People often zero in on particular passages from the Bible (or whatever their manual is) without putting them in context. Moreover, they often take such passages very literally, even if they were not intended literally.

And what is most likely to draw the public into the cinema to see a particular film? Almost everyone knows the answer to that: it’s the stars. Not the premise. Not the script or story. Not the directing. Not the cinematography. Not the scenery. And most certainly not the film as a comprehensive unit. Just the stars.

Government policy has been reduced to short-sighted measures to satisfy ideological beliefs and emotional responses to issues, without regard to the actual results and consequences of those policies. Excellent examples are abortion, capital punishment and immigration. Politics long ago was reduced to a matter of hyperpartisan one-upmanship, particularly on the right. Liberals generally realize that a healthily functioning society can benefit from both liberalism and conservatism; conservatives have become convinced that the eagle can fly with only one wing, and so the other one should be lopped off.  And conservatism, indeed political discourse in general, has been reduced even further to slogans and soundbites. “Make America Great Again”. “America First”. “Protect Our Borders”.

Imagine a hypothetical scenario (and it really isn’t that hypothetical, being a situation I actually encountered years ago) in which a major city has, say, 40 branches of its public library; but then because of budget cuts, yada yada yada, it decides that 2 or 3 of these must be closed. When you hear the announcement of which branches have drawn the short straw, it becomes clear how the decision probably was made: bureaucrats sitting in a comfortable office somewhere just looked at a map and picked out which branches are closest to other branches, and figured these could be sacrificed at no great loss. No consideration of what unique services and features those branches offered, or what unique populations they serviced. A drastic decision reduced to a matter of pure geography. In this scenario, reductionism determines not only the implementation but the evaluation of policy.

Media reporting on such matters is, I surely don’t have to tell you, drastically reductionist. News events are reduced to headlines, which are almost always woefully inadequate, quite often misleading, and sometimes even deliberately manipulated. Look at these two different versions of the same issue of Wall Street Journal.

WSJ

This appears to be a deliberate attempt at manipulation, and there’s even a claim on social media that these headlines were chosen to appeal to different markets in different parts of the country. In fact, they were printed at different times of the day, and supposedly reflect changing developments. What’s true in any case is that much more is needed than the headline; yet that tends to be the only thing people remember.

And social media? Lordy lordy, what a slavering orgy of reductionism. Of course, the rumors and allegations circulated on social media have many, many problems — quite often, they’re just made up out of whole cloth. But even when they get their facts straight, those facts are quite often very incomplete and present a totally distorted picture. A classic example is one of the rumors about the Clinton Foundation. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating because it’s such a textbook example and it’s STILL being circulated.

The story goes like this: the Clinton Foundation gives out only 5 percent of its proceeds in grants. Therefore, the other 95 percent obviously goes to line the pockets of the crooked Clintons.  The central fact of this rumor is almost accurate: the organization gives out 6 percent of its proceeds in grants, which is close enough to 5 to give a pass to the rumormongers on that point. The problem is this is not the whole story. The Clinton Foundation (which despite its name is not really a foundation at all, but a 501c3 charity) is not in business to give grants to other organizations. It’s in business to perform charitable services directly, which it does quite efficiently — earning the highest ratings from charity watchdogs year after year. The 6 percent for grants is in addition to this. And all of the Clintons volunteer their time to the organization without receiving a cent.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying that “everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Or words to that effect. Buckminster Fuller went even further, suggesting that overspecialization leads to extinction. He apparently was not referring to ordinary specialization; as Dr. Campbell emphasizes in Whole, specialization in its proper place is vital; we need heart surgeons and dermatologists just as surely as we need general practitioners. The problem occurs when specialization is not put in proper perspective. It may not always be true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s certainly true that the whole is greater than any one part.

It’s hyperbolic to declare the imminent collapse of civilization — a warming that’s been issued for millennia — but civilization does take occasional backward steps. And nations do indeed collapse. It’s hard not to imagine that such an eventuality is quite possible when vital parts of the social construct are being removed or ignored.

 

Fake Fake News, Real Fake News and Fake Real News

pizzagate

On a day in December, a would-be hero from North Carolina left his home and drove all the way to New York, where he fearlessly strode into a pizza parlor amid a barrage of pepperoni, pulled a gun and confronted the management. He was there to rescue the children, you see. The children who were being exploited in a sex trafficking ring by Hillary Clinton and her evil accomplices. He knew it was happening because he’d read it on social media. He’d no doubt even read about how the placement of symbols on the pizza joint’s menu was really an elaborate code for pedophilia practices.

The story sounds like it might have been scripted by writers at Saturday Night Live or maybe by the Coen brothers on acid. Yet it nearly led to violence because this fellow believed it totally. And he’s not alone. Millions of people out there buy into fake news stories. Facebook has finally taken measures to reduce the fake news traffic on its highways, but it’s too little too late, for it already hath wrought the election of Donald Trump.

Not surprising, then, that Trump’s cheerleaders, upon hearing complaints about fake news, shifted into gear with their defense of the phenomenon — which included ridiculing the complaints, redefining fake news and denying that it even exists. They’ve brushed it off with the glib comment that “fake news is a fake story”, and have even suggested that even if it exists, it’s harmless because most Americans recognize it when they see it.

Which does not jibe at all with the statistics: about a fifth of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, most think he has raised their taxes, about 40 percent believe in “death panels”, about 25 percent think evolution is a false belief,  about half think Saddam was behind 9-11, and 52 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote.

An ever-dependable, perennially flatulent AM talk show host characterized fake news as “satire and parody that liberals don’t understand”. Which brings up two questions: (1) Is he really so stupid that he can’t distinguish a Saturday Night Live skit from a supposedly serious report about “Pizzagate”? (2) Is he really so stupid as to think it was “liberals” who were taken in by all the phony (and often bizarre) stories about Clinton and Obama?

Like many other right-wing fanatics, he wants you to believe that the real fake news is actually the real real news — you know, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, etc. etc. He even offers some examples of fake news stories:

[Quoting someone else: “You want to hear fake news?  Fake news is every story you read reporting Obama said you keep your doctor if you like your doctor. You get to keep your plan if you like your insurance plan. Your premiums are coming down $2,500 average, every year, under Obamacare.”]  That was fake news, and that’s exactly right.

Yes, you heard that right. Accurately reporting what someone said — at least if that someone happens to be someone you loathe — is what he and his kind consider fake news. Another example he cites of his brand of fake news is the Obama administration saying that a video helped inspire the attack in Benghazi — which in fact is quite true; but since it doesn’t support the right-wing narrative, it must be fake anyway. Got it?

He does the same thing for the “hands up” narrative. It’s fake news, he says, because an investigation later appeared to contradict the witnesses who had said Michael Brown was trying to surrender when he was shot by a cop. (He doesn’t mention that the investigation also found there were strained relations between Ferguson police and the African-American community, the real point of the “hands up” meme.) Even though the media accurately reported what witnesses had said, it was fake news, just because he says so.

Media Matters reports on this habit of turning reality on its head:

Other conservatives are even using fake news to describe reporting from credible news outlets with which they disagree. Fringe right-wing conspiracy site Infowars.com declared that “The mainstream media is the primary source of the most harmful, most inaccurate news ever,” and included outlets such as The New York Times,The Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, and Politico (and Media Matters, for good measure) on their “full list of fake news outlets.” Fox contributor Newt Gingrich lamented the Times’ reporting on the fake news phenomenon, arguing,“The idea of The New York Times being worried about fake news is really weird.The New York Times is fake news.” Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham — a contender for Trump’s press secretary — lashed out at CNN while appearing on Fox News’ Hannity, stating “the folks over at CNN” and “the kind of little games they’re playing are so transparent … they’re the fake news organizations.”

 

These comments exhibit two tactics you will see reactionary propagandists exercising over and over and over again: projecting their own sins onto someone they want to demonize, and redefining terms to suit their purposes. “Fake news”, like any other word or expression, comes to mean whatever they want it to mean.

But despite such attempts by the punditocracy to muddy the waters, the complaint from “liberals” about fake news has never been about bias. Most “liberals” (and even a lot of “conservatives”) realize that news is always biased in some manner and to some degree. Nor is it a matter of accuracy; accuracy is certainly important, but errors invariably creep in from time to time, even in the most conscientious journalism. And fake news quite often is constructed at least partially with actual facts.

We previously mentioned an internet story claiming that President Obama took a separate plane along on his vacation just for his dog. Part of the story was true: the president did take two planes, and the dog flew on a separate plane from the family. But the plane was not deployed just for the dog; it was carrying crucial personnel and the dog just hitched a ride.

Fake news is determined neither by bias nor error; it is determined by a false narrative that serves as the spine to which bias and error  are so often attached, along with real facts. The “War On Christmas” narrative is a good example of fake news because it uses a phony narrative supported both by lies (President Obama, contrary to Fox claims, wished Americans a Merry Christmas on numerous occasions) and facts (some people really do say “happy holidays” instead).

It may not always be easy to classify a story as fake news. Should every false rumor be tossed into that bin? Sometimes false rumors begin with an honest misunderstanding of the facts. One likely specimen is the rumor that only 5 (or 6) percent of the Clinton Foundation’s proceeds actually go to charity. This probably stems from ignorance about what kind of organization the Clinton Foundation actually is. Despite its rather misleading name, it’s not really a foundation at all, but a public charity. That means, among other things, that it performs its own charitable services rather than acting as a conduit for funds (as a foundation would do). And 89 percent of its proceeds go toward that function. Additionally, the organization donates 6 (or 5) percent of its proceeds to other charities. Some people just assume that’s all it does, because that’s what they want to assume. (Incidentally, contrary to additional rumors, the Clintons don’t make a dime from it.)

It may be questionable whether that story should be classified as fake news or merely a false report. In many other cases, however, there is no doubt. These occur when the perpetrator either deliberately creates a false narrative or creates a narrative without due regard to whether it is true or not. This applies to all of the manipulative videos distributed by James O’Keefe. It also applies to a story recently posted at Breitbart about a mob of Muslims attacking a German church.

Breitbart is uquestionably one of the prime purveyors of real fake news.  And its chairman, Steve Bannon, is going to have a special role in Trump’s administration. Which is altogether appropriate, since the election of Trump is the culmination of the work that fake news and distorted news outlets have been doing for some three decades. They have created an alternate universe for their fans. And now the rest of us must live in it as well.