Saturday, July 23, 2011

Reductionist critiques of science

In his otherwise fantastic book, The Ominovore's Dilemma  (on J's summer reading list for science), Michael Pollan has this to say about the "scientific" reduction of soil fertility to nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N, P and K):

To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry... When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.
This "reductionist science," Pollan writes, "works by breaking such systems down into their component parts in order to understand how they work and then manipulating them — one variable at a time."

To be fair to Pollan, it's not clear whether he's using "reductionist" as a restrictive or nonrestrictive adjective. Is he talking about reductionist science (chemistry?) as opposed to non-reductionist science (biology?), or is he speaking of science in general, which is generally reductionist?

Whichever it is, Pollan contrasts it with the more mystical, holistic views of English agronomist Sir Albert Howard, who wanted farmers to mimic natural processes and "regard their farms less like machines than living organisms":
He’s telling us we don’t need to understand how humus works or what compost does in order to make good use of it. Our ignorance of the teeming wilderness that is soil (even the act of regarding it as a wilderness) is no impediment to nurturing it. To the contrary, a healthy sense of all we don’t know — even a sense of mystery — keeps us from reaching for oversimplifications and technological silver bullets.
Pollan thus recaps the tired dichotomies our right-brained culture is so fond of: reductionist (bad) vs. holistic (good); mechanistic (bad) vs. naturalistic (good); breaking things down and manipulating them (bad) vs. reveling in mystery (good). But however many more variables it has than N, K, and P, and however elaborately they interconnect, nature is still a machine. True, we don't have to understand how it works to make use of it, but breaking nature down and manipulating its parts systematically (i.e., one variable at a time) can actually make us more appreciative of if its emergent mysteries, and less likely to oversimplify things, as we gain insight into just how intricate and intricately balanced it all is.

Pollan critiques "our fetishism of science as the only credible tool with which to approach nature." Does he honestly think that most Americans view nature in terms of science? That would presume a level of basic scientific understanding that most of us, increasingly, lack. But as a tool for understanding nature, what could be better than science?  Indeed, as Pollan himself grudgingly notes a few pages later, it is scientific inquiry, not mystical thinking, that has ultimately found support for Sir Howard's claims:
As it happens, in the years since Howard wrote, science has provided support for a great many of his unscientific claims: Plants grown in synthetically fertilized soils are less nourishing than ones grown in composted soils; such plants are more vulnerable to diseases and insect pests; polycultures are more productive and less prone to disease than monocultures; and that in fact the health of the soil, plant, animal, human, and even nation are, as Howard claimed, connected along lines we can now begin to draw with empirical confidence.
As it happens. Yes, nature is complicated. So is scientific inquiry--biology and chemistry alike. Let's not oversimplify either.


Anonymous said...

"Science" never reduced soil to P, K, and M. That was the fertilizer companies.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me; make that "N."