Greedy Reductionism in the Social Sciences and Humanities

Robin Hanson writes:

I’m an economic theorist, and the sociology theorists I’ve read just don’t seem very good at thinking about what theory can or should be. If you see a social pattern your first hypothesis to explain it should not be that this is the one and only thing anyone really wants, with all else being practical constraints. Instead you might consider that it is one of many things people fundamentally want, and then try to study the tradeoffs people make to sometimes get more of this thing, and sometimes get more of other things.

I think this is true of a good deal of the social sciences outside of economics, and it’s almost always true of the humanities. Frequently someone in these fields finds something truly interesting – and then immediately they or their followers seek to boil all of human life down to it. Marxism comes to mind as the most glaring example, but I also knew quite a few in grad school who were so addicted to Foucault that they hardly thought along with any other thinkers. And this story is a great parody of the tendency, as found in structural anthropology. Daniel Dennett has dubbed it greedy reductionism:

[B.F.] Skinner proclaimed that one simple iteration of… operant conditioning… could account for all mentality, all learning, not just in pigeons but in human beings. When critics insisted that thinking and learning were much, much more complicated than that, he (and his followers)… wrote off the critics of behaviorism as dualists, mentalists, antiscientific know-nothings. This was a misperception; the critics – at least the best of them – were simply insisting that the mind was composed of a lot more… than Skinner imagined.

Skinner was a greedy reductionist, trying to explain all the design (and design power) in a single stroke. The proper response to him should have been: “Nice try – but it turns out to be much more complicated than you think!” And one should have said it without sarcasm, for Skinner’s was a nice try. It was a great idea, which inspired (or provoked) a half-century of hardheaded experimentation and model-building from which a great deal was learned. (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p 395.)

A better way to think about ideas in the social sciences and humanities is that they are part of a toolkit – an armamentarium, to use a lovely word. We should add tools to our armamentarium with wild abandon, and we should discard them very rarely. The cost of maintaining such tools is very low. The benefits are unknown, but they may be high.

It’s certainly tempting to think of a new discovery – a mental process, a behavior pattern, or a conceptualized social practice – as the only tool you will ever need to understand all of human life. It would be amazing if we had a tool like that. It would be even more amazing if you, personally, had found it. (G.W.F. Hegel, I’m looking at you.) But it’s almost certainly not the case, and the probability that it isn’t the case grows with each new discovery.