Overzealous reductionism, blind reification: Of hydrogen bond, introversion and Voldemort (Part 2)

Photo credit: Tinou Bao (license)

Note: This is the second part of the series. You can read other parts here:

Part 1 |  Part 2 | Part 3 (end)

Reification is a little bit harder to explain, but I shall try. I think if it this way: reification is the dark side of personification. You know the literary figure of speech personification, where Death stares at you in the face, when time flies, when love dares not speak its name? Here is Will Smith’s new movie that is exactly about personification. You see, words are labels we slap on agreed bunch of meanings.  Note that I say agreed. It may be easy to agree on meanings of certain tangible things: table, glass, pencil; but how about democracy? truth? beauty?

At the boundaries of meanings, it may get fuzzy. If you speak more than one languages, you know this already. Some words just don’t have one-to-one translation. Try translating fika to non-Swedes — you might say coffee and cakes, but if you stop there, the Swedish secret service will swoop in and throw you in correctional facility where you will be given fika every single hour until you get it (note: not from personal experience). Some words are just pregnant with historical, social, cultural contexts that, sure, the core of the bunch of meanings overlap enough to be intelligible, but at the fringes, different people have different ideas, enough to cause misunderstandings at times.

If you think this kind of semantical chaos does not exist in science, think again. IUPAC still updates the definition of hydrogen bond in… 2011. Yup, the definition of hydrogen bond you learned in high school is most likely already outdated. Similarly, the taxonomy of viruses is still actively being updated. Reification is like over-personifying something.  The fuzzy boundaries? Forget about it, I’m going to shove this mess of meanings under the rug and call it something — this kind of feeling. Check out the Wikipedia page, too.

The Wikipedia page mentions Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man, which is an excellent treatise on the concept of intelligence, especially in the context of IQ testing. Gould’s main argument is that IQ testing has reified the construct called intelligence. One chilling consequence of this is sterilisation of those who scored too low in IQ test in the US in 1930s (Gould also wrote a separate essay concerning a famous case of Carrie Buck). This is eugenics and violation of human rights. One doesn’t really need to go so far to see the parallel in Hitler who reified race and deemed certain races not as worthy as another. We can look at this in the lens of overreductionism, too: To reduce a human being into a single number, or a single label, and use this number as basis of what is to be done to her.

Another danger of blind reification is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. My favourite example is introversion/extroversion classification. Me, I always thought myself as an introvert. But, by categorising myself as an introvert, I wonder whether I am actually reinforcing the idea that I am one. Oh, I won’t go to that party, I will stay at home and read my book, because that’s what introverts do; even though there are times I really want to socialise. There were times I actually wondered whether I was a secret extrovert, and nowadays I just eschew it altogether — I think the classification did more harm to my psyche as an adolescent growing up than it did good. Sure, most people would believe they are somewhere in the spectrum, but as I said, our tendency is not towards the messiness that is a spectrum, but a comfortable binary categorisation. This might be a useful categorisation in one context (psychology), but unnecessary compartmentalisation in others. Read New York Times’ satirical take (I hope) on this issue.

[ We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within. ]

— Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man 

PS: Borrow Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man from Stadsbiblioteket. For some reason, it is not at the bookshelf, but in the basement storage, so be sure to ask the librarian to fetch it for you. The Swedish version Den felmätta människan is also available (at the bookshelf), though an older edition. There’s Spanish version, too!

Part 1 |  Part 2 Part 3 (end)

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