Overzealous reductionism, blind reification: Of hydrogen bond, introversion and Voldemort (Part 3)

Photo credit: Snape’s True Love (license)

Note: This is the third and last part of the series. You can read other parts here:

Part 1 |  Part 2 | Part 3 (end)

Another pet peeve of mine is how some people reify the word chemicals (I am a chemist by training, yo). “Oh, if you can’t pronounce the name, it is bad for you” sentiment is so, so ludicrous. First of all, go back to the definition of science (Part 1). Those names are part of a system to understand the world. It is a great irony that the words that are meant to elucidate, become words that obfuscate. I won’t resort to “everything is a chemical” argument, because some will say “Oh but I mean synthetics, things that are not natural”. I usually politely remind those people that Botox is natural and 0.000001 g of it will kill them. Not just for chemicals, but for any other complex things, do not reify them and vilify them straight away, but obtain information from both sides and weigh them out. This is not the job just for the scientist, but the responsible citizen. Other things also commonly reified (with link to recommended reading/podcast): GMO, pesticides, organic, vaccines, ADHD.

cobalt(3+);[(2R,3S,4R,5S)-5-(5,6-dimethylbenzimidazol-1-yl)-4-hydroxy-2-(hydroxymethyl)oxolan-3-yl] [(2R)-1-[3-[(1R,2R,3R,5Z,7S,10Z,12S,13S,15Z,17S,18S,19R)-2,13,18-tris(2-amino-2-oxoethyl)-7,12,17-tris(3-amino-3-oxopropyl)-3,5,8,8,13,15,18,19-octamethyl-2,7,12,17-tetrahydro-1H-corrin-24-id-3-yl]propanoylamino]propan-2-yl] phosphate;cyanide

This scary-looking CHEMICAL? Vitamin B12 (IUPAC name).

Whereas reification of chemicals elevate it to an evil being from the pit of Tartaros, reification of cancer is slightly different, I feel, somehow. On one hand, yes, the reification elevates it into some kind of evil entity, but it also degrades it into a flat, 2-dimensional caricature. For example, this kind of sentiment: “I will cure cancer someday” — it implies lack of understanding of the complexity. Cancer is not a single disease, but a “constellation” thereof.  Just because we have categorised it to fit inside a box, it does not mean we understand it it well. You can find out more about cancer research from my fellow blogger Caitrin.

Ok, you say, but now that I am aware of all this, surely I won’t fall into the traps? Hold your horses. I recommend reading (recipient of 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences) Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow to read more about our cognitive biases. One fascinating take-home message from that book is that being aware of one’s biases does not necessarily eliminate it. We still fall prey to marketing, we still gamble, we still drink 8 glasses of water a day. Especially in the case of reification, words are very powerful things.

To give a bunch of meanings a label is to name them, to bring forth their existence in our collective mind.  This trope occurs more frequently than you probably think. You know how in the movies, when you summon a demon, you have to learn their true name to control them? In German folklore, there’s Rumpelstilskin. In Scandinavian folklore, there’s Näck. You have to call them their true names to defeat them. In the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word,…”. The Jews don’t refer to their God directly by name. Other religions have chantings, mantras, sacred words. I can go on and on about how words have power. By the way, the Japanese call this kotodama.

I can give you a more pop culture reference: you know how in Harry Potter, Voldemort is referred to as He-who-must-not-be-named? People avoid naming him, for fear of invoking his evils. Dumbledore (and in turn his young protégés) refuse the reification of that nebulous evil and always refer to the Dark Lord by his name, Voldemort, to dethrone him from that mythical position, and say that he is just another human (or wizard, actually).

I have read stories where cancer is referred to as ‘the C-word’. In a purely rational world, I of course will say, come on, it is a type of disease, refer to it with its proper name. But humans are irrational. And I don’t say this in a condescending way. Reason is just one facet of us, and there are other facets, so we are necessarily not purely rational.  But unfortunately, it is also true that our cognitive biases are persistent and our subconscious vulnerable.

Also, consider this: How many colours are there in the rainbow? You know this is a trick question. From the physics, you know that rainbow is a refraction phenomenon and therefore the refraction should give continuous spectrum. But it turns out that the language(s) that you speak affect how many discrete bands of colours you see. Colours are sociocultural constructs! Now tell me, if we see the rainbow as discrete bands, in other words, if we reify the colours according to our vocabulary; if reification itself is encoded in our very retina, how do we expect to take it off, as if we wear our biases like clothes?

Lastly, the concept of science itself can be prey to reification. We often hear “I f*ing love science”, “Science to the rescue!” Read the definition of science again. Shout it from the rooftop — science is a system, not a cure-all, be-all supreme giver of Enlightenment. Humans are messy. Science is human endeavour. Ergo, science can be messy, too, though we try not to be. Most of the times.

PS: Borrow Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow from Stadsbiblioteket. På Svenska:  Tänka, snabbt och långsamt

Part 1 |  Part 2 | Part 3 (end)

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