October 26, 2014

One of the things that I had to learn in order to become a certified Doctor of Philosophy in the discipline of epismetology was how to use the word “reductionism” in utterly confounding and totally obscure ways. Like, “Reductionism is a program of research dating back to the 17th century where the goal was to ultimately explain all human behavior in terms of brain processes and physiology, to explain such biological activity in terms of chemical reactions and finally to explain chemistry in terms of physical laws.” E.g. and for example, making everything (including aspects of our own lives that we think of as totally voluntary or a result of “free will”) totally deterministic causal regularities. This is a fair enough characterization of what the word “reductionism” means in some contexts but neither regular reader of the Thornapple blog will be particularly surprised to learn that it really doesn’t have too much to do with what I sat down to write about this morning.

Some academic types and a few ordinary people will say that something is “reductionistic” when key value judgments are either omitted or deliberately obscured. Like when some people in medical science will say that “health” is a purely objective term, as if nature really cared whether an organism was alive or dead, and it was possible to derive an account of “health” without placing a positive value on certain biophysical states we think of as “good functioning” or disvaluing other states we think of as diseased. What this mainly goes to show is that you can expect pretty long sentences whenever some fool steps forward and declares that they will tell you what reductionism is.

But some time ago (or maybe it was just last week) we were blogging about the reductionist turn in nutrition science. In this context, reductionism means the scientific practice of assuming that all questions in nutrition can be answered by research that isolates particular components of food and that uses the methods of statistical correlation to verify causal relationships between the consumption of these components and states of bodily health. Reductionist nutrition scientists might also commit the aforementioned fallacy of presuming that they can define health apart from making some value judgments, but this particular kind of nutritional reductionism doesn’t necessarily imply that. We might derive our accounts of “health” by making some pretty non-controversial value judgments (e.g. it’s better to be alive than dead), and then go forward from there to quantify nutrition by researching how consumption of this nutrient or that one contributes being alive, rather than dead.

Of course, if we are going to use a word like “reductionism” we very likely don’t approve of this practice. I’ve run into more than a couple of scientists who were proud to say that they were being reductionistic in their work, but more often than not, reductionism implies some kind of mistake. In the case of nutrition, the mistake would not be in thinking that certain components—nutrients—can cause good or ill health. I mean the discovery that certain states of disease—rickets and scurvy come to mind—are the result of vitamin deficiencies would pretty much refute that hypothesis. No, it’s the broader claim that everything worth knowing about nutrition can be discovered by research on the presence, absence or appropriate amounts of “nutrients” that Gyorgy Scrinis had in mind when he coined the term “nutritionism.”

It’s not clear that any nutritionists ever endorse a claim quite this broad, so let’s just call that an extreme view that we introduce just to make a point. A more realistic discussion of reductionism in nutritional science might take a step back from the precipice. We could say that reductionism is or at least was evident in the research programs that dominated nutrition for five or six decades. Whatever nutrition scientists might have wanted to say about whether foods in combination or whether the quality of foods played any role in health, the only thing they were really looking at in their research was specific single components. And if Scrinis is right in his history of nutrition science, that might be a fair indictment.

Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University