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What is the Proper Relationship of Holistic and Reductionist Science?

When Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the early sixties it caused a stir in scientific circles for several reasons. Firstly, scientists had become so specialized that they no longer saw themselves as subjects of sociology or history. But more important, an ideology of how scientific knowledge progressed had developed that saw the process as a stable cumulative mountain of stone upon stone. Kuhn effectively demolished that image with his demonstration of a history of successional paradigms, each new one conquering and demolishing, or at least subordinating the previous one.

Consciously or not, scientists follow an overarching theoretical paradigm that is widely accepted in a given historical era, and that determines research design and even what is an acceptable subject of research. As anomalies are discovered that do not fit the reigning paradigm, like grains of sand trickling on a pile, they build tension until an avalanche occurs that enthrones a new theory that better accounts for the data. This dynamic that Kuhn described was hardly new to the Western world; it only confirmed the dialectical process of change in both mental and material worlds, explained by Hegel and Marx, and rooted in the Socratic dialogic tradition of ancient Greece.

The current scientific paradigm, which places the rest of nature at the service of humankind and splinters knowledge into disconnected disciplines, has reigned since the Enlightenment with few challenges from institutions of education and research, despite having contributed greatly to today's global social and environmental crises. In my view, the most likely reason for this long supremacy is its convenience to a social system where a minority class of investors of private capital holds a controlling interest. For this worldview allows the production of economically profitable knowledge without checking how, once the capitalist has absconded with short-term profits, the resulting technologies affect the complex systems they interfere with. Nevertheless, at this point in the battle of worldviews it seems that in the end, either the holists will win, or modern civilization will go down swinging. Mother Nature always bats last.

Assuming the more optimistic scenario for the future, the question becomes: what will be the new organization of science under the hegemony of a holistic paradigm?  Serious holistic thinkers distinguish between reductionism as a failed worldview and reductionist tools of scientific method, for which they see an important role in a more holistic science.

Phil Rice, creator of tools of holistic science delivered in workshops on systems thinking, speaks of macro- and micro- sciences, currently in tension, but eventually becoming integrated so that macroscience sets the agenda and governs the decision making that generates and shapes the research questions for microscience.

For Dick Richardson, scientific methods must be reductionist, but management methods must be holistic. He successfully integrates the two in courses he teaches at the University of Texas.

What Kind of Integration?

Many researchers have attempted multidisciplinary teams. A group that has gained a foothold for sustainable agriculture at the University of Wisconsin calls itself the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. But for Allan Savory, the architect of the Holistic Managementä model for decision-making, the nature of the integration is crucial to success. He says that multidisciplinary teams stuck together as in a collage will flounder because of  "their tendency to favor the perspective of their individual disciplines at the expense of the 'whole', which has qualities not present within the individual or even the combined disciplines." He thinks  "great difficulties lie ahead until a new generation [of research scientists, and citizens as well] can be trained to think holistically for themselves and then weigh and select the expertise that really fits the case." For only when they gain some understanding of the larger wholes that are the context of research applications, does detailed knowledge becomes useful. In fact, "only having first seen the whole could you even ask the right questions about the details."

Savory believes that one of the first steps beyond a reductionist research perspective is to ask whether the context is creating the problem, not the target species:

"Where we create ideal survival conditions for an organism, or where we introduce one without the predators and diseases that restrained it, an invading organism can flourish to problems levels, as rabbits and prickly pears did in Australia, or as syphilis did in Renaissance Europe, and measles and smallpox in North America. It is highly likely that present-day epidemics such as Dutch elm disease or even AIDS exist because an environment exists that supports them. Our task is to find what we have done to produce that environment."

Foot-in-Mouth Science?

Here is an example of lack of attention to context regarding a scourge currently in the news. Savory described two contrasting approaches to foot and mouth disease a number of years ago:

"Veterinarians believe the virus is carried by wildlife, buffalo in particular, and spread to cattle through close contact. To prevent any contact, they fence livestock areas to exclude game, sometimes shoot out the game, and vaccinate the livestock as well. In tackling the problem head-on, today's veterinarians have failed to address the larger questions, the most obvious one being what kind of environment is conducive to the virus?

"In India during the 1930s, British researcher Sir Albert Howard demonstrated repeatedly that cattle running on healthy soils and maintaining a healthy diet could actually rub noses with infected animals and not contract the disease. My own experience backs this up. The outbreaks that occurred in Zimbabwe up until 1964, when I left the Game Department, always showed a far greater correlation with nutritionally stressed livestock, certain soils types, and a deteriorating environment than they ever did with game populations."

There exist therapies for reductionist thinking. Savory created Holistic Management as a tool for developing multidimensional capacity in agricultural research, education, and practice. A common experience of Holistic Management trainers has been that multidimensional thinking, while relatively easily understood at the abstract conceptual level, runs into serious resistance from old habits and unstated assumptions at the level of practice. The distinction of Holistic Management is its capacity to constantly reform piecemeal, specialist ways of thought as practitioners feed management decisions through the model.

-- Karl North