[Viewpoint] Beware the danger of reductionism

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[Viewpoint] Beware the danger of reductionism

Reductionism is the tendency to attempt to explain complex things by boiling them down to a single theory or cause. Along with determinism, reductionism is a very powerful approach and is one of the two major paradigms in science.

Unlike natural science, it may be unreasonable to explain mundane affairs with just one theory or cause because of the human factor. Nevertheless, theories that explain social or individual behavior with a single cause such as genes, economics, sex, language or technology have become a strong paradigm in social science.

The part of human nature that prefers simple explanations over complicated expositions is the soil for reductionism to take root in our daily lives. Consciously and unconsciously, we tend to think and communicate in the frame of reductionism. Maybe we are all reductionists. Therefore, we should be more cautious of such tendencies and make efforts to think beyond reductionism.

When something goes wrong, we should investigate the causes and correct the error. However, reductionism could mislead us as well, as we prefer to look for one cause, not a combination of different factors, and we seek that cause not from ourselves but from others. The most notable case of reductionism is what’s called “demonization.”

In the United States, both leftist and rightist politicians are caught up in demonization. In the last presidential election, George W. Bush was responsible for everything that went wrong. He was criticized for the fallen status of the United States in the international community and the economic crisis, and the demonization of him greatly contributed to Barack Obama’s election.

In the course of the presidential election campaign and even now, President Obama has also found himself a target of demonization. Voters who are displeased with Obama look at him as a foreigner and a socialist. In short, he is characterized as a “political demon.” The liberal side considers the Tea Party a demon, and the Tea Party demonizes the liberal camp.

The conservatives think that the United States has been a captive of liberal McCarthyism. During the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s, political rivals and anti-government figures were accused of being communists. Today, the liberals are demonizing those with different thoughts about the United States. In both cases, innocent people are hit with false accusations.

Unfortunately, the demonization of American society spreads far beyond domestic issues, and China has become the target of the offensive now. Over $3 billion was spent on campaign advertisements during the midterm election, and 29 candidates criticized their rivals as “pro-Chinese.”

The Republican and Democratic candidates seem to have agreed on “blaming China.”

The reductionist argument to blame everything on the exchange rate was rather noble. Both Republican and Democratic candidates attempted to label the rival as a “traitor.” This misguided reductionism covers up the actual culprits of the economic crisis, such as deindustrialization and lack of competitiveness. The United States is supposed to function as the model of democracy. However, some think a civil war has already started in the United States, as demonization between political factions is spreading quickly.

What about Korea? We, too, have a shameful legacy of playing the reductionist blame game, holding a certain political party, politician or social group wholly accountable. Most recently, a ban on corporal punishment in Seoul schools has become a hot issue. Some teachers argue that their orders now lack authority. The ban may be the most direct and immediate cause, but a more fundamental cause should be found in old, structural problems.

A man in his 60s was arrested on a charge of throwing human feces at the grave of former President Roh Moo-hyun on Sunday, and he too may be a victim of reductionism because he cannot blame Roh for previous failures that all voters, citizens and politicians have to take responsibility for.

To the politicians trying to maintain or take back the helm of the government, reductionism is a sweet temptation. But don’t forget: It is the worst kind of populism. The damage of reductionism will come back like a boomerang, turning those who took advantage of it into victims.

*The writer is an editor of the JoongAng Sunday.


By Kim Whan-yung

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