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  1. 1. ‘It’s reductionist’ and other fallacies One of the mostfrequent, andfranklyfrequentlydisappointing,commentaryorevaluation pointsmade by students is a claim that one theory or another, or sometimes it seems every theory, is ‘1) ………..…………’. Occasionallystudentsmake anattempttosubstantiate andexplainthisclaimbutall too oftenseemtofeelthatsimply 2) ……………………thatsomethingis‘reductionist’issufficientto gaincredit. Sadly,thisisinvariablynotthe case. The aimof thisshortarticle istocall the ‘reductionist’commentary point into question as all too often being a fallacy and to offer some alternatives to this. Perhapspart of the problemisthat in some waythe term itself seemstohave a soundof negativityor disapproval,aharshhissingsoundatthe endof the word. In thiscontextitmay be betterfor students to stop perceivingitas somethingthatwouldbe chantedinunison andcelebration ata 3) ……….……….. conventionandinsteadtoview the termin a more positive way, perhapstobe usedin a seminarby a 4) ……………………………. researcher, introducing a new area of research which had identified a specific pattern of cause and effect at the level of neurons in the brain and which had the potential for new treatments. Studentstendtouse the reductionisttermwhentheywanttoexpressanideathatsomethinghasbeen oversimplified, and does not take all the possible interacting factors into account. In this case it may well be betterto argue that somethingis‘5) …………………………..’ rather than ‘reductionist’.The ideaof something being ‘under specified’ then can be elaborated, perhaps identifying what additional and importantfactors seemto have beenomittedfromthe original explanation,althoughevenhere there can be a potential trapforstudents.If youhave beenaskedinaquestiontoidentifyatheorytoexplain particular pattern of behaviour then it wouldbe wise to be wary of criticising the theory to too great an6) ……………………., otherwise adoubt mightemerge astowhetheryouroriginal explanationbasedon the theorywas anappropriate response tothe question. However,the pointremains,generally‘under- specified’ may well be a better and more accurate evaluative point than ‘reductionist’. In relation to the reductionist evaluation,it can correctly be used on some occasions to identifysome negative elements of a theory. Typically the idea here is not just that the explanation only identifies one partof a widersetof processesbut thatwithoutthe7) …………….……. givenbythese widerprocesses the individual explanationitselfhasonlylimitedvalue. So,itisnotjustthatotherfactorshave notbeen takenintoaccount,butthat otherpartsof a chainof processesare notconsidered.A commonexample here relates to the moving parts of a machine, such as a car. It might be reductionist to argue that ultimatelythe frictionbetweenthetyresandthe roadpromptsthe cartomove inaparticulardirection, but clearlyto reallyexplainthe movementof the car a muchfullersetof causal linkagesandprocesses need to be taken into account. More to the point in relation to psychology to understand a process suchas understandingwhatthe individualpatternsof black-and-whiteinthe letters meaninthis article needs a broader understanding of language and for example also the wider 8 …………………..why you mightbe readingthisarticle. Itisfairtosaythatreductionistexplanationsoftenlacka clearexplanation of the 9) ………………….. behind behaviour. However it might be worth students developing a repertoire of comments which aim to surprise the readerandfightthe tide of negative reductionistassertionsbyidentifyingoccasionswhenatheorycan be 10) …………………………commented on as being reductionist. If writing in an exam for example try to wake up your examinerand evenmake them 11) …………………………………………………………………in surprise with a sentence along the lines of ‘this is a reductionist explanation which is good because……….’. Typicallythismightapplyto biological explanations, forbehavioursuchas schizophreniawhere sucha Fallacy: A misconception,mythor justsimplyanerror and mistake !
  2. 2. biologicallyreductionistexplanationassociatedwithanexcessof dopamineinthe subcortex orcentral areasof the brainhashelpedwiththe developmentof antipsychoticdrugs designedtolimitthe amount or 12) …………………………. of dopamine in these areas. One areainwhichthe ‘it’sreductionist’claimseemstobe particularlyinappropriately usedisassociated with13) ………………………………… explanationsforbehaviour.Itdoesseemratherdifficulttoimagine how suchexplanationscanpossiblybereductionist.Theydependoncomplex patternsof behaviourincluding natural and sexual selection across many, many generations, which have been in some way incorporated into our genetic inheritance. Perhaps there might be an element of reductionism if particular genes can be identified as causing particular patterns of behaviour, but research has suggested across virtually the entire range of human behaviours that this is never the case. Instead complex patternsof genes 14) …………………………….with both each other and the environmentinwhich an individual finds themselves and leading in turn to an expression of a behaviour which reflects this interactionof bothevolutionandthe currentenvironment. Here especiallyitmightbe ratherbetterto argue that the explanationisnot somuch reductionistbut15) ………………………….., as mentionedabove. More thanthis,anissue isalso thatthe particularprocessesof naturalandsexualselection,andperhaps evenchance experiences,thatgave risetothisgeneticinheritancecannotbe clearlyunderstoodasthey cannot be directly 16) ………………………... They happened inthe fardistantpast and in relationtosexual selectiontypicallyinthe privacyof couples,publicallyacknowledgedornotasthe case mighthavebeen, 17) …………………………….lives. An alternative suggestion here for students looking to criticise such explanationsistopointoutthattheyare essentially ’18) ……………………….’explanations.Thismeans that the explanation is derived 19) ………………………the event. This inductive approach can be appropriate, but suffers from the risk of being very selective. So for example evolutionary explanations tend to choose patternsof behaviour whichseem‘easy’toexplainonthe basisof previousselectionprocesses, and avoid those which are more challenging. It is by no means certain that the behaviour observed today really was caused by the explanation offered, indeed this view can often also be a fallacy. Post hoc explanationsare alsoheldundersome suspicionin quantitative researchastheycall intoquestion the normal levels of probability used to either support or challenge theory based on our results and raise the riskof atype I error. In simple terms,if Iwere tocarryout20 piecesof researchinthe general area of a topicbut withouta specifichypothesis Imightexpectbythe normal standardsof significance used in psychology the results in one of them by chance alone to have a less than or equal 0.05 probability (20……………….) of occurring by chance. If I simply select this set of results and construct a hypothesis aboutitafterthe event,whichI can thenargue the resultssupport, I’mguiltyof a post hoc analysisasI am selectivelychoosingthe apparentlysignificantresults. (There isa wayto deal withthis knownas a Bonferroni adjustmentbutthisisgettinga little tootechnical at thisstage !). But more the point in relation to evolutionary explanations, as I mentioned above, it is wise to be wary of deeming them reductionist and instead worth exploring the idea of them being either under specified,or post hoc, or perhaps both of these. Evolutionaryexplanations for example are often used as one of the explanationsforsexual selectionandhumanreproductive behaviour.Clearlythere hasbeenevolution involvedinthis!Butthe explanationstypicallyofferedseemtosimplifyandgeneraliseanysuchpatterns of sexual selection and human reproductive behaviour, for example emphasising claimed 21) ……………………………between heterosexual male and female behaviour and avoiding what many might considertobe a keycharacteristicof humanbehaviourwhichisassociatedwith 22) ……………………. and adaptivenesstonewcircumstances. But because the actual evolutionaryprocesseswhichgave rise to thisflexibilityandadaptivenessare rathermore difficulttoidentify andcomplex the ‘underspecified’ and ‘post hoc’ evolutionary explanations tend to under emphasise these and instead choose to focus on more stereotypical patternsof heterosexualmale andfemale behaviour. Itmay alsobe valuable as a commentary in an answer to point out that any that any such evolutionary explanations are also generally ’23) ……………………………..’. This, in simple terms means that they are not really 24) …………………………but are really more a set of beliefs and it is not possible to really find evidence to
  3. 3. challenge the actual evolutionaryprocessesinvolved,aswe cannotgo back in 25) …………………..and see these operating in a controlled way. We might be able to observe behaviour today which is 26) …………………………….with the theories, but this is not the same as being reasonably certain that these behavioursevolvedinthe waystated. It may be that people behave ina way whichis consistentwith the theoriesbecause theyhave 27) ………………………..aboutthe theories,notbecause theyhave evolved to behave in this way. Mind there are some other fallacieshere as well which are oftenexpressedby students. One is that in an era of increasing female independence some of the old patterns of heterosexual sexual selection such as females selecting males on the basis of potential resource provisionare diminishing,withitisoftenarguedfemalesnotneedingmalestoprovide thisservice and being able to survive quite comfortably as single parents and with consequent changes in patternsof sexual and relationship selection. However whilst thiscan clearly be the case to a certain extent and for some individuals,increasing socio economic inequality and demands associated with child-rearing suggest that resources from two parents are increasingly important. In fact, although less commonly advanced as a theory it seems more that male heterosexual selectioncriteria are changing,with it no longer sufficient for a female to provide evidence of potential fertilitybut also to provide evidence of the abilityaswelltooffer28) …………………….provisionforboththerelationshipandthecare of anyfuture offspring. Whichmayof course be partof the reason,overandabove the personal senseof satisfaction at the realisation and development of your own 29) ………………….., why some of you may be reading thisarticle. Whateverthe case, myargumentremainsthat it iswise to be wary of simplydeeming any such explanations to be reductionist ! They are anything but, are actually oftenvery complex but may well be under-specified,post–hocandnotfalsifiable. And,more tothe pointperhaps,theseideasmay alsoget youthe 30) ………………. that you want! Verygoodluckof course withthis,I am sure that you deserve a satisfying grade – especially having worked your way through this. abilities differences intimate resource reductionist after evolutionary learned observed scientific availability extent meaning p ≤ 0.05 stating consistent fall off theirchair neuropsychological positively time context flexibility non-falsifiable posthoc under-specified Dalek interact grade reasons under-specified
  4. 4. One of the mostfrequent,andfranklyfrequentlydisappointing,commentaryorevaluationpointsmade by studentsisaclaimthat one theoryor another,orsometimesitseemseverytheory,is‘reductionist’. Occasionallystudentsmake anattemptto substantiate andexplainthisclaimbutall toooftenseemto feel thatsimplystatingthatsomethingis‘reductionist’issufficienttogaincredit.Sadly,thisisinvariably not the case.The aim of thisshort article isto call the ‘reductionist’commentarypointintoquestionas all too often being a fallacy and to offer some alternatives to this. Perhapspart of the problemisthat in some waythe term itself seemstohave a soundof negativityor disapproval,aharshhissingsoundatthe endof the word. In thiscontextitmay be betterfor students to stop perceiving it as something that would be chanted in unison and celebration at a Dalek conventionandinsteadtoviewthe termin a more positive way, perhapstobe usedin a seminarby a neuropsychological researcher, introducing a new area of research which had identified a specific pattern of cause and effect at the level of neurons in the brain and which had the potential for new treatments. Studentstendtouse the reductionisttermwhentheywanttoexpressanideathatsomethinghasbeen oversimplified, and does not take all the possible interacting factors into account. In this case it may well be better to argue that something is ‘under specified’ rather than ‘reductionist’. The idea of something being ‘under specified’ then can be elaborated, perhaps identifying what additional and importantfactors seemto have beenomittedfromthe original explanation,althoughevenhere there can be a potential trapforstudents.If youhave beenaskedinaquestiontoidentifyatheorytoexplain particularpatternof behaviourthenitwouldbe wise tobe waryof criticisingthe theorytotoogreatan extent, otherwise a doubt might emerge as to whether your original explanationbased on the theory was an appropriate response tothe question. However,the pointremains,generally‘under-specified’ may well be a better and more accurate evaluative point than ‘reductionist’. In relation to the reductionist evaluation,it can correctly be used on some occasions to identifysome negative elements of a theory. Typically the idea here is not just that the explanation only identifies one part of a wider set of processes but that without the context given by these wider processesthe individual explanation itself has only limited value. So, it is not just that other factors have not been takenintoaccount,butthat otherpartsof a chainof processesare notconsidered.A commonexample here relates to the moving parts of a machine, such as a car. It might be reductionist to argue that ultimatelythe frictionbetweenthetyresandthe roadpromptsthe cartomove inaparticulardirection, but clearlytoreallyexplainthe movementof the car a muchfullersetof causal linkagesandprocesses need to be taken into account. More to the point in relation to psychology to understand a process such asunderstandingwhatthe individual patternsof black-and-whiteinthe lettersmeaninthe article needsa broaderunderstandingof language andforexample also the widerreasonswhyyoumightbe reading this article. It is fair to say that reductionist explanationsoften lack a clear explanationof the meaning behind behaviour. However it might be worth students developing a repertoire of comments which aim to surprise the readerandfightthe tide of negative reductionistassertionsbyidentifyingoccasionswhenatheorycan be positively commented on as being reductionist. If writing in an exam for example try to wake up yourexaminerandevenmake themfalloff theirchairinsurprisewithasentence alongthe linesof ‘this is a reductionist explanation which is good because……….’. Typically this might apply to biological explanations, for behaviour such as schizophrenia where such a biologically reductionist explanation associated with an excessof dopamine inthe sub cortex or central areas of the brain has helped with Fallacy: A misconception,mythor justsimplyanerror and mistake !
  5. 5. the development of antipsychotic drugs designed to limit the amount or availabilityof dopamine in these areas. One areainwhichthe ‘it’sreductionist’claimseemstobe particularlyinappropriatelyusedisassociated with evolutionary explanations for behaviour. It does seem rather difficult to imagine how such explanations can possibly be reductionist.They depend on complex patterns of behaviour including natural and sexual selection across many, many generations, which have been in some way incorporated into our genetic inheritance. Perhaps there might be an element of reductionism if particular genes can be identified as causing particular patterns of behaviour, but research has suggested across virtually the entire range of human behaviours that this is never the case. Instead complex patterns of genes interact with both each other and the environment in which an individual finds themselves and leadingin turn to an expression of a behaviour which reflectsthis interactionof bothevolutionandthe currentenvironment. Hereespeciallyitmightbe ratherbettertoargue that the explanation is not so much reductionist but under-specified, as mentioned above. More thanthis,anissue isalsothatthe particularprocessesof naturalandsexualselection,andperhaps evenchance experiences,thatgave risetothisgeneticinheritancecannotbe clearlyunderstoodasthey cannot be directly observed. They happenedin the far distant past and in relation to sexual selection typicallyinthe privacyof couples,publicallyacknowledgedornotasthe case mighthavebeen, intimate lives. An alternative suggestion here for students looking to criticise such explanationsis to point out that they are essentially ‘post hoc’ explanations.This means that the explanation is derived after the event.Thisinductive approachcanbe appropriate,butsuffersfromthe riskof beingveryselective. So for example evolutionary explanations tend to choose patterns of behaviour which seem ‘easy’ to explainonthe basisof previousselectionprocesses,andavoidthose whichare more challenging. It is by no means certain that the behaviour observed today reallywas caused by the explanation offered, indeedthisviewcan oftenalsobe a fallacy.Post hoc explanationsare also heldundersome suspicion inquantitative researchastheycall intoquestionthe normal levelsof probabilityusedtoeithersupport or challenge theorybasedonour resultsand raise the riskof a type I error. In simple terms,if I were to carry out20 piecesof researchinthe generalareaof atopicbutwithoutaspecifichypothesisImight expectbythe normal standardsof significance usedinpsychologythe resultsinone of thembychance alone to have a lessthan or equal 0.05 probability( p ≤ 0.05) of occurring by chance. If I simplyselect thissetof resultsandconstructa hypothesisaboutitafterthe event,whichIcanthenargue the results support,I’m guiltyof a post hoc analysisas I am selectivelychoosingthe apparentlysignificantresults. (There isawaytodeal withthisknownasaBonferroniadjustment butthisisgettingalittletootechnical at thisstage !).But more the point inrelationto evolutionaryexplanations,asI mentionedabove,itis wise tobe waryof deemingthemreductionistandinsteadworthexploringtheideaof thembeingeither underspecified,orposthoc,orperhapsbothof these. Evolutionaryexplanationsforexampleare often used as one of the explanationsfor sexual selectionand human reproductive behaviour. Clearlythere has been evolution involved in this! But the explanations typically offered seem to simplify and generalise any such patterns of sexual selection and human reproductive behaviour, for example emphasisingclaimeddifferencesbetweenheterosexual male andfemale behaviourandavoidingwhat many mightconsiderto be a keycharacteristicof human behaviourwhichisassociatedwithflexibility andadaptivenesstonewcircumstances. Butbecausethe actual evolutionaryprocesseswhichgave rise tothisflexibilityandadaptivenessare rathermoredifficulttoidentifyandcomplex the ‘underspecified’ and ‘post hoc’ evolutionary explanations tend to under emphasise these and instead choose to focus on more stereotypical patternsof heterosexualmale andfemale behaviour. Itmay alsobe valuable as a commentary in an answer to point out that any that any such evolutionary explanations are also generally ‘non-falsifiable’. This,in simple terms means that they are not really scientific but are really more a set of beliefsand it is not possible to really find evidence to challenge the actual evolutionary processesinvolved,aswe cannotgobackintime andseetheseoperatinginacontrolledway. We might be able to observe behaviour today which is consistent with the theories, but this is not the same as
  6. 6. beingreasonablycertainthatthese behavioursevolvedinthe waystated. Itmaybe thatpeoplebehave in a way which is consistent with the theories because they have learned about the theories, not because they have evolved to behave in this way. Mind there are some other fallacies here as well whichare oftenexpressedbystudents. One isthat in an era of increasingfemaleindependence some of the old patterns of heterosexual sexual selectionsuch as females selecting males on the basis of potential resource provision are diminishing, with it is often argued females not needing males to provide thisservice andbeingable tosurvive quite comfortablyassingle parentsandwithconsequent changesinpatternsof sexual andrelationshipselection. Howeverwhilst thiscanclearlybe the case to a certainextentandforsome individuals,increasingsocioeconomicinequalityanddemandsassociated withchild-rearingsuggestthatresourcesfromtwoparentsare increasinglyimportant. Infact,although less commonly advanced as a theory it seems more that male heterosexual selection criteria are changing, with it no longer sufficient for a female to provide evidence of potential fertility but also to provide evidenceof the abilityaswelltoofferresource provision forboththe relationshipandthe care of anyfuture offspring.Whichmayof course be part of the reason,overandabove the personal sense of satisfactionatthe realisationanddevelopmentof yourownabilities,whysomeof youmaybe reading thisarticle. Whateverthe case, myargumentremainsthat it iswise to be wary of simplydeemingany such explanations to be reductionist ! They are anything but, are actually oftenvery complex but may well be under-specified,post–hocandnotfalsifiable. And, more tothe pointperhaps,theseideasmay also get you the grade that you want ! Mark Ingall

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