Call to reduce role of reductionist strategy in science

April 19, 1996

The thinking behind western science that has made its dramatic successes possible has also led to blind spots and should be replaced by a new global science offering radically different approaches for facing the unknown.

This message came during the Edinburgh International Science Festival from Richard Levins, professor of population sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, winner of the City of Edinburgh Council's 1996 medal for his contribution to science.

He said intellectual barriers to solving health, agricultural and environmental problems stemmed from the reductionist strategy of Euro-North American science, which chose the smallest possible object as the "problem", and then divided this into its smallest parts for analysis.

This approach was historically justified in the struggle for scientific objectivity and could be valuable in research, but as the dominant research strategy it was responsible for the failure of many projects, he said.

All research had to make distinctions and recognise different kinds of processes and causes, but science often stopped there, without putting back together what it had separated. False dichotomies such as heredity versus the environment and thinking versus feeling had wrought havoc with scientific analysis, forcing choice between alternatives that were not mutually exclusive. Economic pressures encouraged the fragmentation, Professor Levins said.

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