The ideal of the 17th century physicists was to be able to explain all physical reality in terms of the movement of atoms. This idea was extended by people like Descartes who saw the human body itself as nothing but a machine. Chemists tried to study chemical reaction in this light and reduce chemistry to a form of physics, and biologists tried to reduce their science to simply chemical reactions and then finally to the movement of physical particles. The idea of reductionisn is innate to modern science.
— Seyyed Hossain Nasr, Professor and Author
For those who have a self-imposed blackout on television news, Angelina Jolie recently underwent a twin radical mastectomy because she carried a gene that supposedly gave her an 87% chance of contracting breast cancer. As a preventive measure, she decided to have the radical surgery.
Diving deeper into the issue, we discover that the genes in question, BRCA1 and BRCA2, were apparently part of Jolie’s genetic makeup (as well as her mother’s). Jolie’s mother developed breast cancer. But there are literally thousands of slight mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2. Over 1% of the female population has some form of these genes with and without the mutations.
Lo and behold, these mutations actually reduce the chances of contracting breast cancer. Nature is ever the clever tinkerer.
But I am a businessman and write about media and marketing. What the heck does Jolie undergoing a double mastectomy have to do with my métier?
Our Destiny: Sci-Fi or Otherwise
But first, a high level question. Do you believe our genetic makeup is our destiny? Are we close to the science fiction film, Gattaca, where everyone’s DNA was analyzed for worthiness and potentials?
Reduction is not science fiction. In every field of human endeavor — from physics, chemistry, biology and of course online marketing — the drive to reduce qualitative states to quantitative numbers is all the rage. The goal of prediction, of course, is what everyone covets.
So much of the mindset belongs to a Newtonian view of the world. Nassim Taleb, author of Black Swan, says that people view life as a washing machine rather than a cat. This is his colorful metaphor that life is reduced to treating it as if it was a machine instead of a living organism.
Jolie and her doctors have reduced the complexity of nature (genetic makeup) as well as the complexity of environmental factors to arrive at a predictive “score” of 87%. That is a supposed 87% chance of Jolie contracting breast cancer. The complex interplay of thousands of variables and the emergent behavior or qualities attendant seems lost.
Jolie’s decision is a “triumph” of reductionism. It has become heroic! Angelina Jolie and our addiction to celebrity have now rubber stamped a methodology that belongs to a scientific paradigm that is a relic of the past. Quantum Theory, Heisenberg, Godel, Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory give way to the reductionism of Newton and Laplace. We are marching backwards.
As for online marketing, the data crunchers are busy trying to deconstruct the DNA of consumer buying habits. The goal? To predict what someone is going to buy before they buy it. It is the same old, same old…