9/7/2014 06:26

WEIRD society

People living in the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies are different from people living in all other societies present and past. In modern scientific parlance, we are WEIRD. As a group, our thinking is both individualistic and highly analytical.

Such thinking (which incidentally may be rooted in the forms of agriculture practiced historically by the WEIRD cultures) gave rise to the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and the American and French Revolutions, and now the information revolution. On balance, WEIRD thinking has provided humanity with many benefits.

In actual reality this individualized and analytical thinking is not without its limitations. Like the communal and analogical ways of thinking it displaced, WEIRD thinking tends to blind us to whole categories of productive ideas. Individualistic and analytic thinking biases us toward isolating one part from another. "Break the problem into parts" is a productive strategy but applying that strategy too strongly discourages seeing relationships among the parts.

Medicine exemplifies this mixed blessing. There is be no doubt that modern, WEIRD medicine has reduced the burden of disease through diagnosis, prevention, pharmacology, and numerous other approaches. Still, when I visited my doctor complaining of knee pain, the doctor kept looking at my knee. I had to tell him, "The problem is not in the knee; it is in the hip."

There are tests used to distinguish people who tend toward analytical thinking from those who prefer holistic thinking. One test item may consist of drawings of a rabbit, a carrot, and a dog. The question is which 2 of the 3 belong together? The WEIRD analytical mind usually groups the animals together in the category of "mammal". The holistic thinker tends to group the rabbit and the carrot together on the basis of functional interaction.

When I saw an illustration of that question in an article about this distinction [Science, 9 May 2014, page 593] I was puzzled how to respond to the the question of which items belong together. Being entirely WEIRD, I immediately excluded the carrot. It is the only vegetable in the proposition, so it is distinct from the rabbit and the dog. But, I said, the dog and rabbit don't belong together. If you put them together, the dog will eat the rabbit.

In my mind, my very analytical and individualistic mind, the problem of WEIRD thinking is not too much analysis but too little. Certainly group the carrot, rabbit, and dog cladistically -- but also analyze the relationships ecologically. Don't walk away from analysis, which has proven so successful. Instead, apply analytical thinking in more ways and then analyze the correlations and differences among those approaches.

This, I think, is the better, more successful way to play the game.