By Deane Barker

“Reductionism” is the basic idea of “reducing” an argument or problem to a simpler analogy. So, a “reductive argument” would be the reduction of a complex argument down to an easier set of facts.

Sometimes, this is a genuine attempt to make it easier to understand. However, often, this is the same as a “strawman” argument, which is when I purposely and disingenuously simplify someone’s argument into one that’s easier for me to defeat. This was named for the straw dummies swordsmen would practice their fighting skills with – you can always defeat an opponent made of straw.

I found reference to biology and physics in several definitions. For example, from Merriam-Webster:

explanation of complex life-science processes and phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry

I found this is more than one place, so there’s apparently some special usage of the term in life sciences.

Why I Looked It Up

I had heard the term a couple of times recently. The latest was when the characters in Fringe were talking about something. One of them asked a question to Walter Bishop (who is ridiculously intelligent), and he responded:

Well, that’s a little reductive, but otherwise correct.


A few days later, my son used the phrase “reductio ad absurdum” in a political argument. Here’s what Wikipedia says about that:

In logic, reductio ad absurdum (Latin for “reduction to absurdity”), […], is the form of argument that attempts to establish a claim by showing that the opposite scenario would lead to absurdity or contradiction.

I can’t decide if this is related, but figured I should note it.


Added on

In Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, I found this:

Reductionists claim that everything, including our minds, and be “reduced” to its material base.

So, a “reductionist” is someone who simplifies an argument as a philosophy.

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