Reefs at Risk

Ouida Meier Ouida.Meier at
Fri Jul 10 13:06:00 EDT 1998

I appreciated Clive Wilkinson's post of  6 June and wanted to respond.  He stated, among other things:
<<Neither of the 2 parallel strategies (multiple reductionist, or few holistic reef assessments), are wrong, just different ways to obtain information and understanding.  Reefs at Risk is a holistic approach, which must contain errors, but provides testable predictions.  We should work to improve these, not criticise attempts to provide simpler messages for decision makers and the public, thereby smearing over some of the inherent complexity of coral reefs.>>

My earlier remark about network complexity and rigorous thinking (with regard to the Florida discussion) was not intended to imply that we can't leap unless we know the names of all the streets we are flying over - frequently we don't have that luxury or even the necessary tools to trace all the complexities underlying a "big picture." On the other hand, the holistic leaps we take needn't be fatally flawed because of "mushy thinking", of which holistic approaches are often (and often unfairly) accused.  For example, as Clive Wilkinson points out, one mark of a scientifically useful holistic leap is that it leaves behind testable predictions - potential road maps for how two points are connected. 

His posting stimulated me to take a closer look at the Reefs at Risk report (, and it seems to me that the report is in fact appropriately synthetic without being the product of mushy thinking.  The authors are clear ("Technical Notes") about their data sources, decisions they made to reconcile scales, and criteria used for risk categories for each data set, and they should be congratulated for careful and conscientious completion of a very ambitious task. They also make it clear that their report is a large-scale effort to produce indicators of threats to reefs, not a summary of reef condition. As a first approximation of threats to reefs, and given the kinds of data sets appropriate to the scale they were building up to (e.g., more detailed terrestrial than marine information sometimes available), they've done a superb job, and met their stated goals and claims. 

Given this information, the next step is to test predictions against observations. Areas where actual reef conditions are better than or worse than the predicted threats can be examined closely to find second order factors, or practices that overwhelm the level of threat predicted either positively or negatively. I think perhaps the Florida/Caribbean discussion could be considered in that light, not as an attempt to criticize a well-done and very useful piece of work.

Since the whole idea of reductionism vs. holism was specifically raised, I'd like to offer the following metaphor in the event that it may contribute something to our efforts to understand, appreciate, and make use of work that others do at scales of resolution that may be outside of one's usual "workspace."  The structure of the metaphor implies ways of making room for cooperation, multiple perspectives, and multiple approaches in the work we do - which we need and people seem inclined to continue to develop. [If this is becoming too off-topic for you, please accept my apology and delete now.]

A couple of months ago I came to a realization of one way to resolve apparent dichotomies of reductionism and holism, analysis and synthesis, differentiation and integration. I've begun seeing these as positions along a continuum - points or regions along ongoing cycles of exploration, discovery, analysis, synthesis, and integration.  My best simple picture at the moment is that we acquire knowledge and understanding in our discipline, both as individuals and as a group developing a body of knowledge over time, in repeated cycles.  I made an image about it at the time, posted at:

The metaphor is basically that of a circulatory system, with paths of flow going from a major vessel, splitting up into branches, then into smaller and smaller vessels, making a finely divided capillary bed, then moving by anastamosis into larger and larger vessels again.  The whole thing resembles a directional network with variation in path width, length, and connection. (There are obvious shortcomings in the drawing, e.g. represents only the surface of the structure. Different advantages to "vessel" and "path" language . . . ) 

There are some processes and situations that are embraced usefully by this metaphor. For example, people who think of themselves as reductionists work more to develop the finely divided "capillary" regions of detail, precision, and specificity of process and theory.  People who think of themselves as "holists" may spend more time constructing and connecting broader, more aggregated pathways.  Our discipline (any discipline) as a whole accumulates knowledge over time by incorporating discoveries at all levels of resolution, or at all regions of the cycle, repeatedly.  As a collective, we build the body of knowledge - the directional network of information that is the circulating structure - as we go; we hope and believe by our testing that the paths we discover or lay down are firmly supported by reality. 

 If we are lucky, in our individual careers we knowingly move through complete cycles of analysis and synthesis. We try to avoid "stagnating" - experiencing no flow, and "getting into a rut" -  traveling one narrow pathway over and over again until it becomes unnecessarily entrenched and rigid. (Without habitually recognizing, examining and integrating "new stuff", we lose our joy and openness to new connections in our work.)  Through time some areas of a discipline become highly vascularized with more work and more able work, while other regions experience decreasing flow as interest, funding or relevance wanes.  Sometimes we work to build depth, connection, and precise detail along partially known pathways (reductionism), and sometimes our efforts are focused on syntheses, broad connections, and generalizations (holism), but clearly these efforts don't just coexist, they feed and depend upon each other. 

I wouldn't want to push this metaphor much farther, though there is the heart (driving forces and motivation), and organs (the larger structures we serve -  I'm convinced the world tolerates scientists only because once in a while we are more useful than not). Anyway, for what it's worth . . . .


Dr. Ouida W. Meier
Department of Biology
Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green, KY 42101
ouida.meier at

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