About a year ago, Craig Payne from Running Research Junkie leveled a (fair) criticism at my blog in the comment section of another article: that I don’t do “analysis.”
Craig is right: I don’t (and I don’t claim to). Judged as analysis, much of my thought process on this blog is indeed poor. One of the reasons I don’t is because too many people in the run-o-blogosphere already offer excellent analytic thought—of which the highest expression might be Craig’s own blog.
But another reason I don’t offer analysis is because of an emerging field that is very dear to my heart: systems science (and specifically systems thinking).
So what is it that I offer here?
I offer synthesis.
Systems thinking—and other emerging fields that depend on its tenets (such as psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology, or PNIE)—are synthetic sciences. What they do is best is tell a coherent story about a system or supersystem by making sense of all of its features and bugs, strengths and weaknesses, to postulate an argument about its functional purpose: why it does what it does.
Run PNIE through tests that establish whether a particular form of analysis has value, and it will be found wanting.
It joins seemingly unrelated domains—the mind and the immune system, society and hormones—by telling a story about why it makes sense that they interact.
It factors in phenomena that create turbulence in the system (but by themselves have no lasting impact on the system at large) by suggesting how they could conceivably be interconnected through a long line of effects on parts and properties of the system—some, like thoughts, emergent; others, like killer T cells, not.
(I imagine analytic sciences staring with incredulity at PNIE, thinking: “Are you insane?!”)
While a field like PNIE can produce a consistent narrative, what it cannot do is reconcile every specific variable with every other specific variable. Evolution, for example, is imperfect at best. It gerrymanders structures that performed one function at some point into structures meant to perform a different one.
Modern accounts of biology observe this basic evolutionary reality: human physiology, for example, is far from the physical consummation of the divine form, or the expression of cherry-picked mathematical constants (as alleged by the Classical paradigm). The human body is best described as a hodgepodge of systems and parts, twisted and tweaked by evolution to perform a specific function (or series of functions) at the expense of countless others.
We can’t rely on analysis of specific strengths and weaknesses to come to conclusions about what structures do. It just isn’t possible for the (decidedly imperfect) tales told by PNIE, systems thinking, and other synthetic sciences to have fewer imperfections than the gerrymandered biological structures they examine.
What analytic sciences ask for, synthetic sciences simply cannot give. For analysis, the devil is in the details (but so is everything else). For synthesis, while the details must be addressed, imperfections in the story do not always mean that the story is imperfect in and of itself. Instead, as long as the gestalt remains intact (in the face of newly discovered details), imperfections in the story may speak to corresponding imperfections in the structure it describes.
Here’s a great example: tacos. As most of us know, the filling falls out of tacos all the time. Sometimes it falls out the ends. Sometimes the tortilla gets soggy and breaks apart. Even then, the general consensus is that the purpose of a taco is to hold stuff in (despite the fact that it can only do so imperfectly).
The story we tell about the taco—that its functional purpose is to hold stuff in—is imperfect: in just about every instance of eating a taco, stuff falls out of one. (To analysis, this seems paradoxical: these two realities about the taco seem to be contradicting the idea that the taco is meant to hold stuff in.) But synthesis shows us that the reason the story is imperfect is not because the purpose of a taco isn’t to hold something in. It’s imperfect because the taco is only imperfectly capable of performing its functional purpose.
This tells us something very important: just because a structure is meant for a particular function does not mean that it can (or should be able to) produce it perfectly. Trade-offs and inefficiencies do not mean that the structure was meant to produce a different function.
In other words, there are better ways to hold in the filling. For example, we can fold in the edges of a taco, but doing so alters its essential nature: we’ve turned it into a burrito. But it also isn’t the case that the burrito is the better taco, and that as such, taco vendors are just behind the curve. There are (at least) 2 specific advantages to preserving a food’s “taco-ness”:
- Versatility: By tolerating the disadvantage that a taco has a hole at either end, you gain the advantage of being able to stuff it with more veggies and sauce from end to end and still being able to pick it up without getting dirty. (Try re-folding a burrito that is already filled to capacity.)
- Modularity: By putting up with the fact that your basic taco shop will give you nothing but meat on a tortilla, you are able to go to the veggie and salsa bar and build it however you like. Depending on how good you are harnessing the (imperfect) modularity of the taco, you’re also able to (imperfectly) swap out any ingredients you may not like.
Similarly, the fact that an imperfect structure produces any given function with some degree of difficulty does not entail that the structure is not meant to produce some particular function in some particular way: A taco isn’t completely versatile, excellently modular, or perfect at holding stuff in.
Furthermore, the advantages that the taco holds over the burrito—versatility and modularity—were bought at a steep price: it’s ability to effectively contain cheap meats and vegetables pales in comparison to that of a burrito. But all those disadvantages and compromises don’t mean that those aren’t intended features of the taco, or that there aren’t gastronomical situations to which the taco is better suited than the burrito.
For the taco (like for the human body), convenience and function—instead of the pursuit of efficiency in a few arbitrary parameters—drive evolution. As Noam Chomsky said about human communication, “languages do best what people do most.”
(What they don’t do is what’s most efficient.)
In order to explain the cobbled-together, evolutionary Frankenstein monster that is the human body, we need to rely on a mode of thought that is not allergic to paradox—and attempts to reconcile it instead of simply describing it. (While plenty of paradoxes have been reconciled successfully within analytic sciences, doing so has always been the result of synthetic thinking.)
We need to become storytellers of physiology and bards of biomechanics. To describe what human bodies have been observed to do is as dour as it is noble. To spin a story of what this depressingly imperfect, infinitely complex machine is attempting to do—in all its flawed glory—is the endeavor I want to be a part of.
A much-needed disclaimer: I recognize that Craig does not need (and probably doesn’t want) my opinion that his blog is the “highest expression of analysis.”
A second, much-needed disclaimer: I embark on this post sequence only because (1) I deeply care for these themes, (2) I believe that there exists a functional, coherent story to be told about running, (3) that’s what synthetic thought is built for, and therefore (4) it is my opinion that analysis par excellence is simply is not enough in our collective attempt to give a complete, functional account of the running human body.
The fact that most of what I do here is synthesis (and not analysis) is an issue aside from whether my attempts at synthesizing information—or anyone else’s—make any sort of sense. (But that’s a different issue.) But if, having read this post, you still tell me you believe that synthetic thought (or science) should play no part in explaining the human body’s function, I bid you a good day.