Understanding the environment: Thinking styles and models
Understanding the environment: Thinking styles and models

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Understanding the environment: Thinking styles and models

Reading 1.2: Analysis and synthesis

There are two key approaches which guide the way we think and understand what surrounds us: analysis and synthesis.

Analysis focuses on the component parts of a situation, at heart the recognition of the differences between things. The process of analysis is the process of taking something apart and recognising the differences between the parts, and determining what the thing's parts are and do. Finally, the parts are reconstituted so as to understand the whole. It is often assumed in this process that the whole will be the same as the sum of its parts. That is, the properties of the whole can be determined by the properties of the parts. Analytical thinking has been immensely useful in resolving a wide range of problems that have clear causes. For example, most of the advances in health have been as a result of identifying simple causes of many diseases: viral and bacterial vectors; nutrient deficiencies; genetic mutations; and so on.

Analytical thinking has gained momentum since the Enlightenment, when there was a shift against mysticism, superstition, tradition, and revelation as the main ways of thinking about the world and what we do in it. The period within which this shift in thinking took place, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, was also called the 'Age of Reason'. This age promoted the use of logic and rationality, with Newtonian physics at the forefront of the revolution. People who favour analytical thinking promote the idea that most things can be 'reduced' to an atomistic interpretation, ultimately implying that the basic common denominator of analysis, physics, will be able to explain how everything and anything works. It is not surprising that it is physicists who coined the term 'Theory of Everything': the quest to find a single model to explain all fundamental interactions of nature.

But a singular emphasis on analytical thinking can also create more problems than it solves. A famous example illustrating the unintended consequences of just focusing on analytical thinking is the story of how pollution from coal burning has been dealt with. In the late nineteenth century, the burning of coal within industrial centres created significant air pollution in the immediate vicinity of the industry. The analytical solution to that problem was to build higher smoke stacks so that the smoke would fly over the populated industrial areas. This is surprising, since a Scottish chemist, Robert Angus Smith, had already identified the link between coal smoke and rain acidification back in 1852. Yet the engineers proposing higher smoke stacks were only concerned with resolving the problems of local smog, which higher smoke stacks duly solved. Soon though, significant areas of forest and water bodies downwind of these industrial areas began dying. Investigating scientists, still focusing on resolving the immediate problem, discovered that the high sulphur concentrations of coal smoke was acidifying rainfall over these downwind regions. The solution to the new problem, acid rain, was to install scrubbers within the smoke stacks which would remove the sulphur particles. Unfortunately, the sulphur particles in the atmosphere also act as water vapour condensers, thus promoting the formation of extensive cloud cover. This cloud cover helps to reflect solar radiation back into space, thus mitigating the effects of climate change. Another solution currently being promoted, yet again based on analytical thinking, is to spike jet fuel with sulphur. Some people are wondering what new problems this will bring.

A great example of an area where analytical thinking fails, is in understanding human emotions. The following quote from Jamshid Gharajedaghi's book (Gharajedaghi, 2006) on systems thinking illustrates the problem beautifully: 'I can love, but none of my parts can love. If you take me apart, the phenomenon of love will be lost.'

Indeed it often seems the case that with too much emphasis on analytical thinking, 'facts' are in, while 'emotions' are out!

Synthesis (holistic thinking), on the other hand, involves building a whole from disparate parts; a whole which at first maybe completely unclear, because sometimes this whole has properties that cannot be explained by looking at the parts. In order to synthesise different things we need to determine what similarities there are in two or more different situations, for example, consider living organisms. How can you distinguish something that is living from something that is inanimate?

There is no single mechanism that determines what is living and what isn't. We cannot explain life by 'pulling it apart' and then reconstituting it. Yet, we seem to be able to readily distinguish living things from non-living things. Synthesis is therefore about understanding ongoing processes that create recognisable patterns of behaviour. If I encounter different situations that produce a common pattern, I can then label this common pattern, and I can use this label again, and again. Coping with or surviving in new situations, situations we have not met before, depends upon our ability to synthesise. We can do this quickly and efficiently if we recognise commonalities with previous situations. This kind of synthesis clearly aids and speeds the learning process, and is a powerful tool in surviving in a changing world.

Many 'wholes' can only be understood by identifying their role or function in a 'larger whole' (the context or environment) that contains them. My labelling an oak tree and a blackbird as 'living' is the realisation that there is a pattern of 'living' behaviour in each of the two different entities, within the 'larger whole' of the ecological system, or ecosystem, within which they are both embedded. Synthesis, therefore, may very well involve identifying the whole that you wish to focus your investigation on, understanding the role or function of this whole within its context/environment ('the larger whole'), and then defining this whole according to the relationship with its context/environment.

The same thing can be looked at through analysis and synthesis. Take for example a lion. Analytical thinking would assume that a lion in the zoo is the same as a lion in the wild because they are exactly the same type of animal. But, holistic thinking reveals that the lion's role as part of savanna ecology is very different from the lion's role as part of a zoo. Studying the lion in its 'larger whole' – i.e. in the zoo – would tell you little about lions in the wild. Analysis tells you lions in the zoo and lions in the wild could be biologically identical, but synthesis would tell you that the animal in the zoo is not the same as the animal in its natural habitat. The two approaches can lead to two different conclusions. For example, as the study of the behaviour of animals has focused more on their actions within their natural habitats, we have been steadily revising upwards our understanding of animal intelligence.


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