Single Number Reductionism


There is a tendency, no doubt modern, for us to take complex topics and reduce them down to single numbers. Nutrition? Calories. Economics? GDP. Cars? Miles per gallon. I'm sure you can think of other examples, but let's dissect these few.


The calorie is not wrong. You can lose/gain weight by reducing/increasing calories alone, but that's an extremely shallow viewpoint in terms of overall nutrition. 2000 calories of ribeye, vegetables, and potatoes is simply not equivalent to 2000 calories of Taco Hell; anyone with a functioning brain instinctively knows this. The first meal described contains quality complete proteins, fats, fiber, and who knows how many phytonutrients and micronutrients, whereas the Taco Hell meal is little more than meat from sick animals, ultra-processed carbohydrates, Monosodium glutamate, and other chemicals to convince the consumer that it is quality food.

But don't worry about it! It's all just calories so they're equal! More seriously though, I can speak from experience that if you are obese, simply reducing calories is probably the worst way to reach a healthy amount of body fat. Eliminating the garbage they tenuously call "food" is the real solution. Fuhgedabout calories, eat like your great-great-great-great-grandpappy did and you'll be alright, or as Joel Salatin once put it, eat nothing that comes from the 20th century onward.


Since most of my readers are probably Luke Smith fans, I doubt I need to illustrate why it's bad to have high GDP. To sum up, GDP is not some goodness that all of us benefit from: it is more of a measure of globalization, taxable currency use, and I would even argue, dependence. To say that this one metric can determine what makes a good economy is supremely absurd; economics has far too many moving parts to be pinned down to a single number.


I love cars. Sports cars, muscle cars, utilitarian old trucks, there is a lot to love about cars; so I find it disgusting to reduce them down to a single freakin' number: Miles per gallon (MPG). This is not to deny the importance of MPG, especially with fuel prices being what they are, but what about the other important qualities about a car? Overall reliability, horsepower, torque, simplicity, repairability, among others.

I've been guilty of this reductionism lately in my search for a good old truck on fueleconomy.gov (a surprisingly useful government website by the way; I am impressed). Since I'm a decent amateur mechanic, it seems silly of me to esteem MPG too highly when repairability is the most important thing to me. For example, I have my eye on a 1985 F150; older vehicles are generally easier to work on and the parts are dirt cheap. While such a vehicle won't get the same MPG as my sedan, the benefits of having a truck, along with the cheap and common replacement parts, should make it a much better vehicle for me.

I didn't even mention the affection we men often have for our vehicles. How many guys do you know who stopped driving their favorite car/truck because gas prices went up? Probably 0. Again, MPG is important, but to judge it as the most important metric of how good a vehicle is is ridiculous.


This may at first seem absurd, but I'll do my best to justify this position. There are two types of age: chronological and biological. Chronological is exactly what it sounds like, how many years you have been alive. Biological age is compared to chronological; for example, perhaps you know a 60+ year old man who still does the same things he did when he was 30. I know a man nearly 90 years old who still cuts down trees and chops wood. These are cases where chronological and biological are out of sync.

On that loss of synchronicity is where trouble begins. If we judge people purely based on their chronological age, we could be in error. In the case of the 80 something year old who chops wood, most of us automatically think anyone 80 and older could drop dead anytime, but this is an unfair assumption: the activity level, which symbolizes the biological age, is likely a more accurate marker for health in old or young age.

So here we are again, reducing everything down to a single number, even ourselves. There are many other criminal reductions like these, income, for example, comes to mind, but I'll leave the rest to your imagination.