Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why Asians Are Good At Math And Revolutionaries Are Disgruntled Members of Society

I started two books recently, and I am on the verge of putting each aside. The first, The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett, has as its premise that Westerners and Asians possess such dramatically different conceptions of the world that the very nature of human reason cannot be considered universal. In his thesis, Nisbett argues that the Western sense of individuality and freedom is anathema to the Asian sense of inter-connectivity and community. I liked the title, I thought. It might be interesting.

Having read the first chapter, I'm not really sure what his point is. I guess he's trying to build a scientific explanation for the differences in cultural achievements of Asians and Westerners. In the first chapter he actually asks why Asians are better at math. I'm not kidding. I assume he's going to try to answer that question later in the book. But to me, this is not a very interesting or useful question. Like the other questions he seeks to answer, it is so broad and generalized that it doesn't seem like science.

By the end of the first two chapters, the book has set itself up to be nothing more than a collection of tired, flaccid assertions couched in new terms, with some opinion polls taken of random Westerns and Asians. Boring. In light of a program I just watched on human evolution, that pointed to evidence that every human being outside of Africa descended from a single small tribe, talking about the 'grand differences' between Westerners and Asians seems trite and misguided.

The other book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, arguably has more promise, but again I am hard-pressed to read on. Describing the nature of the titular faithful behind mass movements, it contains catchy sayings like "a man is likely to mind his own business when his own business is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business." A great quote, but it doesn't actually reveal anything new. I am reminded of nothing so much as the tautological musings of the Sphinx.

The stilted writing of the latter book and the reductionist nature of sociology and psychology in both make it unlikely that I will finish either of these books. Generalizing the behavior of millions and even billions of people seems really dumb. It is difficult enough to describe what it is that people do, never mind trying to theorize why they do it! I guess that's why these academic disciplines have always been lost on me. So if you want to know why Asians are good at math, you'll just have to read the book yourself.


ladieslovetk said...

I have a good friend from India. He tells me that in India the measure of intelligence is mathematical ability. Nothing else matters. In recent history many developing countries have focused their educational systems on math and engineering disciplines. Like the Meiji revolutionaries in post-feudal Japan who freaked out when European gunboats appeared off their coastal waters and decided to quit screwing around with swords and take up so-called "Dutch Learning" so they too could have gunboats with which to terrorize their neighbors.

Knight of Nothing said...

Wow, I didn't know that about India, but you make my point exactly! It's not that Western and Asian cultures reason so differently, it is simply that they have different values and different accomplishments. I think that is about as far as one can go without sounding stupid.

For my part, I am not yet past the remarkable similarities that the human animal shares with its brothers and sisters all around the world.