Scientific Creativity, East and West

Malcolm at waka waka waka links to (and discusses) a fascinating debate about Scientific Creativity, East and West. Personally, I think there are factors in some East Asian societies that do play negatively on things like creativity, but it’s my limited experience and I don’t think it’s necessarily irremediable. Cutting out a lot of the rote learning that everyone agrees factors too largely in East Asian education systems would go a long way to changing things. When Kanazawa says “Asians can’t think”, he’s really saying something more like, “Asians aren’t really commonly equipped or rewarded by their culture and education system to think in subversive, common-sense-defying, counter-intuitive ways that are not only embraced but even valorized in the West.” But that, I think, is also, to some degree, an exaggeration — a claim about the West which valorizes what we wish we were more like. Westerners are, by and large, dreadfully confromist, even (or maybe especially) in their anti-conformism.

I’d say that to some degree, neither are North Americans, but that the stakes are a little lower for North Americans in some regards–the business of “conformity” is something that anyone who’ve lived in Asia can see has a major impact on all aspects of life here, something Miller seems to be overlooking — but on the other hand, I think Americans can hold their own in terms of anti-intellectualism, too. The difference, I think, is that in my experience, in Korea at least, there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do certain things. People who wear short sleeves after a certain date get funny looks, even if, like this year, it’s hot after that date. People who wear warm clothing past a certain date get funny looks too, even if it’s still cold after that date. This isn’t thinking inside the box as much as being trapped in a box, the box of whatever somehow has become the one true way to do XYZ. And the pressure not to challenge is really higher here. It just is.

As for Kanazawa’s claim that knowing English is crucial, well, yeah, but so is knowing the language of mathematics, and Americans aren’t so hot at that, in numbers that probably rival the numbers of East Asians who can’t speak or write in English.

Finally, I think Miller’s equation of architecture with the future of science is, well… scary. I live basically in Seoul, and this city (and everywhere else I’ve been here) is among the least imaginative and innovative places I’ve been, architecturally speaking. Not that there aren’t neat buildings here and there, but the vast amount of buildings you see here all come from the same basic mold: gigantic apartment blocks that look like blocks; the interiors are much nicer now than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, but the outsides, they look like any other big apartment buildings anywhere in the country. You’d think that there’d be incentive to put up really nice-looking, slightly different buildings, but construction seems to happen by rote, as much as (distorted) history lessons and foreign language acquisition.

What do I think about Asian science? I think that right now, it’s hampered by more practical concerns, such as nationalism, which motivated an attempted cover-up of things like Dr. Hwang’s crimes against knowledge; it’s hampered by gender imbalance, since plenty of very intelligent women (more of whom successfully acquire English than men) are effectively excluded from serious science careers for reasons that are partly social and partly cultural; I think that it’s hampered by an education system that focuses far too much on rote learning and not on conceptual understanding or even just critical faculties–like how to distinguish useful questions and ask them, and discard less useful ones; and yet I think there is no less potential here than elsewhere. There are illustrative examples of how the differences in culture can lead to different insights, like a case I read about a long time ago where the approaches of Japanese and American primatologists–because of the differences in their interests, Japanese looking at primate group-identity and Americans looking at individual identity issues–led to interestingly different, yet related, insights.

But I think one thing Miller’s overlooking in his rebuttal is the cultural difference between America and Asia. When America was pulling ahead in science and technology, it did so in part because of its inventors, its individualism, its encouragement of individual discovery and creation, or so I suspect. There was a lot of drive to do something different and new. Where I live, as I’ve quoted before, many people conflate the meanings of the words for ‘different’ and ‘wrong’. That’s a serious inhibitor that’s blocking the amazing potential here. Another issue is practicality. A student of mine recently wrote an essay about the status of the sciences. Parents, whose role in the professions of their children seems much more pronounced here than in the Western world, tend strongly to encourage their children to study law or medicine, as the renumeration is so much better. The most preferred professions for a husband among women are doctor or laywer, and these individuals get the most play through matchmaking services (which, yes, are somewhat antiquated but remain still reflective of social values).

So I think that, at least in terms of Korea, Kanazawa is possibly more right that Miller, though maybe not exactly for the reasons he gives.

And I’m wondering whether I should resarch this a little more, write it up, and submit as a response to their debate.

(Via Bighominid’s Hairy Chasms)

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