Consummate dilettantism!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Chinese Science

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment:
But what of the world of the sciences? The answer is maddeningly incomprehensible to a Westerner. It is as if the Chinese periodically dipped into the world of science and effortlessly pulled out a few gems, then ignored them. Some of these Chinese discoveries have become the stuff of conventional wisdom -- gunpowder and paper being the most famous. But the recountings by Westerners give these discoveries the flavor of accidents, as if the Chinese stumbled onto something and then didn't know what to do with it.

Unsystematic the discoveries may have been, but there was nothing accidental about them. Rather, they represent sheer cognitive ingenuity of a remarkable order. When next you read the cliché that East Asians are intelligent but lack creative flair, consider, for example, Chinese mathematics. China had no Euclid, no body of mathematical logic that started from first premises. Nonetheless, by the middle of the 3rd century the Chinese already knew the value of π to five decimal places; by the end of the 5th century, they knew it lay between 3.1415926 and 3.1415927 (the best the West had done was four decimal places). By the middle of the 7th century, Chinese mathematicians had methods for dealing with indeterminate equations, arithmetical and geometric progressions, and the computation of otherwise immeasurable distance through a form of trigonometry. Chinese mathematicians of the Song Dynasty knew how to extract fourth roots, deal with equations containing powers up to the tenth, and had anticipated a method for obtaining approximate solutions to numerical equations that would not be developed in the West until 1819. None of these accomplishments was produced from a theoretical system, but through the creativity of individual scholars.

By the time of the Song, Chinese astronomy could call on a thousand years of observations of sunspots. The armillary had been fully developed for 900 years in China, as had planetaria. Centuries before the Song, the Chinese had identified the precession of the equinox and knew that the year is not exactly 365.25 days. During the Song itself, Chinese astronomers correctly demonstrated the causes of solar and lunar eclipses. But again there was no theory, no Ptolemaic characterization of the universe. The Chinese simply discovered certain things. Shen Gua, writing in 1086, outlined the principles of erosion, uplift, and sedimentation that are the foundation of earth science, principles that would not be developed in the West for centuries, but his book, Dream Pool Essays, sits alone, an anomaly.

Chinese medicine, unlike Chinese science, was backed by abundant theory, but that theory is so alien to the Western understanding of physiology and pharmacology that Western scientists even today are only beginning to understand the degree to which Chinese medicine is coordinate with modern science. It worked, however, for a wide range of ailments. If you were going to be ill in the 12th century and were given a choice of living in Europe or China, there is no question about the right decision. Western medicine in the 12th century had forgotten most of what had been known by the Greeks and Romans. Chinese physicians of the 12th century could alleviate pain more effectively than Westerners had ever been able to do -- acupuncture is a Chinese medical technique that Western physicians have learned to take seriously -- and could treat their patients effectively for a wide variety of serious diseases.
It is curious indeed how even today the Chinese (and East Asians more generally) are so successful at copying Western technologies and sciences (perhaps more than Westerners themselves) but not at, in the words of LSE professor Satoshi Kanazawa, making "original contributions to basic science". From "No, It Ain’t Gonna Be Like That":
[Asians] certainly cannot think outside the box. Miller is correct to point out that East Asians have slightly higher mean IQs than Europeans (Lynn and Vanhanen, 2002). However, East Asians have not been able to make creative use of their intelligence. While they are very good at absorbing existing knowledge via rote memory (hence their high standardized test scores in math and science) or adapt or modify existing technology (hence their engineering achievements), they have not been able to make original contributions to basic science.
On the other hand, according to Geoffrey Miller, Asians are just as creative as Americans and Europeans:
Nobel prizes aside, is it really true that there is an Asian ‘creativity problem’? Charles Murray (2003) did a massive cross-cultural review of human creative accomplishments. He found high agreement among historians that there were at least the following numbers of truly significant figures in each domain of Asian creativity: Chinese art (N=111), Japanese art (N=81), Chinese literature (N=83), Indian literature (N=43), Japanese literature (N=85), Chinese philosophy (N=39), and Indian philosophy (N=45). Although these numbers are smaller than he found for Western art, literature, and philosophy, he admits his figures were biased by easier access to English-language histories and biographies of Western figures.

Murray’s (2003) comparison of creative navigational feats is especially instructive. Italian captain Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World in 1492 with 90 men on 3 ships (the largest about 85 feet long) in a 7-month voyage. Chinese captain Zheng He ‘discovered’ Java, Sumatra, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, and east Africa in 1433-1435 with 27,750 men on 317 ships (the largest about 444 feet long) in a two-year voyage. Ever since Joseph Needham’s pioneering 7-volume work Science and Civilization in China (1954-2004), Western historians are gradually realizing that almost everything Europe did, China did earlier, on a larger scale, with better technology. Throughout the middle ages, many of China’s and India’s innovations trickled down to Europe through the Indian Ocean trade routes and the Silk Road. China’s recent tendencies towards conformism and anti-intellectualism – explicit goals of Mao’s 1968 Cultural Revolution – must not be mistaken for a pervasive national lack of creativity.

Asia’s alleged ‘creativity problem’ can also be assessed from a psychometric perspective. Creativity seems to depend on the cognitive trait of general intelligence (IQ) interacting with the personality trait of ‘openness to experience,’ according to my reading of the creativity literature (e.g. King, Walker, and Broyles, 1996; Simonton, 1999, 2003) and my own research (Haselton and Miller, 2006; Kaufman, Kozbelt, Bromley, and Miller, in press; Shaner, Miller, and Mintz, 2004; Tal, Miller, and Swegel, 2006). This creative interplay between intelligence and openness seems true in both Western populations (Carson, Peterson, and Higgins, 2005; Dollinger, Urban, and James, 2004) and Asian populations (Chan and Chan, 1999; Zhang and Huang, 2001).

So, Asians may have higher intelligence, but do they have lower openness? McCrae (2001) reviewed cross-cultural research on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits, based on a sample of 23,031 people from 26 cultures. Average openness scores were calculated for each culture, controlling for sample age and sex, with the American sample as the reference group with mean 50 and standard deviation 10 (McCrae, 2001, p. 835, Table 3). To make the figures more comparable to IQ scores, I re-normed these figures (right column of Table 1 below) to yield a U.S. openness mean of 100 and SD of 15.
These are interesting arguments, and I'm not especially swayed in either direction. I will say, though, that Miller does not answer Kanazawa's most pressing question:
Japan, for example, has been a major geopolitical and economic power for most of the 20th century (Small and Singer, 1982). Yet it has produced only 12 Nobel laureates, the same number as Austria, which has one-sixteenth of Japan's population.
Japan is an extraordinarily impressive country in many, many ways, but Miller's few paragraphs in response that make an analogy to German science on the cusp of the 20th century get it wrong for a couple of reasons. First, Germany's scientific research achievements, despite U.S. dominance, still handily outstrip Japan's year after year, and per capita, even the United States'. Second, Japan in the 20th century was in a far better (more technologically and scientifically advanced) state than the U.S. in the 19th, and so to suggest that Japan's scientific achievements are as yet forthcoming strains credulity.

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