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March 16, 2004

Math for the masses?

Norman Levitt destroys Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science-from the Babylonians to the Maya in Skeptic magazine by focusing on the misrepresentations of the history of mathematics, in particular, the shaft given to the classical Greeks and the modern West. Levitt concludes:

...The myth, in a nutshell, says that your genetic ancestors do your thinking for you....

...The true lesson is that your ancestors can't and won't do your thinking for you. You have to do that all by yourself. But you're free-this is a Western innovation too, by the way-to climb the shoulders of whatever giant you choose, regardless of race, color, or national origin.

I have noted on this blog that I believe that the vast majority of the human race is rooted in concerns of religion, race and place, that tradition, custom and the ties that bind of generations past are undeniable parameters that govern human existence. "Everyman" has little interest in the material presented in Skeptic, and the established wisdom of his genetic forebears is enough for the fulfilled life. But...this is a world where there is a place for others, those who break out of ancient bonds, who dwell in a land of axioms, propositions, inference and evidence. These individuals do not cement ties through the cohering glues of blood & faith, but via the common vision of the paramount grandeur & allure of cognition, of the singular beauty of ideas. This new tribe does exist, the elder ones need to acknowledge its legitimacy, and in return, the tribe of the mind needs to realize cold clean reason will never seduce all of mankind.

Godless comments:

This bit from Levitt's review caught my eye:

But to speak of mathematics in Greek antiquity or in early modern Europe without conceding that a kind of collective cultural genius must have been at work is to assert, when you get down to it, that the brightest minds on the Western rim of Eurasia must simply have been individually brighter than their counterparts on its Southern or Eastern rims. This is palpably silly. The internationalization of mathematics over the past century demonstrates just how silly it is.

Did anyone else notice this bit? He limits the area of consideration to Eurasia. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but Levitt does *NOT* say what I thought he would say, i.e., that "it is palpably silly to think any group is smarter than any other group". He relies instead on a claim for which there is substantial empirical evidence - namely, that substantial numbers of East & South Asians have proven themselves to be good at mathematics.[1]

India is the leading place of origin for international students (74,603, up 12%), followed by #2 China (64,757, up 2%), #3 Korea (51,519, up 5%), #4 Japan (45,960, down 2%), #5 Taiwan (28,017, down 3%), #6 Canada (26,513, unchanged), #7 Mexico (12,801, up 2%), #8 Turkey (11,601, down 4%), #9 Indonesia (10,432, down 10%), #10 Thailand (9,982, down 14%), #11 Germany (9,302, down 3%), #12 Brazil (8,388, down 7%), #13 UK (8,326, down 1%), #14 Pakistan (8,123, down 6%), and #15 Hong Kong (8,076, up 4%).

Asian students comprise over half (51%) of all international enrollments, followed by students from Europe (13%), Latin America (12%), Africa (7%), the Middle East (6%), North America and Oceania (5%).

Levitt's wiggle caught my attention, because really this is what the whole piece was about: a question of whether you can debunk multiculturalist idiocy without violating the "Axiom of Equality". That is, it is well nigh impossible to talk about the geographical distribution of mathematics research without talking about intelligence and whether it is unevenly distributed among the earth's geographically/reproductively semi-isolated human populations.

Levitt finessed this issue indeed. Crude racism is wrong, but so is crude "antiracism" (namely the proposition that all human groups are equal in distribution of mathematical ability). Of course there are outliers and exceptions as this is a distributional statement, but that hardly needs to be reiterated...

[1] One can of course argue about what "substantial" is, and this is *not* intended to denigrate people with ancestry outside these areas who are good at mathematics. Nevertheless it will be impossible to put enough qualifiers on this point to satisfy everyone.

Posted by razib at 03:20 AM