Yellow Peril?

Malcolm Pollack has found a fascinating essay by a weak student in China who went to England and outperformed all the locals.

As bright as he was, he found himself badly outperformed at this new school. When the first year’s final exam came along, he finished second from the bottom. He simply couldn’t keep up with the brilliant students all around him, and so he asked his parents to send him abroad. They did.

The young Mr. Yao ended up in England, where he flourished. There, he scored first nationwide in the high-school math exam, and was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge.

We read:

Three years later, I graduated with first class honors and got a job offer from Goldman’s Fixed Income, Currency and Commodity division, the division founded by my hero Rubin. It seemed like whatever I wished would simply come true. But inside, I feared that one day these glories would pass. After all, not long ago, I was at the bottom of my class in China. And if I could not even catch up with my classmates in a city few people have even heard of, how am I now qualified to go to Cambridge University or Goldman? Have I gotten smarter? Or is it just that British people are stupider than the Chinese?

There are 1.4 billion people in China: almost half again as many as in the United States and Europe combined, with a slightly higher average IQ. Given such a large number of people, and the way distributions at the tails of bell-curves work, it does not take much of an edge in IQ for the number of Chinese at the far-right end of the curve to be far in excess of the numbers in the West.

On the positive side, from the rest of the article, it seems these Chinese geniuses are less susceptible to some of the Western psycho-moralistic gibberish.

I’ve been on the admissions committee of my department’s graduate program for about half a decade.  Each year, we get over a hundred applicants, including many from China:  their transcripts, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and personal essays.  I’ve got a pretty good base of knowledge to compare Western, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern physics students.  Here is my take on the Chinese.

The Chinese are really, frighteningly smart.  You’ll often hear that they’re not really that bright, that they just study to the tests or cheat on them.  I have seen no evidence of this.  It’s true that they have very high test scores, but they also tend to have more impressive prior research experience and evidence of independence as reported by their undergraduate or master’s degree advisors.  The ones who accept our offers do very well.  Always be suspicious when someone says a certain group is excellent or deficient in all and only those qualities that are difficult to measure.  (Compare:  Catholicism before Vatican II was thriving by every objective, measurable criteria, so conciliar apologists insist that the religion was spiritually dead in some invisible way, while today’s heretical, ignorant, Mass-skipping, contracepting post-conciliar Catholics are more authentically close to God in ways that cannot be seen and thus don’t need to be proved.)

The Chinese government is putting a lot of money into research, so combining their material and human resources, it seems inevitable that China will soon dominate many of the sciences.  Many, but not all.  I haven’t yet mentioned the most striking difference between Chinese and other students, which is their field of interest.  Students from all over say similar things about what attracts them to physics–curiosity about the world, enjoying problem-solving, etc, but particular interests vary a lot by region.  Most physicists work in condensed matter physics (hereafter CMP), broadly defined.  By contrast, Western students come in interested in a lot of things, but they disproportionately start out interested in astrophysics or high-energy physics.  It seems excessive even to me, an astrophysicist.  Many of these students will eventually be drawn into CMP, optics, AMO, whatever–a good thing too, since there isn’t room for them all in their original interests.  Indians and Middle Easterners are similar to Westerners in this respect, very often wanting to do cosmology, string theory, gravitational waves, or something like that.  Chinese students almost always stay away from these fields; most are interested in CMP of some sort.  Is it that they’re more practical than everybody else?  Compared to other countries’ students, what they want to do has far more direct applications to technology.  However, I should emphasize that one can do “pure” (i.e. not applied) science in condensed matter as much as in any other branch of physics, and the Chinese usually seem as interested in physics for its own sake as other students.  They’re just interested in different systems.

So, the West may keep leadership in astrophysics and high energy and perhaps nuclear physics and very cold quantum systems even in a China-dominated world, simply because Chinese care less, relatively speaking, about that stuff.  On the other hand, maybe not, because I’ve got some other news:  there are a lot of smart Indians too.  This raises a couple of questions.  First, does it matter if the West loses leadership in most STEM areas?  Second, why do different civilizations have different scientific interests?

Imagine a world in which China has dominated science for a century, and much of our scientific knowledge has been discovered or re-worked by Chinese.  Would our situation be any different than that of the Far East in the 19th century, when they found themselves confronted by an alien civilization whose understanding of the natural world was far superior to theirs?  We know what the “correct” attitude was for them:  Don’t be too proud to learn from us.  Science is the property of no people, and any truth we have discovered is as much theirs as ours.  The Japanese gained incredible technical power from such humility, and now the rest of Asia has followed.  Certainly, if Chinese scientists are someday making the big discoveries, it would be foolish of us not to learn from them.  Our culture may be uncomfortable with this, because our worldview is much more shaped by science (or what we take to be science) than was that of 19th century China, and so we will be ceding control over a core part of our worldview to an alien people.  Still, truth is what really matters; Chinese discoveries are the “Yellow Gift”.  Of course, how Chinese science is incorporated into the West’s world picture will necessarily still be a matter of Western creativity.

It’s more interesting to ask why the West has been so consistently interested in the least useful branches of science.  (To be fair, astronomy was once useful, but the Ptolemaic system is fully adequate for anything the ancients would have wanted to use the stars for.)  One is reminded of Spengler’s claim that each culture has its own science, even its own mathematics.  Certainly, scientific and mathematical discoveries are equally valid for all cultures.  However, a given idea about the natural world might play different roles in different cultures.  Natural philosophy as the 16th and 17th century scientific revolutionaries conceived it only makes sense in a certain metaphysical background.  Westerners inherit the Pythagorean tradition:  phenomena disclose essences, and these core realities are forms, mathematical structures.  Another civilization which regards the phenomenal world as illusory or which takes matter rather than form to be the dynamical hylemorphic component might develop science, but it would play a different role in such a civilization’s worldview, which might lead to different areas of science being considered to hold primary philosophical interest.  Uncovering such effects would require very subtle investigation, so I only raise the possibility.

6 Responses

  1. Our experience is similar. One possible explanation is that, as we once quipped to friends, the Chinese have two gods: money and family. Thus, studying “applied science” on the assumption that this will lead to wealth, status, marriage and family.

    One our Chinese friends, who had just started college in Dongbei, said to us over dinner that “every generation has its duties. My father does his duty as a doctor and Bo does his duty as a teacher and I will do my duty.” For him, doing his duty was, literally, about becoming a rocket scientist (or a weapons engineer or something like that).

    The Chinese doing well in science would not be much of a “psychological” problem for the reasons you suggest. What would be a problem is the power, respect and status that goes with it. China, if successful over the long-term will force the West to give up many of its illusions and delusions.

  2. Hopefully, the Chinese will be too practical to bother conquering us.

  3. A great power competition is already underway. It is still early days, though.

  4. Hopefully, the Chinese will be too practical to bother conquering us.

    Presumably China’ll learn from the practical Americans that hegemony can be achieved without conquering all rivals.

  5. That 1.4 billion population is about to be severely hamstrung by the consequences of the one-child policy. Of course, this considerable burden on the relatively scarcer younger Chinese might lead to more aggressive foreign policy.

  6. Very interesting post.

    I tend to agree about being suspicious when someone says a certain group is excellent or deficient in qualities that are difficult to measure. If you read some of the old early 20th century racialist writers, they can sometimes seem pretty wildly off when it comes to identifying non-measurable characteristics of various races. Today, one occasionally hears that while the Chinese might be smarter, they are less creative and innovative than we. Maybe. But we’ve also been at this science game for a lot longer than they.

    Regarding cheating, I know Steve Sailer and the blogger educationrealist have written about it. The couple personal anecdotes I have from graduate school involving cheating that stand out to me both involved Asians, though not Chinese. One involved a group of Koreans; the other involved an Indian (plagiarism). I’ve asked a Chinese friend of mine (but who was born in the U.S.) about it, and she says she was certainly aware of cheating among Chinese students when she was growing up.

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