More on the yellow peril

Yan Shen at argues that the major difference between East Asians and Westerners is not overall IQ but math/verbal split.  It’s in quantitive/spatial reasoning, not verbal reasoning, that East Asians excel by a large margin (on average, of course) over whites.  This is the reason China’s academic rise has been both so rapid and so lopsided.

As noted by Australian academic Simon Marginson, “in 2000 China authored just 0.6 percent of chemistry papers ranked in the global top one percent on citation rate in the Web of Science. Only 12 years later, in 2012, China published 16.3% of the leading one percent of papers, half as many as the US- an astonishing rate of improvement. There were similar patterns in engineering, physics and computing- where China publishes more top one percent papers than the US- and mathematics (NSF, 2014.)…

Based on the number of papers in the top 10% of citations, East Asian universities clearly excel at mathematics and computer science and physical sciences and engineering relative to the other three categories. For the time period of 2012-2015 and ranked by total number of top 10% papers based on citation rate, East Asia had 5 of the top 10 universities in physical sciences and engineering and 8 out of the top 10 universities in mathematics and computer science.

By contrast when looking at total top 10% papers in the field of biomedical and health sciences, the highest ranked East Asian university was Shanghai Jiao Tong at 48th.  For life and earth sciences, the highest ranked East Asian university was Zhenjiang at 20th.  And in social sciences and humanities, the top rated East Asian university was National University of Singapore at a fairly low 80th place.

There may well be cultural biases in the impact of humanities papers, but that 8 out of 10 in math is stunning.  Chinese dominance is already here.

Shen predicts that the West will maintain a strong position in life sciences and medicine, which are less quantitative and therefore (I suppose) more verbal.  Interestingly, despite Chinese dominance in computer science, America is still holding its own in computer software.

In fact, as anyone who’s been paying attention has noticed, modern day tech is essentially a California and East Asian affair, with the former focused on software and the latter more so on hardware. American companies dominate in the realm of internet infrastructure and platforms,…

I believe that the various phenomenon described above can all be explained by one common underlying mechanism, namely the math/verbal split. Simply put, if you’re really good at math, you gravitate towards hardware. If your skills are more verbally inclined, you gravitate towards software.

Programming is, indeed, a kind of communication.  Then again, these American software companies are hiring a lot of Asians, so I’m not sure that whites are competitive even there.

There are interesting similarities to sex imbalances in the sciences, also driven by the math/verbal split.  East Asians dominate the closer a field is to engineering.  Women are rarest in fields closest to engineering.  I’ve noted that Chinese physics students have almost no interest in astronomy, and this is the most popular field for female applicants.  In fact, there were several genuinely accomplished female astronomers in the early 20th century, certainly more than in other branches of physics.  (I believe women were also noticeably present in the early days of computer programming too, come to think of it.) As I recall, American life science departments often have majority female students.

I also found this interesting:

reference to physicist Eugene Wigner’s remarks about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, physicist Steven Weinberg wrote about the equally unreasonable ineffectiveness of philosophy in his book Dreams of a Final Theory, suggesting that no physicists he knew of in the post-WW2 era meaningfully benefitted in their work from philosophy in any way.

Physicists before WW2, on the other hand, were often strongly engaged with and guided by philosophical concerns.  Perhaps this change was not a good thing.

One also wonders, if this preference for quantitative reasoning is innate among the Chinese, can we see this in their historical culture?  Is Chinese philosophy unusually mathematical?  It never struck me as especially so.  When I visited an art museum in Taipei years ago, a difference of emphasis did strike me, that while Western artists focused on capturing impressions, Chinese artists focused on cool technical effects.  But I don’t know anything about art, so maybe the coolness of some of the “stunts” the Chinese sculptors pulled off (which is also what was usually emphasized in the written commentary beside each piece) made an undue impression on me.

12 Responses

  1. An oddity: computer science departments at different universities have historically tended towards a mathematical focus and built up conceptual models from the lambda calculus if they began under the wing of the school of mathematics, or towards an engineering focus and built conceptual models from flip-flops and FSMs if they began under the wing of the school of [electrical] engineering. One would expect that, if Asians excel particularly at mathematical thinking, that they would gravitate towards the former and that you would find a ton of them using pure functional languages and doing AI/ML-ish things, but my experience in industry has been the opposite. Doubly so given that the math-heavy functional stuff is pretty strongly ivory-tower, and Asian families tend to be more prestige-focused with Asian students being more apt toward graduate education than White students, ceteris paribus.

  2. That’s interesting about the two entry paths into computer science. I’m actually not surprised that Asians take the more engineering approach. Yan Shen takes mathematics to be the quintessential quantitative/spatial reasoning field, but I think engineering might be closer to filling that role. My impression is that women do better in math than engineering, for instance. Maybe the more verbally-inclined think more algebraically than geometrically. I don’t know what’s up with women and astronomy, not that I mind being more often around women than my condensed matter colleagues.

  3. While I was editing an international medical theory journal from 2003-2010 the proportion of papers from Chinese went from not noticeable to about half the papers and rising.

    In context, this rise coincided with the late expansion (to near totality) of dishonesty/ corruption in biomedical research.

    The rapidity with with Chinese research expanding during the 90s and 2000s was not compatible with Real Science – which has a much slower maximum rate of genuine growth.

    But there was also a rapid expansion in the ‘productivity’ in the UK – driven by national Research measurements linked to funding. I argued that this was accompanied by a measurable loss in quality – in the sense of a collapse of top quality (‘revolutionary) scientific research in the UK.

    My understanding is that a similar – non-scientific – set of incentives was in place in China.

  4. *undue, not undo

  5. thanks

  6. Yan Shen takes mathematics to be the quintessential quantitative/spatial reasoning field, but I think engineering might be closer to filling that role. My impression is that women do better in math than engineering, for instance.

    I’m an engineer. Within engineering, women gravitate toward the less math-intensive subfields. For example, fewer women in electrical engineering compared to mechanical engineering, where the former is more math-intensive, although also less spatial. Within mechanical engineering, fewer women in controls, which tends to be more abstract than most other subfields.

    That said, all else equal, women also gravitate away from ‘spatially’-intensive engineering fields. Within mechanical engineering, you’re more likely to find a woman doing thermal and fluids rather than designing mechanisms and machines that often require a good three-dimensional visual imagination. ‘Hot & wet’ over ‘bells & whistles’.

    Unsurprisingly, they also gravitate toward fields that are more closely related to the life sciences, e.g., biomedical engineering, chemical engineering.

  7. That’s an interesting counterexample. I would have expected more women in the more mathematical, less spatial field.

  8. RE: early women computer programmers, John Derbyshire wrote about his. He said early programming was more like detailed needlepoint which is why women were good at it (I hate programming and am terrible at it so I can’t say if he’s right).

    I work for THE big defense company. The engineers (even the young ones) are mostly (maybe overwhelmingly) white men. It is very common for me to be in a meeting with 1-2 dozen people where all or nearly all are white men.

  9. This is an example of something that will turn out to be entirely a cultural phenomenon.

  10. The real reason that they lag in biomedical papers is because biomedical research requires a large amount of research infrastructure, unlike mathematics. The US has invested billions of dollars in labs and research infrastructure. Public and private funding have for since forever poured into universities and research institutes in the US. The same cannot be said of China

  11. “I don’t know what’s up with women and astronomy, not that I mind being more often around women than my condensed matter colleagues.”

    The cynical part of me says that this is because astrophysical hypotheses are less testable than hypotheses in condensed matter physics, so bullshit and incompetence are more likely to go undetected.

    However, based on the work of the female physicists I know, both astro- and otherwise, I don’t think that even if this is true (and I’m skeptical of that conclusion) it properly explains the phenomenon.

    I suspect, rather, that it has something to do with some differences in the grant-writing process, though I don’t have anything concrete to hand to suggest, except to say that the Chinese budget for astrophysics is vanishingly small, since it’s not a practical field.

  12. The Chinese thought the world was flat and square.

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