Geography of Thought review

A review of Geography of Thought by Richard Nesbitt.

I’ve read about a third of this book carefully now and skimmed through the rest. I had to put it down. It just rubbed me the wrong way. So then I read some reviews online and thankfully found other people who were also a little bit disgusted by it. And I think it boils down to Nesbitt overstating his conclusions.

Nesbitt does a good job of collecting a lot of research findings (I’m reluctant to say evidence) that show Asians perform differently on many cognitive tests compared to Americans and Europeans. However, he then makes huge leaps and jumps to posit that this proves there’s immutable differences between Asians and Americans. I’ll agree that you may find differences in perception and thinking tendencies amongst difference groups of people. However, to keep pinning it back to race or ethnicity is not cool. Nesbitt should also know that you’ll find a lot of differences in language ability amongst Asians and Americans, but this is not because of their race! We grow up in different environments and our brains develop to take advantage of what’s available around us. This is human, not racial. If a baby of chinese parents is born and raised in America, he will speak and sound -get ready for this- American. I’m pretty sure this applies to other cognitive skills too, not just language.

The other thing that got me hating this book is Nesbitt’s writing style. He doesn’t really let the reader do his own thinking. No numbers are presented with any of the research findings. You won’t find a single graph in this book, nevermind p-values and effect size. I could accept this if Nisbett was a journalist, but he’s a professor!

And then there’s Nesbitt’s prejudices. On page 188, he asks, “Why do nonlogical Asians tend to do so much better in math”.. (p188), ). “Nonlogical Asians”? Oh f*ck off Nesbitt. And, “Americans do tend to generate more counterarguments than Chinese do. In effect, Americans may not know their own strength, failing to understand how easy it is for them to attack an argument” (p.183). Really? Americans are so awesome, they don’t even know it. Give me a break man, you’re killing me. The book is full of prejudiced writing like that. Here’s my favorite: page 189, “Asian superiority in math and science is paradoxical, but scarcely contradictory”. He concedes Asians do better in math and science… but wait, it’s not because they are smarter, it’s because they work harder. I wish I was making this up.

Anyways.. onto the end. I give this book a 2/5. Interesting topic. Well researched. But poorly analysed, badly written, and (in my Asian opinion) misguided.


Introduction to Language review

I just finished reading an older edition of  ‘An introduction to Language” by Fromkin, Rodman, Collins, and Blair.

It’s a very easy to read book. The concepts are explained very well with good supporting material and exercises. For a textbook, it does lack a lot of research references. Still, it’s a good introduction to the topic and it should be used, even if only as a supplementary text.

A few things I got from the book…

Language is something very special to humans. Even the worst human communicator can produce language that is more descriptive than the smartest animals (p.20). On face value, this is easy to accept. Animals are believe to communicate only a limited range of things (hunger, danger, happiness, etc.) You might argue that animals have their own complex language which we cannot understand. But our cultural evolution suggests that our language is qualitatively different from any other animal. We can do so much more with our language, like tell stories and jokes. However, the complexity of our language could be related to the complexity of our thoughts. There is no evidence that a dog’s language would not be complicated, if only it could have deeper thoughts.

Language is the only hard thing that is easier to learn when you are 3 than when you are 30. Every other skill or subject (take math, physics, etc.) is easier to learn when you are older, but language seems the opposite. It is easier to learn when you are young. The theory is that there’s a critical age, after which language cannot be ‘acquired’. You can no longer just ‘pick up’ a language automatically. This is intuitive. Kids seems to pick up languages extremely quick while adults take a long time to learn a second language (if ever). There’s some anecdotal evidence about adults acquiring a language, but I think it’s still rare to hear of it. The critical age hypothesis is an interesting one. But I what I am more fascinated about is that language skills goes against other types of skill acquisition. It is like H20, the only element lighter as a solid than as a liquid.

Overall, an excellent introduction. A lot of insights and eye-openers. I think there’s good examples here to get something interested in the field, but also has a lot of substance for this who already study it. 5/5.