The butterfly and the elephant

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David Brooks, starting his conversation with Gail Collins on why "Western Men are Doomed" (NYT, 11/19/2009):

China always gets me thinking big. I look at the long history and bright future of that civilization-state and suddenly you’ve got to chase me down with a butterfly net to impose the grip of reality on my grandiose and free-floating ideas.

Wielding a butterfly net would be a welcome change, in my opinion — I feel more like the guy with a shovel assigned to follow behind a circus elephant.  Luckily the elephant is putting out pretty much the same old stuff, which makes the clean-up easier.

David Brooks:

Asians place emphasis on context while Westerners place more emphasis on individuals. This seems like a gross generalization but it is robustly supported by hundreds and hundreds of studies. Richard Nisbett’s book, “The Geography of Thought” summarizes some of the evidence.

If you show Americans a fish tank, they’ll talk about the biggest fish in the tank. If you show Asians a tank they will make, on average, 60 percent more references to the context and the features of the scene. Western parents tend to emphasize nouns and categories when teaching their kids, Korean parents tend to emphasize verbs and relationships. If you show Americans a picture of a chicken, a cow and grass, they will lump the chicken and the cow, because they are both animals. Asians are more likely to lump the cow and the grass because cows eat grass. They have a relationship.

The mode of thought more common in Asia is better suited to the complex networks that make up the modern world. The contextual, associational style is simply more valid. The linear style we’ve inherited from the Greeks is less adaptive toward the modern age. I think the West may be doomed.

Me with a shovel: "David Brooks, Social Psychologist" (8/13/2008); "One question, two answers, three interpretations" (8/14/2008); "How to turn Americans into Asians (or vice versa)" (8/15/2008). See also James Fallows, "David Brooks from Chengdu: my lord" (8/12/2008) and "More on Chengdu and collectivism" (8/13/2008).

David Brooks:

I haven’t even mentioned gender differences yet. I think the same things I’ve said about Asians can be said about women as compared to men.

[M]y understanding is that the cognitive processing of male and female brains is mostly the same except for in one area: social cognition. Women, on average, pick up more social signals.

Me with a shovel:  "David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist" (8/12/2006); "David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist" (9/17/2006).  For some discussion about sex differences in perception of "social signals", see e.g. the discussion here of Erin McClure, "A Meta-Analytic Review of Sex Differences in Facial Expression Processing and Their Development in Infants, Children, and Adolescents", Psychological Bulletin 126:424-53, 2000; and the discussion here of Jennifer Connellan et al., "Sex Differences in Human Neonatal Social Perception", Infant Behavior & Development, 23:113-18, 2000.

As James Fallows wrote:

In my twilight years, I am not looking to pick a fight with anyone, and explicitly am not looking to do so with the amiable David Brooks. But I didn't like the argument or craftsmanship of this column, and I do hope he recognizes the danger of applying this kind of theorizing to big, important parts of the world.


  1. Sili said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    Our crack team of hidden CCTV operators caught this gut-wrenching footage of the last moments of poor professor of linguistics Mark Liberman's attempt at engaging blithering pundit David Brooks.

  2. Joe Linker said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    Thanks for the Brooks biblio. "…robustly supported…." When did the use of robust take on such robust ubiquity?

  3. jguenter said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    Yeah, well, in Cherokee, the same word means both "butterfly" and "elephant", so they would see the two tasks as the same, or something.

  4. SueSimp said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    I think the same things I’ve said about Asians can be said about women as compared to men.

    Wow. So… Asians:Westerners::Women:Men? The feminization of Asian men is a sorry but sadly common old racial trope. Bringing out the stereotype of Asian males being feminine doesn't suddenly become okay just because it's used to show how Western men, who are just too gosh darned logical, unsentimental, and manly for their own good, are doomed.

    Gail Collins does do a wonderful job of pointing out how silly Brooks' essentialism is, though.

  5. Codexicon said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    As a "Western Man," I must say that even if we are doomed on account of our cognitive inadequacies (robustly demonstrated through our linguistic associations), it's still quite nice to be "Western" and "Male" in the early part of the 21st Century. We have central heating and rarely die of preventable water-borne diseases. Which is nice.

  6. The other Mark P said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

    The mode of thought more common in Asia is better suited to the complex networks that make up the modern world.

    I presume when he says "Asia" he means the likes of China, Singapore and South Korea.

    Not, say, Laos, Bangladesh and Nepal. None of which are in much danger of looking like a new paradigm for social organisation any time soon.

    Perhaps we should give Brooks a year's paid study in Myanmar followed by another in North Korea, so he report back how much better they are.

  7. Uln said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 12:38 am

    When I read the article I couldn't help thinking this Gail Collins was a Language Log reader and she was taking the piss, right from the first question. I mean, she is a bit, no?

    "David, I still remember when Japan was going to eat our lunch with their natural inclination toward teamwork. I’m issuing an early protest because when it comes to anything having to do with the brain, you are so far ahead of me that when you’re done I know I won’t have a good rejoinder."

  8. Jan Karel Schreuder said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 3:19 am

    Again I want to express my deepest gratitude for Mark's unflagging devotion to cleaning up after Brooks. Maybe I will buy him a new shovel for Christmas. The old one must be worn out.

  9. J. Goard said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 3:36 am

    And to think, less than a week ago I was complaining about a Korean-style exam, naively unaware that memorizing stuff verbatim and speed-writing answers was actually all about those contextual associative networks that make up the modern world. Now I know.

    And knowing is half the battle.

  10. mollymooly said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    Presumably the butterfly net is in case he runs into Zhuangzi .

  11. Roger Lustig said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    @Mollymooly: I think the butterfly net is to be deployed in Tienanmen Square so as to avoid unnecessary hurricanes in the North Atlantic or something.

  12. arc said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    just had a bit of a gander at the earlier post you've linked to on sex differences. Cheers for that.

    I'm thinking someone needs to do some empirical research on the misinterpretation of empirical research. Hopefully such results would be similarly exaggerated: "Don't believe what you read: New study shows that 9/10 reporters don't understand statistics".

    (In all seriousness, I would be very interested to see this done, especially to see how far people are inclined to read empirical results as confirming their prejudices about, say, sex (like the prejudice that there are deep, thoroughgoing differences in psychology between the sexes, no matter what those happen to be). It would be interesting to compare people's interpretations with their interpretation of essentially the same data, except about something they don't care about, like rotifers or something)

  13. Aviatrix said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    I remember when Japan was going to lose because they could "copy but not innovate." Some people make money out of writing books of generalizations that can be called business theories, and every once in a while the blind squirrel finds a nut. But I don't think there's one under this tree.

  14. Roger Lustig said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    @Aviatrix: I remember that that particular rap used to get pinned on Jews! Someone ought to give DB a copy of Otto Weininger's _Geschlecht und Charakter_, one of the worst books ever written. The author divides everything into masculine and feminine, and puts Jews on the feminine side.

    So now "Asians" are being essentialized in this way, with as many dichotomies as DB can muster. (And yes, Weininger was Jewish.)

  15. Daniel Lutz said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    "I remember that that particular rap used to get pinned on Jews! Someone ought to give DB a copy of Otto Weininger's _Geschlecht und Charakter_, one of the worst books ever written. The author divides everything into masculine and feminine, and puts Jews on the feminine side."

    It truly is one of the worst books ever written.

  16. Kenny Easwaran said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    arc – you might look for past Language Log mentions of some work of Deena Skolnick Weisberg, who does some experiments showing that random brain scans thrown into a psychological explanation make people believe the explanation more, or something similar.

  17. David Brooks: Worse than Pat Robertson? | Savage Minds said,

    January 15, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    […] been making similar arguments about Asians for a long time. There is a good debunking of these by Language Log. That link will take you to a page full of earlier Language Log posts trashing Brooks' often […]

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