# The Naked Scientists Forum

### Author Topic: Math ability and Culture  (Read 2781 times)

#### cheryl j

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##### Math ability and Culture
« on: 06/08/2013 22:18:32 »
I'm not sure where to place this post. It could go under biology (brain stuff) but since most discussions about math appear on the physics forum, I thought I'd post it here.

Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers" is about the intermingling of environmental influences and innate ability in intelligence and success. There is a chapter about why many people of Asian background are good at math.

Basically, he gives to reasons: 1) language differences regarding numbers and 2) a different kind of traditional work ethic related to farming rice.

Regarding language, Gladwell says that human beings store digits in a memory loop that lasts two seconds.We more easily memorize what ever we can say or read within that two second span. The Chinese words for numbers are shorter and simpler and more numbers can be retained in short term memory. Chinese school children learn to count more numbers at an earlier age than children who speak languages with longer, more complex names for numbers. "The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition more easily. Ask an English speaking seven year old to add thirty-seven and and twenty two in her head, and she has to do the math (2 + 7 is 9, and 30 + 20 is 50, which makes 59.) Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two-tens-two, and then the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence - it's five-tens-nine, because that is how their linguistic representation of numbers works.

Okay, that's just addition and school kids. But Gladwell's  theories are based on the concept that small boosts early in life, from either culture or individual circumstance have a huge accumulative effect. (Another chapter discusses how the vast majority of professional hockey players are born in January Feb and March, because Jan 1st is the cut off date in kids' hockey and they were are bigger and better than their teammates, get more ice time, better coaching, and are selected to advance to the next level.)

But getting back to math and #2. Gladwell's "rice paddy' theory is a bit more speculative, in which he compares Asian and Western agriculture and its effect on people's mind set and work ethic. Rice farming, Gladwell says, is hugely labor intensive and quite complex. Fields have to be level to maintain a uniform level of water, seedlings have to be spaced evenly apart, thinned, weeded, and fertilized at the right time. But the up side is, if one works hard and everything is done right, it is almost always successful. The pay off is directly proportional to effort. Growing corn or wheat or vegetables is less labor intensive, relatively speaking, especially with machinery,  - you plow, you seed, you wait and you harvest. But it is much more risky. Not enough rain, too much rain, late frost, infestation by insects means that you can work your ass off for nothing, and working even harder next time still won't guarantee success. Gladwell claims this is one reason why Asian culture or any culture that traditionally sees success as simply a result of effort is particularly suited to mathematics.

Like me, you might be saying, not all Westerners grew up on farm and many Asian engineers never stepped foot on a rice paddy, but Gladwell claims the cultural or family mindset is passed on for generations and provides some interesting documentation of scientific studies to support this in other chapters.
« Last Edit: 10/08/2013 03:07:40 by cheryl j »

#### Soul Surfer

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #1 on: 06/08/2013 23:54:43 »
An interesting idea but that deals only with arithmetic which is not real mathematics.  mathematics proper is very different and is more like a symbolic language in its own right although I have come across similar suggestions of some nations or tribes having linguistic advantages.  In particular it was one particular native north american language whose method of dealing linguistically with relationships in families made the understanding of group theory particularly easy.

#### cheryl j

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #2 on: 07/08/2013 04:27:13 »
I agree. The author's premise, though, was that small advantages early in life (like finding arithmetic simple and enjoyable and receiving positive reinforcement from it) motivate one to pursue a subject at a more advanced level. He claims Asian students move on to algebra and more interesting areas of math much sooner than because of this.

#### yor_on

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #3 on: 07/08/2013 19:30:55 »
I think we're at least geometrically intuitive. When it comes to other fields of mathematic we're going into pure logic, and then it's harder to define. But when you move a arm you better 'counted' on what you do, even if you didn't know you did. As for the rest of it we will always find 'prophets', people that sees connections we don't think of normally, and that make use of them. It's immaterial feelings relating to emotions and dreams to me, then relating that to if you find it easier to use logics. It's insubstantial, and hard to test as there are so many parameters defining anything you do, at any moment, from your inner state at that moment to what parameters exist outside yourself defining it.
==

But I have seen other relating to thought processes differing between Asian Mathematicians and Western, and I have a this funny suspicion that Russian Mathematicians may put weight on slightly different fields of mathematics too. but that is also about what you learn, not only about your language, and also about the philosophy emanating the society one live in. But what really makes me bristle is the idea of 'work ethics'? What the he* is that. You are born here, and you die here. It's all you do. 'Work ethics' is what you need to live in the moment inbetween, and that differs everywhere, with cultures, history etc. It's a non linear life, and history too I suspect :)
« Last Edit: 07/08/2013 19:41:14 by yor_on »

#### cheryl j

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #4 on: 10/08/2013 02:57:39 »
Work ethic probably isn't an ideal term. It implies something moral about the willingness to put time and effort into completing a task. I suppose it has a moral aspect when it comes to completing a task someone is paying you to do, but when you are doing it for yourself, does that really make sense? Diligence or laziness may be more of a calculation one makes - how much time and effort will the task require? What do I think the odds of my success are if I put that time and effort in? 100% 50% 20%? If it takes more time and effort than I predicted, should I keep going, and how long before I give up? Is the outcome even something I value, or would my time be better spent doing something else?

A weird finding the author also noted involved a standardized test in schools called the TIMSS given to elementary and junior high students around the world. In addition to academic questions, there is also a very long, detailed questionnaire with personal questions, like parent's level of education, occupation, number of siblings, extracurricular activities, etc. It is so long and tedious that many students don't bother finishing it.  You can rank countries just by the number of questions completed on the personal questionnaire, and if you compare that to the math rankings (of correctly solved problems), the author says, "They are exactly the same."
« Last Edit: 10/08/2013 03:02:22 by cheryl j »

#### Pmb

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #5 on: 10/08/2013 16:49:57 »
Wow! Cheryl! I knew there was always something that I loved about you! :)

Thanks for this. It gave me an idea. I always had trouble with the multiplication table and that was because, I came to learn, I have memory problems. Your comments above gave me an idea. We can seek out words of short phrases that will help students learn the multiplication table by doing so. Instead of remembering those long phrases we can remeber shorter ones! Awesome!

#### Bill S

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #6 on: 10/08/2013 18:50:58 »
Quote from: Pmb
I always had trouble with the multiplication table

Like most people (I suppose) I learned the tables up to 12x at school, when I had a fairly good memory.  Many years later, I learned the 13x, as an experiment.  Now, at 73, the 2-12x give little trouble, but the 13x needs to be refreshed periodically to be used with any facility.

I guess that says something about the value of early learning.

#### cheryl j

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #7 on: 13/08/2013 04:49:46 »
I'm going to conduct Bill's experiment and see what happens.

It does seem true that you can memorize or learn things better when you are younger. People claim you can learn also learn a foreign language faster and better before puberty because the brain is "primed" to learned language at that time in development.

I once whined to a math teacher that there should be more directions in math books, more discussion. And she said she thought there wasn't because "they want you to learn to think in the language in math."
Another teacher I know said his objective in teaching French was to get kids "to think in French" instead of thinking in English, translating it into French, and then saying it, because it takes too long. I took French in high school and University, but I don't know if I ever reached that point, except maybe when I was finally able to read novels - then I sort of felt like I was "thinking in French", but never when speaking it.

Anyway, the question I wish to ask is: Is learning math possibly like like learning a foreign language and more easily done before puberty? And I would also like to know if physicists and mathematicians can think about math in their heads without translating those symbols into their spoken or written names, and can they think about math without writing it down? As a biologist, I'm just curious how it works in their strange and mysterious minds.
« Last Edit: 13/08/2013 05:02:46 by cheryl j »

#### Pmb

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #8 on: 14/08/2013 02:15:49 »
Quote from: cheryl
I'm going to conduct Bill's experiment and see what happens.
Thanks for creating this thread. It highly motivated me to get off my butt and take advice that I've been putting off for a while, helping children learn math. I want to catch them while they're young and haven't gotten sick of math and hated it yet. So I contacted the School Department and offered to take children who are doing poor in things like arithmetic and math and help them learn math, even more advanced levels of math. I can't thank you enough for starting this thread!

#### alancalverd

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #9 on: 14/08/2013 06:19:12 »
Quote
And I would also like to know if physicists and mathematicians can think about math in their heads without translating those symbols into their spoken or written names, and can they think about math without writing it down? As a biologist, I'm just curious how it works in their strange and mysterious minds.

Introspection is surprisingly difficult at this level, but from the point of view of applied physics and engineering I think the underlying mental process is similar to that of biologists. Some very general concepts like "vertebra" or "momentum" are applicable to analysing or describing many different systems, and knowing how they evolve, behave, or are conserved, allows us to make useful predictions. It just happens that the physical quantities are very easy to manipulate and predict through their mathematical properties because the components (dimensions) are orthogonal and well-behaved, whereas a living biological system involves a whole lot of interdependencies, most of which are not understood or even suspected until they misbehave.

The maths of physics is very simple: adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying, plus a few bits of geometry. Calculus is just  neat way of multiplying and adding (integration) or subtracting and dividing (differentiation) at the same time. The clever bit that requires physical understanding, is analysing the system to determine which properties will be conserved and which will vary under a particular input.

#### Pmb

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #10 on: 14/08/2013 06:36:16 »
Quote from: cheryl
And I would also like to know if physicists and mathematicians can think about math in their heads without translating those symbols into their spoken or written names, and can they think about math without writing it down? As a biologist, I'm just curious how it works in their strange and mysterious minds.
Yes. Sometimes when I'm studying or thinking about something really intensely for a long time I even have dreams about it.

One example was trying to figure out a relationship between the different definitions of tensors. I figured it out in my head, not on paper.

#### evan_au

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #11 on: 14/08/2013 10:58:25 »
Quote
[Do] physicists and mathematicians think about math in their heads without translating those symbols into their spoken or written names, and can they think about math without writing it down?

I often mentally translate mathematical functions into graphs, and manipulate them in my head graphically rather than as words or equations - especially since a lot of the functions I deal with are functions of time, or probability distributions, ie mostly representable in 2 dimensions.

It's pretty easy to add and subtract two functions graphically; multiplication (or modulation) is moderately easy, but I can't recall ever needing to divide two functions (at least ones that went through zero)..

In slightly more complex cases, I can sometimes work out the effects of phase shifts, filters, correlation, Fourier transforms, probability distributions and convolution of probability distributions.

And if it gets too complex to do in my head, or I need numerical precision, I can use a spreadsheet to draw the graphs.

But I guess the reason I can do this is because I worked through the algebra in High School and University, and know roughly what comes out when you manipulate two functions. Having practiced as an electrical engineer, I am familiar with viewing functions on an oscilloscope, and seeing what happens when you manipulate the signal in various ways (at least for functions which I deal with regularly).

One of these days I should buy a symbolic maths package with integrated graphics...

#### Pmb

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #12 on: 14/08/2013 11:50:53 »
Quote from: evan_au
I often mentally translate mathematical functions into graphs, and manipulate them in my head graphically rather than as words or equations - especially since a lot of the functions I deal with are functions of time, or probability distributions, ie mostly representable in 2 dimensions.
Same here. Symmetry also plays a role in helping one think things through.

#### DonQuichotte

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #13 on: 17/08/2013 19:21:53 »
I think we're at least geometrically intuitive. When it comes to other fields of mathematic we're going into pure logic, and then it's harder to define. But when you move a arm you better 'counted' on what you do, even if you didn't know you did. As for the rest of it we will always find 'prophets', people that sees connections we don't think of normally, and that make use of them. It's immaterial feelings relating to emotions and dreams to me, then relating that to if you find it easier to use logics. It's insubstantial, and hard to test as there are so many parameters defining anything you do, at any moment, from your inner state at that moment to what parameters exist outside yourself defining it.
==

But I have seen other relating to thought processes differing between Asian Mathematicians and Western, and I have a this funny suspicion that Russian Mathematicians may put weight on slightly different fields of mathematics too. but that is also about what you learn, not only about your language, and also about the philosophy emanating the society one live in. But what really makes me bristle is the idea of 'work ethics'? What the he* is that. You are born here, and you die here. It's all you do. 'Work ethics' is what you need to live in the moment inbetween, and that differs everywhere, with cultures, history etc. It's a non linear life, and history too I suspect :)

I recall the story of an Indian guy who had almost no proper prior education concerning maths : he figures in the Guiness book of records , if i am not mistaken at least ,he startled and stunned the global math community by being able to come up with some equations, formulas ....relating to high level maths , which took brilliant mathematicians years to figure out .

That story also reminds me of an interesting article  i read in a French scientific magazine (Science & Vie ) , some years ago, which tried to prove the very biological origin of maths ....

That article made its case very well , as i can remember .

Later ...Gotta go ,duty calls .

#### DonQuichotte

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #14 on: 17/08/2013 19:26:58 »
I don't think though that there is any correlation between the ability in maths and culture ....I think that maths is something innate , biological ,the environment or culture just help develop or otherwise ...

#### yor_on

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #15 on: 18/08/2013 18:11:28 »
Yeah 'work ethics' have more negative associations than positive to me. As for what motivates you to study I think will depend on where you are born, the educational system, availability of Internet too. It also depends on your parents education and interests. But it is also so that we all grow up, becoming individuals, finding new interests. That's why education shouldn't be limited to your youth, it need to be freely available through a persons whole life, if society want to utilize their citizens to their 'fulmost' capabilities.

As for what will motivate one (then) I can't say . It's so subjective although we have some crude external common nominators, as money, peer prestige, and all sorts of power over someone else of course. But the best motivators is your mind, and your dreams/ideals naturally.
« Last Edit: 18/08/2013 18:36:42 by yor_on »

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##### Re: Math ability and Culture
« Reply #15 on: 18/08/2013 18:11:28 »

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