Good points, Jonathan. The difficulty with discussions in this area is that the terms used are often ill-defined and taken to mean different things by the people engaged in the discussions, and the resulting conclusions some people take away from them can be unjustified and at times even destructive when ill-advised attempts are made to apply those conclusions.
Case in point: American Indians. I happen to be one, and like other American Indians who are involved in mathematics and the sciences am deeply concerned about the low participation of American Indians in mathematics-based fields. That is not a matter open to dispute: The numbers show it. The low performance of American Indians as a group on standardized mathematics tests is also not open to dispute: The data is there. I don't happen to have the most recent data at hand, but when I did a study of this for the Mathematical Association of America some years ago, there were some American Indian groups who were performing at percentile levels in the teens on standardized mathematics tests compared to U.S. averages.
What has been openly disputed is the reason for this, and the language used in the dispute is often the same as is used in the blog referenced in the original posting here, with terms such as "culture" appearing for which some people will read "race" although they are two entirely different things, and understanding the difference gets one directly into the long-running controversy about genetics versus environment as influencing factors in academic performance. Jonathan's post certainly gets at some of this. It is also important to recognize that "innate" and "gifted" are equally murky terms unless carefully defined, although they are often used as though it is crystal clear what they mean.
Back in the 1980s there was a controversy, flaring in the pages of the Journal of American Indian Education (JAIE)and elsewhere, about "innate" factors that might be barriers to the full participation of American Indians in mathematics-based fields. The controversy was related to hemispheric dominance theories, although the people engaged in it were often not clear at all about whether they were assuming that the underlying factors came about from environment or genetics. (Other than, for example, the skull measurers; we had a round of them, and they certainly were thinking of genetics.) The upshot, as was pointed out in articles in JAIE in the late 1980s, is that much of the research in this area turned out not to be replicable or was otherwise flawed. However, this did not prevent some folks from counseling American Indians away from mathematics-based fields using the argument that the students were somehow doomed to fail in such fields and would fare much better in other areas.
And therein lies the danger. One cannot ignore solid, replicable scientific evidence if it is there, but one has to be exceptionally careful in this area to define all terms carefully to make sure everyone agrees on what is being talked about, and to interpret the evidence cautiously, or one can easily end up making the kind of headlines James Watson did when he unwisely waded right into these very waters. In his unsuccessful attempt to back out of the mess he created for himself, he did make one statement with which I basically agree: "We as scientists, wherever we wish to place ourselves in this great debate, should take care in claiming what are unarguable truths without the support of evidence." Amen.
Bob Megginson -- Robert E. Megginson Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mathematics Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Graduate Education College of Literature, Science, and the Arts University of Michigan 2216 LSA Building, 500 S. State Street Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1382 734-764-0320, FAX 734-936-2956
"In the eyes of the mountain, all people are equal." -John Denver
-----Original Message----- From: Post-calculus mathematics education [mailto:MATHEDU@JISCMAIL.AC.UK] On Behalf Of Jonathan Groves Sent: Thursday, July 30, 2009 7:12 AM To: MATHEDU@JISCMAIL.AC.UK Subject: Re: Are some cultures more gifted in math than others?
Lauren, this is an interesting question and is worth considering further. First, I am a mathematician, not a scientist and certainly not an expert on genetics. Second, I don't have any reasons to believe that people from one culture are inheritly smarter or more gifted in mathematics (or any other particular subject) than people from other cultures. Third, giftedness can go unnoticed. I would not be the least bit surprised to hear about lots of people gifted in mathematics who don't show it by the way they live and by the careers they have. So I believe that some cultures show more giftedness in mathematics than other cultures but also that the probability of a person being gifted in mathematics is not influenced much, if at all, by the person's culture.
Let's suppose what I said is true (though I can't say for certain if I am correct, and I am willing to admit I am wrong if I really am wrong and the evidence is there). Then what is causing these apparent differences in giftedness of mathematics across different cultures? Different cultures have different attitudes about education, place different levels of priority on education, have different levels of quality in their educational systems, view mathematics differently, and so on. Some cultures as a whole value mathematics very highly, and other cultures do not. America is not exactly very praising of mathematics, especially pure mathematics. Pure mathematics is more respected in Asia than in America. In Asia, you are likely to be admired for having talent in mathematics and embarassed if you don't. In America, the exact opposite often happens: Those talented in mathematics are labeled as uncool, and people take pride in their lack of abilities in mathematics. Many people readily confess that they are bad in mathematics, but they are not as likely to readily confess that they are bad in other subjects. Furthermore, many countries have much better math education for their students than here in America. Math education in America is in miserable shape. Math education in America destroys students' appreciation of mathematics and reduces mathematics to mechanical, boring junk not worth liking and not worth understanding. And schools in America tend not to encourage students to become real thinkers in mathematics but to calculate like computers do. So it is no wonder that mathematical giftedness is more apparent in Asia than in America because of these factors I mentioned (and others I didn't mention). And, in general, these factors I mentioned above should explain why mathematical giftedness is more apparent in some cultures than in others.
I wouldn't be surprised if I would be much better in mathematics today if I had grown up in Asia instead of here in America.