Great anti-pop-science article of the moment — Mark Liberman does a take-down of David Brooks’ apparently careless column on cultural psych experiments that purport to show that East Asians are collectivist while Westerns are individualist.
Question to Language Log: Is it correct that if you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing, while if you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim?
Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all, it wasn’t a representative sample of Americans, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at the University of Michigan; and second, it wasn’t Chinese, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at Kyoto University in Japan; and third, it wasn’t a fish tank, it was 10 20-second animated vignettes of underwater scenes; and fourth, the Americans didn’t mention the “focal fish” more often than the Japanese, they mentioned them less often.
In fairness, I have sympathy for Brooks’ style of presenting interesting results in a provocative way. In a short opinion piece you have to aggressively summarize. But I also like science that’s not totally intellectually irresponsible. Not yet sure where this work stands…