Thursday, August 25, 2005

Poorly Analyzed Experimental Findings

So, Scientific American just published a review of an article in Science. Basically, they had Chinese students and American students look at pictures and used a tracking device to see where they looked. It turned out that the Americans looked at some focal point for a longer time compared to the Chinese students who looked at more of the whole picture. So that's OK. Simple experimental result. The next step, however, is the explanation of why, and that's where things get really fishy. Basically, they say that Chinese people all think societally, while Americans are rugged individualists. I won't go into that gigantic stereotype repeated so often. Here is the kicker sentence:



"There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that whereas North Americans tend to be more analytic when evaluating a scenario, fixating on the focal object, East Asians are generally more holistic, giving more consideration to the context."



That might seem OK, but it definitely puts a value judgement on the results. Americans who look at one thing are analytical. They are the ones who are making the important distinctions, seeing what is significant. You might say this is just what analysis is - breaking things up - but analysis is almost always a good thing in our culture. No one ever uses analysis to mean something bad. You have to stick "over-" on there to get "overanalysis" to mean something bad. Meanwhile, the Chinese are supposed to be "holistic" which is strongly associated with mysticism and irrationality in our culture. OK, this might be a bit of overanalysis, so to make the point, let's give a different explanation that seems equally valid from the data:

"There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that whereas North Americans tend to ignore most of the information presented to them in a senario, fixating on the focal object almost to the exclusion of the object's environment, East Asians are generally more observant, giving more consideration to the complete picture."

They might then go on to say how supposed rugged individualism blinds us to the very facts in front of our eyes, while East Asians can still see clearly.

It's worth stating that it is not clear of the analysis/holism thing is from the actual experimenters, from Science, or from Scientific American. The simplistic explanations might be from the popularization of the article, not the researchers.

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