Discrimination in science

A while ago, my friend of Chinese descent in a math PhD program told me of the revelations of Einstein’s negative attitudes towards the Chinese in his travel diaries. He said he is concerned that this would further encourage discrimination against Chinese scientists. We all know of the popular stereotype that Chinese are smart but uncreative drones. There is a prevailing attitude in the West that Chinese need a Western education to become creative, with the test-based education system in China a major obstacle. Many people in China believe this too. Of course, actual scientists generally know much better this, but I’ve seen similar bias among high IQ Westerners as well. There is in many at least the subconscious belief that Chinese are smart but lack spark.

I consider myself quite naturally talented in science, and I would have found a natural home there, except it is such a shit career nowadays that I have abandoned hopes in it for more practical things. Still I keep an interest. I’ll collect here quotes on (mostly negative) stereotypes of various groups in science, most of which will be on Chinese, which is the group I belong to.

For example, Stanford computer science professor wrote that

The simple fact is, the level of innovation and creativity in this cohort is much lower than in similar cohorts in the US. And in fact, the ones that are the best on the “creativity” scale almost invariably are folks who received their PhDs in the US/Europe or worked in the US/Europe. This is not to say those who haven’t left China for their education aren’t doing good work – as I mentioned above MSRA is one of the top places in the world for CS research and the researchers there are publishing at the top venues, but many of the most successful of these researchers have spent years under the tutelage of computer scientists who were trained in the West – almost going through a 2nd PhD while working at MSRA.

The simple fact is if you are educated in the Chinese system, from primary school through university, you have a much harder chance of practicing being “creative” than if you were educated elsewhere. This is not a genetic trait (as many Chinese educated in the West have clearly shown), but a trait of the Chinese educational system, which is based on over a thousand years of Chinese culture.

Again, this lack of creativity is cultural and obviously there are folks who don’t fit the system and are creative and innovative (the art scene in China is growing by leaps and bounds). For many years, the top students in China have left the Chinese system for graduate school in the US. Although some of these students start out in America as brilliant and hard working students, many do not show much creativity when they start. They have learned not to question the professor, or others in positions of authority, and they are used to being told what to do rather than coming up with ideas on their own. But, many soon rise above this after a few years of practice and have turned into some of the top stars in the field (e.g., my own classmates at Carnegie Mellon, Harry Shum and Qi Lu, are now two of the top executives at Microsoft (links)).

I have personally advised students like this that have gone onto great computing careers, relying on their innovation and creative skills everyday. But this was only after 5-6 years in the “American” higher education system. My colleagues have often told me of similar examples. Now many Chinese are also aware of this key difference in our educational systems. The latest trend among middle class and wealthy Chinese is to send their kids to the US for their undergraduate degrees or even their high school education (some 200,000? were studying in the US this year alone link).

Even James Watson said that

East Asian students [tend] to be conformist, because of selection for conformity in ancient Chinese society.

Oh yeah, Chinese also have a negative reputation for plagiarism and academic fraud in the West. For this, I don’t feel like I need to cite sources.

Just an hour ago, someone I know told me that

[Name of ABC researcher] hates Chinese grad students.

I asked why and the response was

Because they’re paper grubbing hoes who don’t publish anything seminal.

It’s amazing how in science even Western raised Chinese pick up the same prejudiced attitude towards the FOB Chinese.

To shift from the Chinese temporarily, I shall also say that I’ve heard of the committees of major prizes (like the Nobel Prize and Fields Medal) essentially holding Soviets (and also Japanese) to a higher standard. But at least, it’s very rare to hear that Russians are not creative. They’re generally seen as very creative and original, though that doesn’t mean they’re liked.

Oh yeah, there is also a prevailing belief that lack of “freedom of information,” or whatever you call it, in China hinders creativity. I’ll quote Landay here again:

The Great Fire Wall (GFW) is a real problem for innovation. You cannot access most western blogs without a VPN. It is a hassle for many to have a VPN in China and the government has been actively blocking them. Blogs are very useful for finding technical information. This is just one example of how the GFW hinders technical innovation for universities and small companies (larger international firms get around this).

There’s quite a lot of negative attitude towards China in the West, needless to say. I even sense that the Chinese from Taiwan and Hong Kong are more appreciated than the ones from the mainland. On this, I remember how Yitang Zhang, the antithesis of conformist, was screwed by an asshole Taiwanese advisor. One can see the despicably patronizing tone of his advisor on mainland Chinese students in this document, in

The year 1985 was extremely difficult for the students from mainland China, they were unknown and without credits. I was the few professors who had personal contacts with them, I had taught the previous summer in the Peking University and had a vivid inpression of them. The mission of education is to spread the knowledge everywhere. It is the noble American spirit. For some 10 years, I had recommended 100 mainland Chinese students to the department and all accepted by the department. I am always indebt to the trust of my judgements by the department. Only very few of them misbehaved, bit the hands which fed them, none of them murdered their parents/friends, almost all of them performed well and became well-liked.

Regardless of what that TT Moh writes, he will be seen as a sinner of math history for failing a guy who later proved himself a genius, like the guy who failed Galois in his examination.

From my personal interaction, I can also feel a subtle suspicion/discomfort with Chinese among many Westerners in science. There is, in addition to racial bias, contempt for the Chinese political system but a man of honor in science should not let that interfere with the ideal of impartial judgment based on objective ability and impact and originality of work. Like, Oswald Teichmüller was an ardent Nazi, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was a mathematical genius. Someday maybe I’ll actually learn Teichmüller theory; I already know the basics of Riemann surfaces so it shouldn’t take too long.

I also heard popular stereotypes that Japanese are uncreative copycats. I actually sort of believed that too until I learned of the following names (not all-inclusive)

In theoretical physics

  • Hideki Yukawa
  • Shinichiro Tomonaga
  • Yoichiru Nambu
  • Makoto Kobayashi
  • Toshihide Maskawa
  • Shoichi Sakata
  • Kazuhiko Nishijima

In math

  • Teiji Takagi
  • Kiyoshi Ito
  • Kunikiho Kodaira
  • Goro Shimura
  • Kenkichi Iwasawa
  • Mikio Sato
  • Masaki Kashiwara
  • Tadashi Nakayama
  • Masayoshi Nagata
  • Shinichi Mochizuki
  • Heisuke Hironaka
  • Shigefumi Mori

The Japanese, at least now, mostly keep to themselves. You don’t hear much about their geniuses, but that doesn’t mean that their far right tail of creativity isn’t stunningly high. Jonah Sinick can attest to this.

By the way, I’ve found the level of openness of mind and freedom of expression as well as scientific taste and energy in today’s US academic setting, at least the ones I’ve had exposure to, rather disappointing. There is a suffocating degree of conformism and risk-aversion. More on this later.

There is also that in America, East Asian males are discriminated against way more than East Asian females. Everybody knows this, but it’s hard to openly say. I definitely think this inhibits the creative energy and potential of highly intelligent East Asian males with maverick inclinations to some degree. It’s simply far less socially acceptable for a East Asian male to be overtly eccentric, aggressive, and no-bullshit.

To counter this, Chinese must create an unambiguously world class scientific research community and ecosystem at home as the Japanese have done, with its own distinctive character, as well as the hard power to back up its credibility. Japan is culturally very different but she is an American/Western ally, which makes acceptance much easier. China cannot be that, so China will have to become as strong as the Soviet Union was in science and overall to gain true independence from discrimination. That is, once Chinese have created at home an alternative scientific system competitive with the rest of the world, they can cease to feel as victims of discrimination, and on the contrary, show nothing but contempt towards such treatment. If the Japanese can, the Chinese can too with an order of magnitude more people, equivalent IQ, and close genes/culture. Of course, since China started much later with more difficult circumstances, it will take some time.