Measured Against Reality

Thursday, July 17, 2008

People Found Who Don't Use Numbers: I cry bullshit

I'm incredibly dubious about this: People Found Who Don't Use Numbers, in part because you hear these claims made about remote tribes all the time and they usually end up being wrong, and also because I've read about Piraha before. Their language is really odd and (supposedly) simple, but unless things have changed dramatically since the papers I read, it's quite controversial. Literally one anthropologist was saying one thing and another was directly contradicting him. I think it's largely a problem of learning these languages that have no bilingual speakers, it's difficult to do. Granted, but that's not my only rationale.

Wikipedia backs up the story, but I'm still suspicious. Anthropological claims like this one are just of the type where I think they should be heavily scrutinized. For one they smack of cultural hubris, a kind of "they're so primitive" attitude. I don't actually think anyone believes that, but it's the kind of thing that's very ingrained into Western culture, and that kind of bias (like racism) is damn near impossibly to overcome at a subconscious level. Secondly, it's just so easy to get them wrong.

In Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought he describes a group descended from the Mayans called the Tzeltal, who live on the side of a mountain and generally refer to things as being "up the slope" or "down the slope". A linguist performed an experiment on them to see if this affected how they think (for the details see around p. 140 in the book, I don't think the details are important) and concluded that it did. In short, they "thought" in a geocentric frame, whereas most Westerners use an egocentric (axes centered on your body) or an object-centered frame (axes relative to objects near you). Anyway, another set of anthropologists (or perhaps linguists) performed a second, more careful experiment, and found that they, in fact, can use another frame of reference.

Actually, in this same chapter Pinker deals with the Piraha (they're quite famous), and thoroughly skewers the Sapir-Worf hypothesis (which is tangential to this anyway). For the full discussion see his book (I'm far too tired to transcribe it, and it's a fantastic book anyway).

But the point described in the SciAm podcast (and in the thousand articles I've seen on this today) seems to be a bit absurd to me. If these peoples don't, in the course of their daily lives, need to count anything, then why would they develop a precise language for counting?

And the claim that they "don't use numbers" is probably misleading, since there are other ways to keep track of reasonable numbers of objects. If you're a teacher on a field trip, you could either repeatedly count your kids and notice you have 23 instead of 24, or you could just notice that Billy is missing (that's how Pinker described it, keeping track of individuals one by one rather than keeping track of the number of individuals). There's no particular reason one of these systems is better than the other, until you start to deal with large numbers or complex operations. To expect an individual who doesn't (whether a Piraha or an American) to be able to just spontaneously start to do it is simply absurd, like testing the average American on calculus. They probably never learned it, they don't ever need to do it, so why on earth would we expect them to be able to?

The entire situation just strikes me as cultural elitism, like a kind of freak show, "Oh my god, how could they not have numbers!" Maybe that's not how people are actually seeing it, but that's how it seems, and I think it's absurd (that last line is SciAm just seems so incredibly condescending).

But these newspaper-level articles about indigenous peoples always infuriate me. Although, newspaper-level articles about any science do that, since they always screw it up somehow.

So I'm dubious about whether this experiment proved what they claim it did, even if it did it's hardly useful or meaningful, and I'm depressed by the coverage. All in all, a great story.

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