Fighting Breaks Out Between Atlantic Voices!

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Finally! I've been an Atlantic "Voice" for six weeks, and until now I hadn't gotten into any fisticuffs with other Atlantic Voices. I knew fighting would break out sooner or later--but I had no idea that my opponent would be the kindly James Fallows.

Jim, a friend and a wonderful person, takes issue with a post I wrote about Jeremy Lin a couple of days ago. I'm afraid I have no choice but to launch a brutal counter-assault.

First, let's get clear on what I said.

Jim says I'm drawing on the work of social scientists who argue that Asians "perceive reality in a more 'group'-like than individually centered fashion." Not true. I emphasized that I wasn't drawing on "stereotypes about collectivist Asian values." Rather, the finding of these social scientists--and their research is now very well established--is about perceiving dominant foreground images as opposed to background scenes. In the example I cited, the background scene wasn't "a group" but rather a mountain stream.

Anyway the social science finding is that, compared to westerners, East Asians (most experimental subjects have been either Chinese or Japanese) pay more attention to the background scene and less to the central foreground image. I suggested that maybe this more "holistic" perceptual tendency (as the researchers call it) would be an asset to a basketball player as he surveys the basketball court and so might help explain why Lin is such a good passer.

And I emphasize the word "suggested". I called my theory about Lin an "armchair pop-psychology theory." I probably should have used the word "conjecture" just to emphasize that I have no great confidence that the theory is correct. If I had to put a number on it, I'd give it chances between 20 percent and 40 percent. But whatever the likelihood that this conjecture is correct, I certainly don't agree with Jim that it's "crazy" or "horseshit".

Before I address the points Jim makes, I'd like to ask why Jim--and no few of the commenters who read my piece--get so exercised about this particular conjecture. Columnists are always throwing out theories about what will happen in politics and very often the chances that the theories are right is way less than 50 percent. I've done a lot of that myself, and my theories rarely get called "crazy" or "horseshit"--certainly not by genteel people like Jim Fallows.

I suspect that in this case the reason for the inordinate energy devoted to criticism is that I'm discussing ethnicity. And, by itself, that's fine; I actually agree that certain kinds of theories about ethnicity shouldn't be tossed out casually. Specifically:

1) If the posited group trait (or statistical tendency) is one that could get a group persecuted, discriminated against, or even denigrated, then I think you should tread carefully. But I'm having trouble imagining any of these fates befalling an ethnic group because it gets a reputation for remembering the background details in a picture better than members of another group, and paying relatively less attention to dominant foreground images.

2) If the theory is that a difference between two ethnic groups is genetically based, I think that here, too, great care is warranted. But the leading researcher in the area I was discussing--the highly respected psychologist Richard Nisbett--has explicitly made it his premise that these differences are cultural, not genetic, and in my piece I explicitly subscribed to that premise.

OK, so on to Jim's argument. Actually, I should have put "argument" in quotes. With all due respect, I honestly don't detect an actual argument.

Jim writes:

But being Asian has nothing to do with how he plays ball. (Nor does going to Harvard.)

My evidence? Earlier this week, the Atlantic's sport columnist Jake Simpson analyzed Lin's game in terms of its real components -- shooting accuracy, willingness to take on double-team coverage, etc. I could leave it at that, with the reminder that considering his passing skills "Asian" is about as legit as saying that he has "a high basketball IQ" because he went to Harvard. Or a confident on-court manner because he's from Silicon Valley.

That's "evidence"? So far as I can tell that's just the repeated assertion that I'm wrong. (The Jake Simpson piece is interesting but it doesn't bear on my conjecture one way or the other.) Maybe I'm missing something, but I would expect evidence to come in the form of some actual empirical reason to think that my conjecture isn't plausible.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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