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Counting Numbers & The Ability To Think

Counting Numbers The Ability To Think

Really interesting, although perhaps a little controversial, article in New Scientist, where psychologists have studied a tribe which has counting words only for “one”, “two” and “many”. So for three objects or thirty they use the same word. Apparently, they just have very little need to count in daily life.

So what’s interesting here? In a variety of tests, the tribe members were tested on their ability to count objects. “In the simplest, he sat opposite an individual and laid out a random number of familiar objects, including batteries, sticks and nuts, in a row.” [Sticks, nuts and batteries?! Oh well…] The subject would then lay out the same number from their collection. They could do this for 1,2 or 3 objects fine, but got worse and worse for higher numbers. The claim then by psychologist Peter Gordon is that the fact that they have no language for numbers limits their ability to think.

I haven’t read their paper, so I can’t comment for certain, but I would treat this claim with caution. Could a more likely explanation be that a single cause explains both the language and cognitive deficits – namely, the fact that they have no use for counting in day to day lives? Perhaps it reflects more that if you’re never taught to count, and never use it, that you don’t have good counting skills? This has been pointed out by other scientists, who also suggest that the tribespeople may also be simply not be used to the test tasks, and so did poorly.

So personally, I don’t think things are quite as clear cut as New Scientist makes out (which is a whole other post…) To quote psychologist Randy Gallistel, “The question remains highly controversial.” The take home message is to always critically analyse what you’re told, and question the logic that leads to a conclusion. In many ways, I think this is one of the most important quality of a scientist!

What do you think?

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