The Problem of Knowing

I once happened on a website written by some young Dutch students.  They wrote that there was a problem of teen pregnancy the U.S., and they knew how to nip it in the bud:  If only Americans were not so messed up about sex, and were just more sexually open like the Dutch, then the teen pregnancy problem would go away.  I thought I’d just go ahead and send the students plane tickets to Appalachia and let them talk openly about sex til the cows came home.  In the exact same way and in a variety of domains, Americans have expressed the thought that if some country would just do things the way Americans did, then there would be more of this good thing, or less of that bad thing.  Things would just be a lot better.

If these kinds of conversations and comparisons do not pretty much do away with any hope of improving international relations, people’s free “admission” of their own country’s problems sometimes causes as much damage.  It is extremely cool in certain American groups (mostly academic ones) to say how bad Americans are and how worthless American life and policy is.  For other, not-related-to-being-cool reasons, people in various countries of Europe openly put down their own country’s economic future (Italy) or put down everything about their country (Poland).

Maybe they shouldn't.

It is one thing to say that your country is worse on some score than it was before (at least in your potentially biased or aging memory), or that it is too far from an ideal that you hold, or some institution holds, dear.  It is quite another thing to say that your country is worse than another, unless you know both countries really, really well.  And know ALL about both really well.  Not just about its health care system or about its signing of Kyoto or about its adherence to recycling standards, taken in isolation.  I know enough about some countries of Europe and theUS to know not to make such comparisons at all.

How could you ever make such comparisons? 

One problem of knowing is that some of what we “know” about a country is mostly the country’s self-image, which in some cases is based on nothing other than a deep desire to keep being perceived that way. The fact that this image has its roots in the 17th Century usually does not keep anyone from continuing to transmit it.

As I mentioned in my first post, I want to be empirical.  But that desire is very difficult to realize.  Good comparative statistics are very hard to come by, and then, the behavior under study is already defined and quantified in terms of the culture in which it is occurring.  Someone recently offhandedly told me that the U.S. dispenses anti-anxiety drugs at an incredible rate. They meant “more than anywhere else.”  I was interested in that claim because I had heard other figures. The only cross-national study I could find on the internet, which is 30 years old now, had the U.S. in the middle of the pack, and other European countries, like Belgium, ahead in the use of anti-anxiety meds.  I am sure that newer studies and statistics exist somewhere, but I couldn’t find them.  What I did find were studies showing how very difficult it is to conduct cross-national studies of this type.  This is true for so many reasons, only one of which concerns the ease and price of getting medication in the first place.  But we then have to wait to find out who dispenses what at an incredible rate. 

Another problem is (again) ideological.  Sometimes people do not want data.  I know that Steven Levitt, the economist and author of “Freakonomics,” has encountered this resistance when he reports findings that do not support some strongly held beliefs, such as the effectiveness of the use of child carseats (  He gets resistance certainly from parents and also from people who are selling the carseats.  One can discuss those data and question Levitt’s data analytic techniques, but I agree with the general approach.

Friction about this approach, due to ideology, ran very high in a conversation that my husband and I had with some (European, not French) friends a while back.  The conversation concerned the possiblility of a fixed price ticket to ride public transportation, the métro and RER, in Paris.  Parisians who lived quite far from the center of the city would pay the same price for a ride as those living in the center. 

My husband thought that the law might not be “green” enough for him.  His spontaneous reaction was to think that people who live far from the center should have to pay to come in and pollute the environment.  So we wanted to discuss the reasoning behind this law.  But there was already an explosion. Our friends argued that people who live outside of the center are poor and can’t afford to live in the center, where they actually all want to live.  Making them pay is discriminating. That could very well be the case, but I wanted to know how we knew that.  I asked in a small voice whether there were data showing that the majority of people who live in the outskirts of Paris don’t want to live there, are poor, and actually want to live in the center?  Although both friends are scientists, they scoffed “DATA?” in unison.  And the conversation was over.  Ultimately so was the relationships with them.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 4:56 AM JUN 9, 2011and t