Science, Schmience, or: What did the Italian Coast Guard Really Mean?

After the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia hit rock and sank a couple of weeks ago, people all over the world listened to the recording (with subtitles if they did not speak Italian) of the Coast Guard captain yelling at the cruise ship’s captain, Schettino, to get back on board and be responsible. 

An interesting blog post by an Anglophone linguist discusses the meaning and content of that communication, as well as the emotion conveyed in it. The linguist also calls the Coast Guard captain “agitated.”  A comment by an Italian reader is of interest. He writes “As a native Italian speaker, I found this analysis quite interesting but I don't think any Italian would ever come up with agitato (in the sense of "disturbed" or "nervous") as their first choice to describe De Falco's speech. He might have been esasperato or infuriato, but in Italy he was perceived as very much under control, assertive and authoritative, and far less emotional than it might sound to non-native speakers.”

I say, Bravo.

If the reader, Paolo, is right, and a good survey of Italians’ versus others’ (such as Anglophones') comprehension demonstrated this difference, then one implication would be that the next time you are in les Jardins du Luxembourg, hold back on thinking that you know what a French mother means when she yells, “ça suffit !”  (“that’s enough!”).  And if you are not Anglophone, and you hear an American mother comforting (or confronting) her child, you hold off on judgment too.  Words and their emotional characteristics translated into your language may not preserve the intended meaning and effect.  Until you speak both languages fluently, and I mean fluently (in that you can do much more than order a sandwich) and then you collect a lot of data, please, no generalizations.

I know what you are thinking.  Science, Schmience.  It is very easy to be sarcastic about “Science,” scientific rigor, and collecting data.  Poor journalists (a category which does not include a number of my close friends) are sarcastic in this way all of the time.  And the average person who does not do science for a living is too.  My friend PJ told me that after reading Freakonomics, a book that reports research findings that some people do not like, her book club came to the conclusion that “statistics lie.”  People scoff at science suggesting that global warming is a real phenomenon (or else they think that scientific advances will quickly address the problem; my father thought that same thing about cancer produced by smoking, but he didn’t live to see the research effort come through).  And I recently read about teenagers’ brains in a book and then discovered that all of the cited research findings were collected by a right-wing, privately-funded think tank.

Being skeptical about science and statistics is healthy: You do have to worry about statistics.  You really have to worry about statistics reported in current political ads in the United States, for example. But you do not always have to collect data or look up someone else’s to be science smart.  You can be lazy and still think like a scientist, and in so doing avoid making poor generalizations and, even worse, comparisons between two poor generalizations.

I’ll use myself as a poor scientist in the case of international comparisons.  You can laugh at me and then learn from my mistakes:  When I moved to France, I could not speak French.  After I had lived in Aix-en-Provence for about eight months, a psychologist who conducts cross-cultural research visited me.  She asked: “What are friendships like in France?”  I replied, not speaking French well yet or having that many friends, “Friendships are more important and lasting here than in the US.”  How did I know?  Because French people told me.   Some of those people could not speak English and had never been to the United States.  And still, I repeated what they said.  The cross-cultural psychologist probably left Aix believing me.  Of course, after I had lived in France for 14 years, I understood that FOR ME, my friendships were not very different.  What varied was how we showed each other we were friends, and what we did with each other as friends.  The concepts were different, I realized, not the quality of friendship. (Also go see my post, "Getting to know you, getting to know all about you").

That is a very brief description of my stupidity there, but you learn a few things: First, do not believe what people tell you unless they are only talking about themselves and you completely understand what they mean by what they are saying.  If they say that they “express love to their children often,” make sure that what they are doing seems loving to you before you believe them.  This understanding is made very difficult by problems of translation.  A friend of mine at Georgetown University, Jerry Parrott, conducted important research showing that the English word “shame” and the Spanish word for shame, “vergüenza,” do not actually mean the same thing.  That is, people do not experience shame in the same ways at the same times in Spain versus the United States.  So if you translated “vergüenza” as “shame” and started to talk with a Spanish person about whether parents should use shame to motivate or otherwise control children’s behavior, you would be two ships passing in the night. 

After those translation problems, you would need to collect data on the whole group that you want to generalize to.  Five or ten of your friends does not count as a good sample of people.  Do you want to generalize about Parisians or New Yorkers?  Do you want to generalize to classes beyond thebourgeoisie?  Do you want to generalize across nations?  If you do, you have to go get data. 

Or if you want to be lazy, that is fine, but then it is best not to claim to know anything general at all.  

P.S.  It is easier to understand this post if you first go read my post "Civilized to What End?"