Wednesday, July 6, 2011

You've never been to...

I was reading on Reuters and stumbled on this comment:
Technically, the US population is illiterate compared to the Chinese. Americans teens can play the Xbox, Chinese teens can build the Xbox.
and this response:
 You have never been to China have you? China is full of illiterate people, and most young people spend their entire young lives playing video games. The US is still more educated than the [C]hinese ever have been.
The second commenter is almost certainly right, but for all the wrong reasons. First, it seems unlikely he has been to China, so what makes him think he is right? Second, even if he had been to China, how would he know much about the education system? Would his knowledge be representative and how would he figure out if it were?

He'd have to consult statistics (and consider if the statistics were any good). If he went to Shanghai he'd probably be under the impression that Chinese students were smarter than American students, on average. If he went to a rural pocket of poverty he might think most of China is still stuck in the stone ages. It sounds obvious that going to China would teach you a lot about China, but the truth is that most of what matters for economic policy can't be learned by observation. You have to get to know a country through the data and supplement that with tempered observations. I say tempered because by trusting your eyes you might be inclined to lump to all kinds of amateur sociology or anthropology in your theories. And you'll most likely be wrong.

(The book I linked to is about the people who make these mistakes not an example.)

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