I’ve been traveling a lot recently. I spent the month of August in China and Vienam, I went to Sweden in October, and of course I’ve been bouncing between my home in Mexico City and the good ol’ US of A. And you know what all this travel has gotten me thinking about? Institutions.
I assume that since I didn’t say beaches, cartels, or communism I just lost about half my readers. That’s fine, for those of you who stayed, let me lay out what experts call the “Vance Paradox.” I mean, they don’t yet, but they will by the end of this post.
In Sweden, people have absolute faith in their institutions. Be it law enforcement, justice, the media, or medicine, people trust that stuff will work. If you get sick, you will be cared for, if you break the law, you will be caught and punished, if you read something in the press, it’s likely true.
“Now, wait,” my five Swedish readers say, “that’s not true. We are just as cynical as anyone else.” No, you are not. Just read “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo” or watch the excellent TV show, “The Bridge” (the Scandanavian version). Yes, there is corruption and bad people, but in the end, all of them get punished by functioning institutions. I was in Sweden helping in a media training for ocean scientists, and one of the things that struck me was how surprised people were by the lack of oversight in the media. It was like they expected some functioning entity was keeping an eye on us all.
Contrast that to mi casa en Mexico. No one here thinks that the bad guys ever get caught and no one believes anything they read. Now, I might argue that this sentiment is partially unfounded and that much of society here works amazingly well. But then a mayor orders the death of 43 students just because, hey, who’s gonna stop him? It’s moments like this that hundreds of years of failed or inept institutions come crashing down on society’s head.
But none of this is new. So then I went to China (thanks to a generous grant from the good people at Mongabay), and my head spun. By all accounts, China’s institutions work no better than Mexico’s. Corruption is rampant as is inequality, misinformation, and general douchebaggery (as wonderfully defined here). Yet, people there outwardly seem to have total faith in their institutions. Talking to people, it’s as if their country runs like a Swedish clock.
So Sweden has lots of faith in its excelent institutions, Mexico has none in its troubled ones and China has more faith than their institutions would perhaps suggest they should. Which brings me to the most confusing country of all, the United States. The US has excellent institutions and yet people seem to think they live in the post-apocalyptic world of “The Walking Dead.”
On this, voting day 2014, take a moment to appreciate how good US institutions are. Take the DMV. Every time I come home and visit that place, it astounds me. Everyone in the country gets a little card saying they took and passed a test that is essentially the American version of a rite of passage.
And for the most part, it all works. Amazingly well. And yet, to hear us talk about it, you’d think the DMV was a torture dungeon from which one can only escape if one cuts his progeny into pieces and sacrifices them to the god Baal.
What does all of this have to do with science? Well, like law enforcement, science is a national institution. And people’s faith in it – its ability to deliver solutions or help the economy – has a huge effect on how it runs. In all my travels, the one thing that most struck me was how similar the actual scientists I met were. All of them were clever, overly humble, and charming nerds dedicated to making the world better in some way. In other words, the kind of people I like to write about.
And yet, they are trapped by the institutional reality of science in that country. In China, that means working within a bizarre system that seems to eat its own foot on occasion to tackle arguably the hardest environmental crises in the world. In Mexico, it mean brilliant people are constantly underfunded and leave the country for foreign shores. In the United States, it means we cut funding to any science project that doesn’t involve blowing things up. Despite the fact that we have the best science institutions in the world.
Don’t believe me? It’s probably because you live in the US. Experts and polls seem to indicate that that the rest of the world thinks far more highly of innovation and technology in the US than the US itself does.
Meanwhile, in Sweden scientists make less money than the US but they are bewildered at the kind of attacks US scientists suffer. No one there has to argue about evolution or climate change. The Swedes have faith that their experts are in fact experts, and they all happily sit down eat fish together.
You know what? Screw all this, I’m moving to Sweden.
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