Sunday, November 07, 2004

Are You Feeling Lost Yet? How About Now?

Yesterday I friend of mine and I had a conversation about the state of the world, capitalism and the general consensus of the people. He’s a smart guy and favors (for the most part) a free market. Unlike a lot of people at Beloit College, he acknowledges that we’re better off now than ten or twenty or fifty years. So I was completely thrown off when he told me more people today feel “lost” than they ever have before.

We were discussing that there are huge aspects of the world that can’t be captured mathematically or empirically (something us Austrians are more than willing to concur) when he offered this conclusion as evidence. He said you can’t capture “lostness” numerically; you have to depend on their perspective of it. He moved to conclude that capitalism has a long way to go because so many people feel “lost.”

To a degree, he’s right. People are the sole experts on themselves and if anyone is to ascertain their closest level of “lostness,” it’s them. But there are three big problems with his argument from that point forward.

I’ve had more than my fair share of experience with bad studies. People tend to quote them like biblical doctrine without even knowing how they were conducted. So when my friend said that more people were feeling lost, my bullshit meter went off. How are these researching phrasing the question(s) that determine “lostness?” How are they measuring degree? How much time does the respondent have to answer? I asked my friend these questions and he said he didn’t know (meter goes off again), but that’s not important (meter really goes off again).

That takes us to problem two. He says this is something that can’t be measured—that’s the point. Of course I forgot to point that that because it’s a study (or rather a series of studies), it has to be measurable—how else are you going to determine if there’s more “lostness” in the world? Guess? It’s true that the person in question has all this tacit and local knowledge about their state of affairs thus they can’t define it quantitatively, but how do you use that to conclude something so concrete as “people are feeling more lost?” I’d imagine he’d deduce that the study asked people to rate on a scale of one to ten how lost they feel, but that’s not good enough.

Why? Because we still have problem three: how do you get around the perspective problem? This is really two issues. First, people have a tendency to dwell on all the negative things going on in their life and ignore the positive things. This is why lots of Beloit College students (along with far too many other people) think life was better fifty or a hundred years ago. Thus if someone “feels lost,” it’s very possible that it’s not that bad; their just thinking about their problem a lot and it just seems overpowering. The second issue is more interesting: maybe feeling lost isn’t a bad thing. Fifty years ago, people had fewer options today in nearly all things. This includes, but isn’t limited to, careers, food, places to live, things to do and people to meet. These are all important (especially the first one) so options aren’t bad. In fact, they’re quite good and in our society, we have so many we may feel overwhelmed. We feel lost (I know I did).

The world is a wide, wide place, seething with ideas and nuances we don’t always see and understand. It’s no wonder that studies don’t capture all those important details and we should always be wary of studies that claim they have. Sometimes they’ll be really bad and sorting through the bullshit will make you feel lost.

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