4 Examples of Confusing Cross-Cultural Statistics

In light of my last post about variability in eating patterns across religious traditions, I thought I’d put together a few other examples of times when attempts to compare data across international borders got a little more complicated than you would think.

Note: not all of this confusion changed the conclusions that people were trying to get to, but it did make things a little confusing.

  1. Who welcomes the refugee  About a year or so ago, when Syrian refugees were making headlines, there was a story going around that China was the most welcoming country for people fleeing their homeland. The basis of the story was an Amnesty International survey that showed a whopping 46% of Chinese citizens saying they would be willing to take a refugee in to their home…..far more than any other country. The confusion arose when a Quartz article pointed out that there is no direct Chinese translation for the word “refugee” and the word used in the survey meant “person who has suffered a calamity” without clarifying whether that person is international or lives down the street. It’s not clear how this translation may have influenced the response, but a different question on the same survey that made the “international” part clearer received much lower support.
  2. The French Paradox (reduced by 20%) In the process of researching my last post, I came across a rather odd tidbit I’d never heard of before regarding the “French Paradox”. A term that originated in the 80s, the French Paradox is the apparent contradiction that French people eat lots of cholesterol/saturated fat and yet don’t get heart disease at the rates you would expect based on data from other countries. Now I had heard of this paradox before, but the part I hadn’t heard  was the assertion that French doctors under-counted deaths from coronary heart disease. When you compared death certificates to data collected by more standardized methods, they found that this was true:

    They suspect the discrepancy arose because doctors in many countries automatically attribute sudden deaths in older people to coronary heart disease, whereas the French doctors were only doing so if they had clinical evidence of heart disease. This didn’t actually change the rank of France very much; they still have a lower than expected rate of heart disease. However, it did nearly double the reported incidence of CHD and cuts the paradox down by about 20%.

  3. Crime statistics of all sorts This BBC article is a few years old, but it has some interesting tidbits about cross-country crime rate comparisons. For example, Canada and Australia have the highest kidnapping rates in the world. The reason? They count all parental custody disputes as kidnappings, even if everyone knows where the child is. Other countries keep this data separate and only use “kidnapping” to describe a missing child. Countries that widen their definitions of certain crimes tend to see an uptick in those crimes, like Sweden saw with rape when it widened its definition in 2005.
  4. Infant mortality  This World Health Organization report has some interesting notes about how different countries count infant mortality, and it notes that some countries (such as Belgium, France and Spain) only count infant mortality in infants who survive beyond a certain time period after birth, such as 24 hours. Those countries tend to have lower infant mortality rates but higher stillbirth rates than countries that don’t set such a cutoff. Additionally, as of 2008 approximately 3/4 of countries lack the infrastructure to count infant mortality through hospitals and do so through household surveys instead.

Like I said, not all of these change the conclusions people come to, but they are good things to keep in mind.