Last year two Italian scholars who live abroad posted a funny “Sociology Working Paper” on an Oxford University website.
The piece reported on the authors’ misadventures with some Italian academic institutions (delayed meetings, decreased reimbursements for travel expenses, no-shows, etc.), and it proposed a psycho sociological model that generalized those personal experiences to become features of the Italian society as a whole.
In other words: “Italians do behave like this (unprofessionally, chaotically and unpredictably). It happened to us on these occasions. And if you go to Italy, it will happen to you as well: everywhere, not just in universities or the universities that we visited. Here is a scientific explanation of the how and why Italians are lunatic and unreliable.”
The appearance under the “ox.ac.uk” domain, the capital letters, the words “working paper” and the signatures of two academics (a sociologist and a philosopher) gave it some scientific spin. However there was nothing scientific in the article.
If you want to study certain traits of a population, you will need to A) develop an objective and repeatable method for measuring such traits and B) apply it to a representative sample of such population.
The Oxford University working paper did not have any of either (A) or (B). Just a few grotesque game-theory symbols as make-believes, the narrative of episodes of unprofessionalism of which the authors had been the victims, and a naïf, fully a-scientific attempt to generalize.
Gossip. Or, at most, a humorous and thought-provoking journalistic account. But since it was posted on a University website, some people took it seriously.
One Italian reader posted it on an Italian daily’s blog devoted to emigrants, where it was received with some enthusiasm: snob expatriates always love it if someone defames their ungrateful home country (because it does not want them back).
The simple-minded acclaim went: “here are two illustrious scholars, who had to escape the country because their cleverness caused embarrassment in Italian university departments, who have scientifically proved why Italians are so unprofessional and unreliable. Which explains many things, including why I, who am a phenomenal researcher / professional / manager, cannot get a top-notch job a in world-renowned think-tank here in Italy, a university tenure or a Nobel price.”
But it was worse than that. A few rapid internet exchanges eerily let a much worse truth emerge before me: the authors themselves thought that their work was science! Up to the point that one of the two refused to publish a comment of mine in her blog, because I was demolishing their unscientific attitude.
Now, here’s the bottom line.
I have the privilege of personally knowing many expatriate Italian scientists of extremely high level (Italians produce the fourth scientific output in the world when measured by number of highly-cited papers divided by dollars spent in R&D): not just by publication impact factor or academic ranking, but by the reputation that they enjoy with all experts in their respective fields. (These are the people that Italy should be wanting back, whatever that means).
Not one of these folks would ever write such a cumbersome piece of prose and then think it was science.
Most, I suspect, would furthermore concur that the stories of unprofessionalism told by our two goliards laureate are to be experienced almost anywhere in the world with approximately the same frequency as in Italy (this is my recollection of 30 years on the road).