Your Lying Eyes

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06 January 2006

We Need More Math and Science Majors

Agreed, but I fear that anyone who's trying to do something about it is misdiagnosing the problem and blaming it on our not properly preparing our kids to become scientists. This Times article is a good example of a program that is likely not to succeed.
[Education Commissioner Richard] Mills, who said he had been struck by the high level of math and science training in China on a recent trip, called the State Board of Regents' emphasis on more rigorous math and science standards an important foundation for increasing the number of graduates.
In other words, let's make it harder for kids to succeed in math - that should really pump up the numbers. There may be good reason to strengthen the standards, but that's going to lead to less, not more students interested in the subject. Then there's the inevitable other side of the coin: One official also said the university is exploring ways to attract more women and minorities into these fields Well you're not going to accomplish that by making the Regents' exams harder, that's for sure.

To succeed in science, you need to be smart - not just educated - but plain smart. Not all scientists need to be geniuses, but they need to have above average intelligence (Linda Gottfredson suggests IQ's above 120). There aren't any less smart people these days than there used to be - so the smart people must be deciding on their own to pursue other interests. So what could possibly convince a smart young man or woman to pursue, say, law or finance rather than science or engineering? Obviously, there's not enough high-paying jobs in science and engineering. In fact there's a double whammy hitting this job market - our manufacturing sector (the most important consumer of science and engineering skills) has been in serious decline the last few years; and companies are finding cheaper engineers through H1-B visas. Here's a Microsoft manager on his company's "need" for foreign workers: "For instance, there is the H1-B visa, on which Microsoft and other technology companies rely on to hire foreign nationals where there is not a U.S. candidate with the skills required for a particular position." Bull! He adds: "The limits on the H1-B program seriously impede U.S. companies’ ability to compete in the global market" Now that's a little more honest - to compete in the global market" - in other words, "there is not a U.S. candidate with the skills required for a particular position" who will work cheaply enough! So the next time you hear Bill Gates crowing about his foundation's efforts to improve math and science education in the U.S., be aware he's just blowing smoke. Gates hires thousands of H1-B visa holders at bargain prices. If he's truly interested in increasing the number of math/science majors, he'd lead the way in paying higher salaries to attract them.

I'm not saying we should not have any H1-B visas. There are often very good reasons to hire people from abroad for particular specialties. Many H1-B holders are Canadian, working and living in the U.S. just like someone from New York might move to Arizona (or Toronto) to work (well, almost like - we are still separate countries). But using an H1-B visa to hire an "Application Developer" - i.e., a programmer - from China is an abuse of the system, pure and simple. The bane of employers in the Advanced Industrial Economy is that workers expect to be paid enough to live in the Advanced Industrial Society and expect to be employed until they retire. The H1-B - which is a temporary visa - is being abused to solve both of these annoyances.

The decreased interest in math and science among college students is surely due to better prospects for smart young people in other fields. Improving job prospects for scientists and engineers is necessary to reverse the trend. It will also be necessary to reduce the allure of non-science jobs. Tort reform, which would reduce the total amount of money flowing into lawyers' pockets, would be a step in the right direction. Finance can be particularly lucrative (as this salary chart for invesment bankers from 1999 can affirm). There's clearly an awful lot of money around to pay some people extraordinary amounts of money - we need to figure out how to get it to people who actually can do something other than just move money around.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how much you can really do about the Chinese and Indians overtaking us. They outnumber us by a huge factor: we'd have to produce 3 times the engineers per capita as China to keep up with their population.

That said, we ought to try to arrest our decline: all great powers fall eventually, after all. I would like to warn you that most of the big law salaries are in corporate law, not trial law, though I always like to see the trial lawyers take a hit. Realistically, if you want to decrease the returns to law and finance, I think you would need higher taxes or something.

January 07, 2006 9:17 AM  
Blogger Dennis Dale said...

It seems what we should be doing in education is not trying to increase math proficency broadly among all children, but idenitifying early those with a talent and love of math (no, love of math is not an oxymoron) and developing them. Our sciences are, in that dreaded phrase, a cognitive elite, as are all professions requiring a high IQ. We need to accept that and plan accordingly, rather than continually trying to democratize nature itself with education based on long ago discredited blank slate theses of learning theory.
The nation is, and will remain, a society which depends greatly on a tiny minority of high-IQ elites who do the heavy cognitive lifting.
You're absolutely right that companies like Microsoft should pay these people more, and we could compel them to without interfering in the marketplace too much by making it a little tougher to recruit from abroad. Unfortunately, there is little popular sympathy to be found in railing against the injustice of underpaid mathematicians; the public only seems to get misty over the plight of the underpaid teacher or Wal-Mart employee.
Our public schools already do too little to develop the talents of smart kids early, seeking instead to bring everyone along together and thus forcing the quickest to mark time while the slowest catch up. This really helps no one, as those who are poor at math or verbal skills may have other talents such as greater spatial abilities making them superior craftsmen, technicians, artists, etc. Of course the blank slaters recoil at the idea of tracking these kids based on IQ, reeking as it does of stratification.
But as a whole, the education system is very stratified by IQ, as wealthy elites send their kids to higher quality private schools, and that is a good thing, despite the lamentations of Kozol, et al.
Good post.

January 07, 2006 12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I doubt that law schools are drawing off many would-be scientists and engineers. Law school is basically an extension of liberal arts college, popular among technophobes precisely because it involves no math, science or computers. In short, law appeals to a wholly different type of person than does science or engineering. And it also should be noted that the marketability of a law degree has been on the decline for many years; a small percentage of law school graduates are making huge salaries in top law firms, but a far greater number have to scuffle around in the hopes of making a lower-middle-class living.


January 08, 2006 1:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with what Peter wrote. I went to a top tier law school where the median income of a graduate was around $100,000. We frequently joked about our communal hatred of math, but there were a lot of students there with bachelors and even doctorates in hard sciences.

A science degree is like an income multiplier for a lawyer, scientist lawyers are usually the only ones who are qualified to do science patent law and science based intellectual property. Both areas make huge amounts of money. How can slaving away at some lab doing graduate school work compare to a slick law firm with triple to quadruple the salary?!

In that sense, law school poaches young minds that would otherwise be working in science and engineering. My undergraduate biology professors encouraged me to follow the sciences, but instead I followed the money.

January 08, 2006 2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading what Dan said, you just have to wonder how lawyers got that unfair "in it for the money" reputation.

January 09, 2006 12:47 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

C'mon, you can't get down on Dan for being honest - or for following the money. The problem is that that's where the money is.

January 09, 2006 8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, "anonymouse" I don't have a reputation for just "being in it for the money". I am an honest man, unlike your anonymous self, I say things forthrightly. I have a family to feed, and its kind of difficult to support children while studying for a PhD or teaching graduate courses for peanuts. I am a logical man and I respond logically to economic incentives.

Our political leaders are subsidizing the exporting of our industry and importing labor arbitrage by allowing in so many foreign H1B visas for tech workers and programmers. Its more than a matter of supply and demand, because on top of that dynamic there is the problem of a high American cost of living. If immigration and crime did not force up the cost of living, then it would be easier to make a living as a scientist or engineer.

January 10, 2006 9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Politicians are trying to fix their mistakes by repeating them.

Increasing the number of PhDs without increasing the number of science jobs is like breeding more horses without building more stables. Your average farmer understands this problem better than your average college administrator or politician.

January 10, 2006 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

C'mon, you can't get down on Dan for being honest - or for following the money. The problem is that that's where the money is.

I guess by that logic we can forgive Gates for hiring foreign workers. After all he's just following the money.

And I know Gates has a vastly bigger influence than a solitary lawyer but isn't this 'follow the money' attitude symptomatic of a societal ill? Sailer had a good link a ways back (which I unfortunately didn't locate) about how people decades ago were concerned about honor (or words to that effect), not just money, as opposed to today's society which at times appears to be ALL about the money. I doubt that's healthy in the long run.

And yes, I realize this is a bit off the subject of the post, which certainly had some good points.

January 10, 2006 1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if the same anonymous person keeps responding, but I find it unseemly for people to snipe from their anonymous perches.

"Follow the money" indeed! One solitary lawyer indeed. I am a man with a family. Honor? What would anyone who writes anonymously know about honor?

I'm honest in my practice, faithful to my wife and my God, generous to the poor, loyal to my country, and kind to little animals/children.

I suppose I could be in a lab creating human/goat chimeras, or harvesting eggs from my female lab assistants, but instead I chose to make my living by a different route.

This whole discussion merely begs the question: is this just a question of money? Bill Gates and I have divergent interests. He is a Big Business monopolist who has shared his source code with the FBI and Chinese Communist government. I'm not. He lobbies the government for visas to buy indentured servants/programmers from India and China in order to avoid paying American wages. I'm not. In fact, I like it when Americans earn American wages, b'cuz I am an American wage earner, and my children will be American wage earners.

So, if we think clearly, we can see that Bill Gates and Dan Doyle are very very different. He is undermining our human capital with subsidies from our political elites. I'm not.

January 10, 2006 8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geeze, Dan, calm down. I'm not even talking about you. I'm sure you're a fine fellow, although methinks thou dost protest a wee bit much.

January 10, 2006 10:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if these China / India stats are at all compareable.

DUKE Study

January 17, 2006 10:46 AM  

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