Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 24, 2017

Give us your huddled scientists, yearning to innovate free

Filed under: Humanities — Razib Khan @ 8:21 pm

In regards to immigration policy I generally favor a shift toward the Anglo-Canadian solution: a points based system. From what I am to understand the immigration reforms proposed by Tom Cotton are dead on arrival in the Senate, but I think they are a step in the right direction. Representative democratic nation-states can adapt and evolve, but they are not stable with lots of demographic change.

A contrasting strategy would be to allow guest workers to arrive without extensive screening, but ban them from all the right (and duties) of citizenship. Imagine something like the ancient Athenian system with metics. Unfortunately for various psychological and cultural reasons this sort of system, with large number of second class individuals, doesn’t seem to be palatable today in the West (it is what you see in the Persian Gulf). A nation-state simply isn’t reducible to a system for mediating economic transactions between consenting adults.

If we are going to have a points system we need to think about what we prioritize in potential migrants. Recently on Twitter the prominent public intellectual and astrophysicist Sean Carroll expressed this opinion:

The idea that a science degree should count more than a humanities degree toward being allowed to immigrate is dopey. -Signed, a scientist.

As of this writing that tweet received 150+ retweets and 500+ likes. It’s a popular view. I also disagree with it. That is, I think those with legitimate STEM educational and professional backgrounds should definitely get preference over those with non-STEM backgrounds, and in particular those with humanities degrees. There are two primary reasons I will give for this.

First, STEM degrees confers upon the degree holder culture-neutral portable skills. My cousins who complete a degree in engineering often work abroad, usually in the Persian Gulf, in the occupational roles they were trained for. In contrast, those who studied Bengali literature have fewer options. Often they find menial work in the Persian Gulf, because their educational background is totally uninteresting to people doing the hiring outside of Bangladesh.

The example I used on Twitter made the contrast stark: a Saudi trained in chemical engineering has useful skills that transfer to the United States. A Saudi trained in Islamic studies, which is equivalent to humanities, has fewer transferrable skills. A non-Muslim analogy would be an Israeli with a technical degree from a secular institution, as opposed to a Haredi Jew who was steeped in Torah-learning from a prominent Yeshiva.

Second, in much of the developing world the stronger students pursue STEM as opposed to ‘softer’ disciplines. Therefore, having a degree in STEM is a good proxy for cognitive skills more generally. In Race And Culture: A World View Thomas Sowell points out that in Sri Lanka Tamils tended to be over-represented in STEM in comparison to the majority Sinhalese, resulting in resentment due to greater representation in professions such as medicine and engineering.

In the United States humanities graduates do relatively well, especially compared to some pre-professional majors. But a lot of this has to do with the fact that humanities degrees are emphasized at very selective and prestigious universities. Many of these institutions serve as finishing schools for the American elite, and these students are not focused on their immediate economic prospects because they intend to pursue post-graduate work (e.g., law school), or their social connections will probably suffice to land them good positions (also, affluent students can afford years of unpaid internships to position themselves).

Finally, an observation about the humanities. I think they are important. Knowing history and literature important. They are common touchstones that bind us, give richness and meaning to our lives. There is also variation in the humanities. People trained in analytic philosophy do learn genuinely portable skills in relation to analysis and decomposition of problems. In contrast, the majors influenced by Critical Theory produce ideological parrots.

When I was in college a religious studies graduate student once told me that having a background in the humanities was useful in the business world because you could talk to people about things and make yourself interesting. That is true, but I have a background in biochemistry and genetics and I have no problem in making myself interesting to talk to. All you need to do is read a lot, and I do do that.

Scientifically trained individuals would benefit from reading more widely in other disciplines. Scientists tend to be especially blind to the domain specificity of their ability to analyze and decompose problems, because their tools within-field are so powerful.

But that is neither here nor there when it comes to immigration. Ultimately it’s about values, and your vision for what your society should be. If we are going to limit immigration, and it seems like we will, then I believe that filtering for the “best and the brightest” is optimal, because these individuals, particular in STEM, will be innovators who generate positive externalities by ramping up productivity.

Addendum: Some people extoll the ability of the liberal arts to broaden your horizons and thinking critically about a wide variety of issues. My personal experience is that most people who study liberal arts are lazy, and the smart ones are pretty good at writing beautiful dense essays in short bursts. There are exceptions. People who go to “Great Books” schools, like St. John’s, for example, seem to exemplify what a liberal arts education should be about. But they are exceptions.

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