Note to the reader: As my posting title indicates, I’m going to address two very different topics in this posting. They in fact are connected, but one of them — the senseless killing of a young woman — is far more important, not to mention attention-getting, than the other. Nevertheless, the killing sparked a bitter debate on immigration policy, and that debate in part revolves around the misunderstanding of quantitative information. Thus I feel I ought to write about both.
Following up on my last post, “Prominent Political Scientist Decries STEM “Frenzy”, I feel compelled to comment on an irony: In my experience, many of those who frantically call for more students to study STEM are the same types who loathed STEM when they were in school, and disdain it to this day.
As someone coming from a math/statistics background, what strikes me most is the widespread innumeracy (quantitative analog of illiteracy) that I observe among people in the public policy arena. As one otherwise insightful NPR reporter once said to me, only half jokingly, “We’re innumerate and proud.”
I’m not talking about, say, differentiable manifolds, but simple primary school stuff like rates and proportions. For some reason, it’s really difficult for a lot of people in the policy area to understand the difference between rates/proportions on the one hand, and absolute numbers on the other.
A common example concerns the studies that cite the number of patent applications filed by immigrants in tech. Well, of COURSE there are a lot of immigrant inventors in tech, because there are a lot of immigrants. What matters is the per capita rate, and it turns out that the native rate is higher. Given the lack of a STEM shortage and thus the direct and indirect displacement of Americans from STEM, that means that STEM-based immigration is causing a net loss in patent production.
Which brings me to the alleged murder of a young woman in San Francisco by a Mexican national named Sanchez with seven felony convictions and five deportations. Again, it’s hard to speak of something like innumeracy in the context of such a sad event, but the subject matter — immigration and crime — does come up in the debate over immigration, and it’s vital to look at the issue carefully. In this case, by the way, it will turn out that the absolute number, not a rate, may be more relevant.
This was the topic this morning in the first hour of a highbrow talk show hosted by SFSU Professor Michael Krasny, with the focus on the fact that San Francisco is officially a “sanctuary city,” meaning that city agencies are directed to avoid cooperating with federal immigration authorities, to the extent allowed by law. Before I get to the innumeracy issue, I need to build the background.
The guest on the side of criticizing SF city policy was former U.S. Attorney Joseph Russonello, who was present for the full hour. On the “It’s not SF’s fault” side were SF Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi for the first half hour, and civil rights attorney Angela Chan in the second half.
Russonello emphasized various arcane points in the law. While I’d say he made the best arguments, he did not present himself well, often rudely interrupting the other two guests and getting into more legal detail than most listeners wanted to hear. Russonello also stated that, contrary to the claims of immigrant advocates, Sanchez’ prior crimes should be considered violent, as the circumstances indicate that he is with the Mexican drug cartels.
Mirkarimi was very polite, and claimed that he, who heads the agency that released the suspect to the streets, did so because the law required it.
Chan is with the Asian Law Caucus, by far the most radical of the various Chinese/Asian political organizations in the Bay Area. She has been active in preserving and extending SF’s (and the state’s) sanctuary status. She was extremely combative, invoking the “R word” (racism) a number of times, and most importantly for the innumeracy point, insisted repeatedly that this tragic case is not about immigration, and shouldn’t be used to tighten up policy, as many are urging.
Chan, in making her point that the question of this murder should be decoupled from the immigration issue, cited research finding that immigrants are five times less likely to be incarcerated than are natives. Russonello said that there are 175,000 foreign nationals in U.S. prisons. In other words, Chan was claiming a rate, while Russonello was discussing an absolute number. Chan simply could not understand the difference, and indignantly but wrongly treated his number is inherently contradictory to hers, and thus claimed his number must be wrong. Sadly, Chan showed herself to be among the “innumerate and proud.”
It matters. Russonello’s point, I believe, was that the proportion of immigrants in prison is not what a lot of people care about; instead, those people would view it as indicating that without immigration, we’d have 175,000 fewer dangerous people in our society.
In other words, it becomes a tradeoff. In many people’s minds, immigration brings certain benefits, such as a better economy or a more diverse populace. (Personally, I doubt the first, but support the second.). Immigration policy is really a cost/benefit tradeoff. In this light, it’s important to understand exactly what the costs and benefits are, and concerning crime, the Russonello numbers, if correct, must be taken into account.
Now, what about the paper cited by Chan? It was written by immigration advocates, and much more importantly, published by the research arm of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. As such, it is inherently biased, as is so much “research” on H-1B that is actually funded by advocacy groups. The report cited by Chan has NO formal statistical analysis such as computing margins of error, etc.; that 5X figure is especially suspect in that light.
I haven’t gone into this area of immigration research, and really don’t know whether the immigrant crime rate is higher or lower than the native one. If you are interested, CIS, an advocacy group on the other side of the immigration issue, has an interesting analysis, but again, I haven’t delved into the matter enough to say who is right.
What I can say, though, is that for this particular issue, the absolute numbers seem to be much more relevant than the rates. Russonello’s figure is pretty scary.