You know the famous Abraham Lincoln quotation,
You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
But our modern AI-equipped, cognitive science-savvy PR experts seem to operate on an updated version, in which it is sufficient to just fool enough people.
For the last 20+ years, the tech industry PR experts have inundated the press and Congress with propaganda of a tech labor shortage, creating such a “Yes, of course the emperor is wearing clothes” mentality in the targeted populations that the most transparently fallacious arguments work just fine, no questions asked.
Each year, for instance, the allotment of new H-1B work visas is exhausted within a few days of the opening of the application filing period. The industry PR people cite this as showing that there is a labor shortage, when even a 10-year-old might ask whether the situation is more like crowds rushing to stores on Black Friday for the cut-rate prices.
The latest is a report by the American Immigration Council, finding that
As of 2015, the foreign-born comprised one-fifth to one-quarter of the STEM workforce, depending on what occupations are included within the definition of STEM. Notably, the total number of foreign-born STEM workers in the U.S. workforce has increased dramatically since 1990, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the total workforce.
The message, of course, is that the H-1B work visa, the F-1 student visa and related programs need to be retained and expanded in scope, to remedy STEM labor shortages.
Lisa Krieger. a longtime writer for the San Jose Mercury News, has an article about the report, in which she makes no mention of the possible “Black Friday” interpretation of the findings. Nor does she mention that the American Immigration Council is an arm of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Either she is one of the “enough” people who can easily be fooled, or if not, she knows there are “enough” such people among her readers.
So much for the obvious. Here is something a bit more subtle — that 1990 date for the report’s baseline. For the non-cognoscenti, let me explain: 1990 is the year that the H-1B program was enacted (and in which employer-sponsored green card caps were expanded). So to say that immigrant numbers increased sharply after 1990 is like saying that liquor sales skyrocketed after Prohibition was repealed. And for a study on increased numbers of STEM immigrants to be conducted by an organization with a keen vested interest in immigration is akin to a study on increased liquor sales being conducted by booze companies.
Here is another subtlety — the focus on “foreign-born.” The industry PR people and their allies use of the term foreign-born in a very calculated way. As I wrote in a blog post titled, “When Did Foreign Students Become ‘International’?,
Look for instance at the paper by two academics, sponsored by an industry lobbying group, titled Talent, Immigration and U.S. Competitiveness. The term foreign-born is used 27 times, often in such close proximity that it reads quite awkwardly. All this effort, just to avoid using the word foreign at all costs! And it’s also inaccurate; lots of my American students are foreign-born but became U.S. citizens or permanent residents long before entering college. To lump these students in with the foreign students is very misleading (as is much else in that lobbyist-funded study cited above).
In other words, the PR people use the term as a two-fer. They avoid the negative term foreign (related to the dreaded word alien), and even better, it allows them to greatly inflate their numbers by including family immigrants who have nothing to do with H-1B, F-1 and so on.
Needless to say, this report then goes on to cite a number of other industry-sponsored studies as supporting its findings, while of course presenting them as independent work. That level of indirection makes it all the more difficult for journalists like Ms. Krieger to evaluate the quality of the research, even were the journalists to have the interest to do so.
The report also is quite selective in its citing of studies not sponsored by the industry. Take for instance the work by Bound et al, Reference 18. AIC writes,
…since the mid-2000s, immigrants have accounted for the majority of workers in STEM with doctoral degrees. Many of these foreign-born advanced degree holders obtained their degrees in the United States.18
AIC fails to mention that the Bound team found that those foreign grad students tend to be of lower quality, concentrated in lower-ranking U.S. schools. Bound et al write,
In physics, biochemistry, and chemistry much of the expansion [from the mid-1980s to mid-90s] in doctorate receipt to foreign students occurs at unranked programs or those ranked outside the top 50; the growth in foreign students in engineering is distributed more evenly among programs. Among students from China, Taiwan, and South Korea growth has been particularly concentrated outside the most highly ranked institutions.
My EPI study shows similar results for later years, again showing that the Americans with grad degrees attended more selective institutions than did their foreign peers.
And most important, an NSF internal memo written in 1989, at a time the NSF was lobbying Congress to establish the H-1B program, called for bringing in large numbers of foreign students to suppress PhD salaries, and noted that that would drive away Americans from pursuing grad study:
A growing influx of foreign Ph.D.s into U.S. labor markets will hold down the level of Ph.D. salaries. …[The Americans] will select alternative career paths…by choosing to acquire a “professional” degree in business or law, or by switching into management as rapidly as possible after gaining employment in private industry…[as] the effective premium for acquiring a Ph.D. may actually be negative.
This is quite a contrast to the AIC spin, which claims that we need H-1Bs because not enough Americans go to grad school. In actuality, H-1B is the cause of that situation, not the remedy.
In other words, speaking of studies, this AIC report could be used as a case study on how to deceive the press, Congress and the American people. It’s sad that a major newspaper such as the Mercury can be duped in the process, or worse, be complicit in it.