Why Choose Less?


A recent story in the WSJ caught my eye, since it bears on a topic that is of much practical importance but hasn’t been much investigated. The issue is: why do college students choose the majors they choose?

As I have reported elsewhere, there is now a detailed economic study about what students of various college majors earn later in life. Not surprisingly, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors do better financially than, say, humanities majors. But this study only confirmed what was widely understood all along. It’s not as if students (and parents) hadn’t already understood the disparity of incomes, ranked by major.

But this recent WSJ piece reports that students are picking the easier majors, even though they know that those majors offer lower financial payoffs. It tells the tale of one young Chinese American who enrolled at Carnegie Mellon as an electrical and computer engineering major, only to switch to a major in psychology and policy management (whatever the hell that is!). Psych majors average about $38,000 a year less than computer engineering grads. She explained her decision by saying, “My ability level was just not there.”

The authors raise the issue of whether the continuing bad economy will persuade more students to major in the STEM subjects. But the trend hasn’t been good in that regard. From 2001 to 2009, while the number of college grads increased by 29%, the number of engineering grads only increased by 19%, and those with computer science degrees actually dropped 14%.

In fact, the full stats are even grimmer. As the estimable Sol Stern has recently noted, over the last 50 years, technological innovation was responsible for over half of all American economic growth. However, bachelor’s degrees in engineering (awarded to American students, not foreign nationals) peaked in 1985 and have dropped ever since. We are now down 23% from that peak. Only 6% of American college students major in engineering, compared with 12% in Europe and Israel, not to mention the 20% level in Japan and South Korea. We are near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to the percentage of college grads with STEM degrees.

Returning now to the WSJ article: it notes that one problem is the perceived disparity in difficulty between STEM courses and those in the humanities and social sciences. Ms. Zhou found that she went from earning C’s and B’s in engineering to A’s in psychology. There is nothing new here, of course. Students have noticed for decades how much easier it is to score much higher grades for much less work in non-STEM majors. Science and math majors average three hours more per week in study time. That difference may seem trivial, but students are increasingly less inclined to work. The article notes that the average time students spend studying has dropped by half since 1960.

It also notes, with evident approval, the efforts of some STEM departments to stem attrition by “modifying” their classes to make them — what? more palatable? — to students from other majors. In his class for liberal arts majors, one computer science prof cut down on the theory component in favor of practical programming. Now 85% of the students pass. What his pass rate was before this, the story doesn’t say. Presumably lots, lots lower.

Whether any of this constitutes dumbing down the subject, the story also doesn’t say.

It is also silent about what to my mind are the biggest issues here.

First, to what degree are humanities, social science, education, and other non-STEM departments inflating grades to attract students, or — given the pervasiveness of leftist thought in those departments — out of a loopy egalitarianism? Grade inflation, no less than monetary inflation, is a profound pricing problem.

Hayek and Kirzner urged us to understand pricing as a language. In a free market, if something fetches a low price, it tells the producer not to produce so much of it. I think that grading is pricing. If a student has to work and winds up with low grades, the grades are telling him that he may need to work still harder, or find another major. The STEM instructors are just doing their jobs and telling the truth to students.

But if (as I suspect) the grading standard has been inflated by many non-STEM professors, they are doing something immoral: they are lying to students about their real abilities. If I give A’s to all my philosophy students, I’m telling them that they are excellent at a subject, when most are not. I may encourage them to pursue a career when they shouldn’t, or — more to the point — not pursue a career they should.

Second, to what extent is this problem another example of the dismal failure of America’s public K-12 educational system — a failure that ramifies into the post-secondary educational system? I have suggested elsewhere that part of the reason many employers look to hire college grads for jobs that really require only a high school education is that a high school diploma from most urban public school districts no longer means a thing in terms of basic educational competence.

If students are switching to easier subjects, might that not be because so many of even the most technically talented young people were so badly instructed in math and science during K-12 that they face extra challenges learning the introductory college-level material? Similarly, if these students were never forced to work diligently in grade school or high school, might this not be the reason why they flee majors that require hard work, and in fact are studying less than ever before in college?

All of this is as disquieting as it is ignored by the mainstream media.

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Global Warming Updates


Two recent stories concerning the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) caught my eye and are worth noting.

The first is the news from Forbes that a recent study of NASA satellite data from the last decade (2000–2010) shows that far more heat is escaping the earth’s atmosphere than has been predicted by AGW computer models. This in turn means that there will be far less global warming than predicted by those models, which were used by the UN climate science panel which took a dire view of the planet’s “warming.”

As the study’s co-author, Dr. Roy Spencer — a climate scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and Science Team Leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer on board NASA’s Aqua satellite — put it, there is a huge discrepancy” between the empirical, observational data coming from NASA’s Terra satellite and what has been predicted by the climate warming crowd.

If you still have the quaint and antiquated notion that scientific theories ought to comport with observed data, this gap is, to say the least, disconcerting.

But the Terra satellite data are consistent with earlier data from another NASA satellite (the ERBS satellite) from an earlier period (1985 to 1999), which showed that vastly more long-wave radiation (therefore heat) escaped the atmosphere than was predicted by the global warming models. We now have a quarter of a century of data from two different satellites, pretty much saying the same thing.

The problem for the computer models seems to be that they predict that the increase in CO2 will cause an increase in atmospheric humidity and cirrus cloud cover, which in turn will trap heat, but the data seem at variance with the prediction. Curious, no?

The second story is about the scientist — one Charles Monnett, to be precise — who published an influential article in the journal Polar Biology in 2006 urging the claim that polar bears were drowning in the Arctic Ocean, presumably because the ice had melted from global warming. The article was based on Monnett’s observations, and this “peer-reviewed” article became an instant hit in the world of environmental activists. The article helped bring the polar bear to the forefront of the worldwide enviro movement. For example, the allegedly beleaguered animal figured into Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, which showed sad polar bears — oh, so cute and cuddly! — swimming desperately in search of ice.

That research was then cited in 2008 when the Department of the Interior decided to put the polar bear on the endangered species list. And it is frequentlyused as part of the evidence that global warming is an imminent threat to animal life, so we need massive policy changes, with potential costs in the trillions.

Now, this particular bit of “science” should have aroused some scrutiny before, because it reeks of tendentious incompetence at work. The observational base of the study allegedlyconsisted of four (count ’em, four) polar bear carcasses floating in the ocean, observed from a plane flying at an altitude of 1,500 feet, on a research expedition studying — whales! No autopsy was done on the bears to see if they had drowned; their drowning was just “inferred.”

Note: the internal “peer review” panel included Monnett’s wife! “Yeah, Honey, your paper looks super! Please pass the pasta . . .”

Monnett is now under investigation for scientific misconduct by the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General’s Office, and has been placed on administrative leave from “the federal agency where he works.”Researchers are talking to him and his research partner about their work. Monnett’s career may wind up looking like . . . well . . . a dead polar bear from 1,500 feet up.

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Das Rinderpest Getilgt Wurde!


Whenever people disappoint me (such as when they vote for liberal Democrats) and I think that humanity is just useless, I like to reflect upon the progress of science. It is therapy that builds eudemonia. In this regard, a recent report from medical science is worth noting.

For only the second time in history, mankind has apparently wiped out a major disease. Smallpox was finally eliminated only fairly recently, and now a long-standing pandemic disease — rinderpest — has been eradicated. Rinderpest is a disease not of humans but of animals — specifically, cloven-hoofed animals. It means “cattle plague” in German, and has been around for at least a millennium, killing off animals — cattle, water buffaloes, Himalayan yaks, pigs, and other fauna—that are important to human survival. Given the historically crucial dependence of people on these beasts, the disease has been a plague on us as well.

The rinderpest virus is closely related to the measles virus, and would periodically break out in epidemics (such as the one that the Mongols brought with them to Eurasia in the 1200s). The modern campaign to rid the world of it began at the end of World War II, with the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization. It took about $5 billion in total worldwide expenditures — a mere pittance, really, considering that the recent Royal Wedding in Britain cost about $8 billion.

The key to wiping out the pest was threefold. First, a vaccine had to be developed that didn’t need constant refrigeration. Second (and related to that), the limited number of medical personnel (big-game veterinarians) devoted to the eradication campaign had to learn to employ locals and to focus their efforts on an area of Central Africa (the lowland areas of the Rift Valley) where the disease was persistently endemic. Finally, a quick diagnostic test for the disease had to be developed.

All this has now taken place, and it is cause for quiet satisfaction. We can, it appears, occasionally do something right.

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It's the Population, Stupid


The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty designed to lower global temperature by having industrialized countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. That the United States, the largest energy consumer, has not ratified the treaty frustrates climate control advocates. They do not understand our failure to embrace such a climate change hat trick: empower globalism (i.e., increase the power of the United Nations), augment environmentalism (i.e., enrich environmentalists), and, of course, regulate capitalism (i.e., punish free enterprise). It’s a win-win-win proposition, except for one problem. The scheme won’t work. World population guarantees stark failure.

This is not to say that we are on the verge of a Malthusian collapse. But no matter how zealously the apostles of climate control push their questionable emissions reduction schemes, there is no doubt that anthropogenic demography will trump anthropogenic temperature. Any emissions reduction goals that may possibly be achieved will be negated so readily and predictably that only colossal incompetence and irresponsibility can explain why global warming scientists proposed them in the first place.

To quantify this folly, let’s take a look at how Kyoto would play out with full US participation. Don’t be alarmed by the math. Remember, mathematics is the language of science (although the verdict is out on whether the global warming variety is actually scientific). In any case, this is only middle school algebra, and all the terms and numbers are from UN sources.

Annual global energy consumption (GEC) can be estimated by

         GEC = n1*c1 + n2*c2

where n1 is the population of the industrialized world (North America, Europe and Oceana) and c1 is its per capita energy consumption; and n2 and c2 are the corresponding parameters for the developing world (Asia, Africa and Latin America). According to 2010 UN population figures, n1 = 1.12 billion and n2 = 5.79 billion. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), c1 = 4720 and c2 = 976, where these values are measured in kilograms of oil equivalent (KGOE). Thus, without Kyoto, the current GEC would be

         GEC = 1.12*4720 + 5.79*976 = 10,937 billion KGOEs.

Let r be the emissions reduction rate for industrialized countries. Since developing countries are not required to reduce emissions, annual GEC under the Kyoto scheme would be given by

         GEC = (1 — r)* n1*c1 + n2*c2.

Initially, a 5.2% emissions reduction below 1990 energy consumption levels was set for industrialized countries. But for this illustrative analysis, let’s assume a 10% reduction from 2010 levels. Then, with US participation, the current GEC would be

         GEC = (1 — 0.1)* 1.12*4720 + 5.79*976

          = 10,409 billion KGOEs.

Thus, if the US joined other industrialized countries in reducing emissions by 10%, a GEC of 10,409 billion KGOEs would be achieved — a level that would eventually reduce global temperature by a degree or so, the proponents hope. That is, we must continue at this level until the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that environmental catastrophe has been averted — at least until 2050. However, in 2050, n1 = 1.19 billion and n2 = 7.96 billion. Then, GEC will be

         GEC = (1 — 0.1)* 1.19*4720 + 7.96*976

          = 12,824 billion KGOEs.

Oops! That’s a 2,415 billion increase over the planet-saving 10,409 level. Scientists at the IPCC apparently forgot to take into account the 37% population increase in developing countries. No problem. The emissions reduction rate required for industrialized countries to bring world GEC back into alignment can be easily found by solving for r:

         r = (GEC — n2*c2)/n1*c1

          = (10,409 - 7.96*976)/1.19*4720 = 0.47.

Oops, again! And, this time, it’s a very inconvenient oops. At 47%, we’ll have to try 4.7 times harder than before. If you have turned your thermostat down three degrees to save Mother Earth today (e.g., from 75 degrees to the Obama-recommended 72 degrees), plan on turning it down over 14 degrees by 2050. At 47%, the Prius of 2050 might be the ten-speed bicycle; the Energy Star clothes dryer, the clothesline.

It gets worse — much worse. With their cheap labor and emissions reduction exemptions, developing countries will become the manufacturers of the most energy-intensive products used by developed countries. Among other products, they will, no doubt, produce all of our windmills and solar panels. Their factories will use more energy and their, now wealthier, employees will increase purchases of products (electrical appliances, automobiles, etc.) that consume more energy. Therefore, assume, quite reasonably, that developing countries increase per capita energy consumption to, say, 1300 KGOEs — a 33% increase, but still a small fraction of what people in developed countries consume. In this case, the 2050 GEC would be

         GEC = (1 — 0.47)* 1.19*4720 + 7.96*1300

          = 13,325 billion KGOEs.

Oops, again! And, this time, it’s a fatal oops. Even with the industrialized world complying at a 47% emissions reduction rate, a slight 324 KGOE increase in developing world energy consumption results in a 2916 billion increase over the 10,409 level needed to save the planet.

Luckily, solving the above equation for a new planet-saving emissions rate is unnecessary. Noting that 7.96*1300 = 10,348, energy consumption by developing countries alone effectively breaks the planet-saving energy budget of 10,409. That is, under UN-projected population growth and a reasonable estimate of energy consumption growth in developing countries, the emissions reduction rate for industrialized countries required to make the Kyoto scheme work is 100%.

The Kyoto Protocol is a parasitic scheme in which the population of developing countries acts as an inherent flaw, bounding the effectiveness of the scheme to a level well below that required for its success. Proponents would have us believe that emissions reduction by industrialized countries is the solution. But, as shown above, the Kyoto goal is unachievable even in the 100% reduction case. It is the population growth of developing countries that bounds Kyoto’s success. Ignoring it ensures Kyoto’s failure. Under Kyoto-style schemes, global temperature will be as unconstrained as the delusions of climate control advocates.

It’s one thing to propose a stupid plan. Sometimes, even a stupid plan has a chance of eventual success. But it’s quite another to propose a plan that defies middle school algebra.

Congratulations! If you made it this far, you are smarter than a global warming scientist.

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Beating the Heat


Intellectual honesty is a very rare commodity, especially in areas where there is great political pressure to conform to some Received View.

Such is the case with the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The majority of climate scientists think that AGW, as represented in theory, is a well-established phenomenon; but a fairly large minority apparently doesn’t. Enter the activists, who react to the theory of AGW in one of two ways. The True Believers take the theory of AGW as proven beyond all doubt and use it to argue for massively costly and disruptive policies, such as cap-and-trade laws and Green energy schemes. The True Deniers deny AGW altogether, dismissing the ever-increasing amounts of burned fossil fuel as having no effect whatsoever on the planet, and viewing the scientists who believe in AGW as deluded fools, or part of some pseudo-scientific cult.

Rare are moderate voices. Perhaps the best known voice of this kind is Bjorn Lomborg, the author of a number of books, including The Skeptical Environmentalist and Smart Solutions to Climate Change, and the subject of a great little documentary, Cool It, playing now in limited release.

Lomborg is a Danish economist and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a policy thinktank based in Denmark that specializes in formulating economically sound policies for private and governmental aid programs. He grew up as a devout Green and a member of Greenpeace but was awakened from his dogmatic environmentalist slumbers when he read the work of economist Julian Simon. Simon was an iconoclast who argued that the world’s environment is getting better and that human beings are the planet’s greatest resource. Lomborg set out to refute Simon but after doing the research was forced to admit that he was largely correct. It dawned on Lomborg that much of the environmentalist agenda was counterproductive and driven by inaccurate propaganda.

This fanatical, venomous creature stands in stark contrast with the optimistic, sincere, and decent Lomborg.

Cool It, co-written by Lomborg and directed by well-known documentary film maker Ondi Timoner, surveys Lomborg’s works and thoughts, but focuses on refuting Al Gore’s classic of environmentalist propaganda, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Lomborg believes that AGW is real, but that it doesn’t pose the profound and immediate threat to the ecosystem that Gore and his ilk claim it does. Lomborg also holds that the vast amount of money being spent to combat AGW would be better spent on more immediate human needs, while we develop better solutions.

For this, Lomborg is reviled. For example: in one scene of the movie we see Stephen Schneider, long-time proponent of the theory of AGW, waxing furious as he discusses Lomborg’s perspective. This fanatical, venomous creature stands in stark contrast with the optimistic, sincere, and decent Lomborg — as does the ever-pompous Al Gore. In another scene, we listen to Lomborg recount how he was hauled before the Danish Committee on Scientific Discovery, where his political enemies tried to destroy his career for his outrageous view that the world is not headed for an ecological Armageddon. He survived that Kafkaesque Star Chamber, but it took its toll on the poor fellow.

Besides being an introduction to Lomborg and his work, Cool It is meant to be a counter to Al Gore’s undeservedly famous movie. In one powerful sequence, Lomborg interacts with some British schoolchildren who have obviously been indoctrinated, very thoroughly, with the theory of AGW in its most extreme, apocalyptic version.

These pathetic kids are convinced that they are all but doomed, by Evil Man’s Hideous Works, to melt beneath an unrelenting, merciless sun. It turns your stomach to watch this. In my view, the people who manipulate children to further their policy agenda deserve to melt in an unrelenting, merciless Hell.

Cool It specifically refutes four major contentions of Gore’s movie: that the seas are going to rise over 20 feet and inundate vast portions of land, that AGW has increased the amount of malaria (because of increased mosquito populations), that AGW is threatening the polar bear population, and that AGW is causing increasingly severe hurricanes.

These pathetic kids are convinced that they are all but doomed, by Evil Man’s Hideous Works, to melt beneath an unrelenting, merciless sun.

The essence of Lomborg’s thinking is neatly summarized by one of his lines: “If we only listen to worst-case scenarios, that’s unlikely to make good public priorities.” I would add that it is even less likely to make good public priorities if those worst-case scenarios are based on highly politicized, agenda driven science.

To give a flavor of Lomborg’s views, consider his analysis of the EU’s proposed carbon-cutting eco-regimen, projected to cost the citizens of Europe about $250 billion a year, while producing only slight effects in terms of slowing AGW. Lomborg would rather the EU spend $100 billion on R&D on non-fossil-fuel power (including — gasp! — nuclear power, something that Gore abhors), about a billion dollars on geoengineering solutions to AGW (such as putting more white clouds in the sky to reflect the solar rays), and $48 billion on projects to mitigate flooding (such as building decent levees to protect New Orleans) and reduce the “heat-island” effects of cities, and the remaining money (on the order of a $100 billion) to lessen malnourishment, broaden access to healthcare, and ameliorate under-education among the world’s poor.

The scene in which we see him talking to kids in Africa about what they fear — fears quite different from those that afflict the upper-middle class British kids — brings home his honest desire to see those poor kids helped.

I have two areas of disagreement with Lomborg, whom I esteem highly as a paragon of Enlightenment thinking in our postmodern era. Both are areas in which I fear that he is rather too naïve, sincere as he surely is.

The first area has to do with his idea that if we (as we should) eschew harsh measures to stop AGW, we could effectively spend the money saved to alleviate the underdeveloped world’s problems — lack of food, potable water, and education. In reality, international aid money gets channeled through either third-world governments or various NGOs (supposedly neutral aid organizations); the former are notoriously corrupt and incompetent — which is why their citizens languish in poverty to begin with — and the latter are notoriously inefficient and contaminated by political agendas.

A large faction of the environmentalist community wants to see the world’s population decline dramatically, from 7 billion to perhaps 400,000.

Would it not be better economics just to let taxpayers keep the money saved by killing the more outré environmentalist schemes, money that the taxpayers would spend more productively, and push for free trade agreements with all the underdeveloped countries so that they could, well, you know, develop?

Proceeding to the second area of disagreement: Lomborg doesn’t seem to understand that a large faction of the environmentalist community views Homo sapiens as the plague of the planet, and wants to see the world’s population decline dramatically, from the present 7 billion to perhaps 400,000 in the dreams of some of the environmentalists.” The most zealous crusaders, whose thinking drives the movement, despise the very idea of using natural resources to make people better off materially. They want monstrously costly “solutions” to environmental “catastrophes” (both real and imagined) precisely because those “solutions” will impoverish Evil Humankind.

Put in another way: in the environmentalist eschatology, human flourishing is cardinally sinful per se, and deserves the most lethal punishment. Instead of the old Christian idea, “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” these theologians of the environmentalist faith believe that “in Adam’s exaltation, the world suffered degradation.”

But naiveté aside, Bjorn Lomborg is an admirable man, and Cool It is a jewel not to be missed.

Editor's Note: Review of "Cool It," directed by Ondi Timoner. Roadside Attractions, 2010, 89 minutes.

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