Reading this completely incoherent, frustratingly unfathomable column by Tom Friedman, the star columnist at the New York Times, I wanted to pull my hair out. From first word to last, he confuses averages and extremes -- the stuff in my Chapter 1, which is the very first concept in statistics.
Friedman has discovered a new law of statistics: to understand averages, look at extremes.
Starting from the end. He claims that the average American should learn from the average immigrant parents who value education more. His evidence: half of the 32 Rhodes scholar winners have foreign-sounding names. Where to begin?
1. Rhodes scholars are outliers. The existence of outliers does not imply that the median immigrant kid has better educational outcomes. It appears that Friedman has never heard of the "achievement gap", that is, the average test score of most minority groups are far below that of white students. Any teacher can tell you trying to raise the average performance in a class and trying to nurture the top student requires completely different approaches, probably mutually exclusive. Setting policies for everyone based on outliers is not very smart.
2. He equates Rhodes scholars with "America's top college grads". Maybe recognized by some as such but certainly not by all.
3. If he knows any immigrant kids, he'll learn that it makes a big difference whether you are first generation or latter generations, and looking at names does not give you a hint of this key distinction.
Friedman starts the piece trapped in an impossible unpainted corner. Using the story of a girl who texts 27,000 times a month on average, he claims that today's unemployment problem is partly a function of kids not going to college, and they don't go to college because they waste their time texting. Where to begin?
4. He goes on to say, and I quote: "I don’t want to pick on Miller [the girl]. I highlight her words only because they’re integral to a much larger point..." Miller is clearly an outlier (see this recent Nielsen data for evidence). How an extreme case can be "integral" to making a "much larger" point, presumably about the average American is beyond me. We are not even complaining about a sample size of 1 but a sample size of 1 extreme case. Beyond frustrating.
5. The unemployment report that tells us only half of B.A. graduates found jobs requiring a college degree apparently has not yet reached his desk, after over two years. (See for instance this blog post by two seniors.) Among 18-24 year olds, the unemployment rate is 25% (!!!), not counting the underemployed and "marginally attached" and "discouraged".
6. Texting is not the only distraction, and is probably not the most important reason why some kids are not going to college, or fail to graduate.
7. In Friedman's world view (shared and pushed by a bunch of economists who call this "structural unemployment"), it is not a problem that we have eliminated most jobs suitable for people with high school diplomas. When these people can't find jobs, it is their own fault, and their parents' fault. I am not sure how his algebra works: he mentions the case of the micro-chip replacing his receptionist; you know what, one micro-chip will replace an entire team of receptionists - that's the nature of technology replacing labor; and if, as Friedman seems to agree, the "low-end" (read: labor intensive) jobs producing the technology will be exported due to globalization, I am not understanding how the numbers add up - don't we end up with fewer jobs? There is a shift to higher-end jobs but aren't there fewer total jobs?
Now, let's venture into the middle of the column. Friedman claims that Americans have to "step up their game" because of competition from foreign students. How does he know that foreign students are providing tough competition? Look at "two of our most elite colleges" (those in his world are Harvard and Yale); look at foreigners applying to "Ivy League schools". Say what? He thinks these extreme outliers will tell us something about "every school". So there it is again, Tom's Friedman Law of Statistics: to understand the average, look at the outliers.
What Friedman's column proves is that having gone to college and grad school (Brandeis and Oxford) is no guarantee that you can make a cogent argument based on evidence.