In today’s Higher Education Supplement Paul Frijters and Tony Beatton have a go at this article from a couple of weeks ago by Andrew Leigh for his ‘various platitudes about the advantages of diversity’. Frijters and Beatton say (recycling what Frijters said on Andrew’s blog):
one of the biggest dangers for a scientist is to get sucked into simply stating things that go along with what is commonly believed but are not really self-evident at all. It’s very easy to make statements that go with the grain without applying the same amount of thought given to statements that go against the grain.
I’m all for scepticism. One of my most useful lessons in social science came when, as an undergraduate in the late 1980s, I set out to write a critique of a chapter on the ‘New Right’ in book by one of my teachers. I decided to fact check every statement made, and was very surprised to find that quite a few things were simply wrong and many claims were not supported by the evidence I could find. Academics as much as any of us are least sceptical when confirming their existing prejudices for or against an idea, and as a result most vulnerable to critics hoping to take down their arguments.
But it’s hard to see what Andrew has done wrong here. These were the ‘platitudes’ he offered, numbered by me with my commentary in italics:
1. From a purely economic standpoint, immigration supplements our labour market with much-needed skills.
There are immigrants who don’t have useful skills and have high rates of unemployment, but overall there is plenty of evidence that this is a correct statement.
2. In a deeper sense, immigration is valuable because it weaves new threads into our cultural tapestry. Native-born children have much to learn from their migrant peers, just as adults can gain a deeper understanding of the world from yarning over the back fence with their foreign-born neighbours.
It’s hard to quantify this, and it is not much of an argument for immigration in itself, but certainly talking to people with very different life experiences can be interesting.
3. And our restaurants would be bland imitations of themselves without the flavours brought by successive waves of Italian, Thai and Vietnamese immigrants.
There was a debate about this at Andrew L’s blog – while as Frijters suggests they may have displaced 100 different ways of cooking parsnip, it seems wildly implausible to believe that we are worse off for it. Nobody forces us to eat at ethnic restaurants rather than have a different parsnip concoction each day.
So I don’t think there is anything much wrong with these statements. They are just not substantiated in the way that the rest of what Andrew has to say is backed up, and you would not base an immigration program on them. But he is not saying we should. As I think he has noted himself somewhere, they serve a rhetorical purpose in a short article.
If, as a social scientist you are trying to argue something that goes against your audience’s intuitions, it can be useful to say that you don’t reject all their worldview, because otherwise they could just dismiss you as a right-winger/left-winger that they don’t need to listen to. It’s not enough to be right, you need to convince other people that you are right as well.
There is also the ‘yes but’ problem, which I have often faced. In the confines of the word limit an author sets out to argue one proposition (in Andrew’s case, that linguistic diversity is associated with lower trust). Often this will be quite convincing – why else would you have written it? – so people who disagree with your conclusions resort to ‘yes but’ objections, ignoring what you have said in favour of other arguments against your conclusion. It is useful to try to take these off the table and keep the focus on your main argument.
So while I am all for fact checking and robust debate (indeed, I was critical of one aspect of Andrew’s argument myself), I don’t think there is anything wrong with using substantiable though not substantiated assertions in an article aimed at a general audience. Indeed, it would be hard for social scientists to communicate to the general public without doing this sometimes. And would the space they leave empty because they cannot prove every point in 750 words be filled by people with more respect for facts? I doubt it.