Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy is someone I respect a great deal, and I love his blog. But in this post, he tells one of the most blatant whoppers I've seen on the web in recent memory. The title of the post is "Want a job? Study science." The idea is that if you had just gone into a scientific career, you wouldn't be unemployed:
I heard of a database of college majors compiled by the Wall Street Journal based on the 2010 Census. Looking at people who took those majors in college, it lists...the employment rate for that major.
I took a look, and listed the jobs by the lowest unemployment rate, asking, essentially, "Which jobs had the best chance of getting you a job after college?"...I highlighted one in particular: Astronomy and Astrophysics. Note that it has a 0% unemployment rate; in other words, last year everyone who majored in these fields got a job!...But look at the list more carefully...four of these ten majors are science-based (pharmacology, astronomy, atmospheric sciences, and geological engineering — yes, that last is not technically a science, but is science-based). If we broaden our look to science and technology, the list grows longer (especially if you go beyond the top ten)...
[L]earning science trains you in a way that makes you employable. I have friends who left astronomy after grad school and got jobs doing climate modeling, computer game server programming, economic forecasting, and more. Once you learn the methods of science, you’re better prepared for working in other fields as well...
But here’s the irony: a lot of folks in the government claim they are all about making sure Americans have job opportunities...If you want Americans to have good prospects out of college, find good jobs, and contribute to society, it seems to me that teaching science and technology are the very things you should be supporting most.First, let me say: I absolutely support teaching science and technology, a lot better and a lot more than we are doing right now. This is absolutely 100% right.
BUT, the story Phil is telling is just not right. Not right at all. It implies the same thing that many conservatives are saying openly - that the root of unemployment is on the supply side. That our high unemployment rate is simply due to the fact that we're not teaching kids the right stuff, or maybe that kids are choosing wimpy majors. And that story is just wrong wrong-ity wrong. This has been remarked upon by Matt Yglesias and Ryan Avent already, but just to drive the point home, I went through the Wall Street Journal database that Phil cites, and found the following unemployment rates:
- Genetics: 7.4% unemployed
- Biochemical Sciences: 7.1% unemployed
- Neuroscience: 7.2% unemployed
- Materials Engineering and Materials Science: 7.5% unemployed
- Computer Engineering: 7.0% unemployed
- Biomedical Engineering: 5.9% unemployed
- General Engineering: 5.9% unemployed
- Engineering Mechanics Physics and Science: 6.5% unemployed
- Chemistry: 5.1% unemployed
- Electrical Engineering: 5.0% unemployed
- Molecular Biology: 5.3% unemployed
- Mechanical Engineering and Related Technologies: 6.6% unemployed
Compare these with a 5.0% unemployment rate for all bachelor's degree holders in 2010.
Earth to Bad Astronomy: your short-list of fully-employed science majors is totally cherry-picked. (Note: the previous sentence is overly cheeky. I didn't think it was intentionally unrepresentative.) Overall, science and engineering majors are suffering right along with everyone else in the country, because that is what happens when we are in an economic depression. And all those astronomers who have plenty of jobs? Guess what: they're employed because they work for the government. Yep, that's right, the same government whose ability to provide employment Phil laughs at. (Note: I was counting universities as part of the government, which is of course not precisely true. So, government or nonprofit. But the point stands: education, along with health, is the best field to go into right now if you want to be guaranteed a job.)
In other words, Macroeconomics: 1, Get-a-Haircut-and-Get-a-Real-Job-ism: 0.
If you want a job, consider not voting for politicians who think fiscal austerity is a smart move. And in the longer term, if you want a job, consider voting for politicians who will regulate the finance industry.
Update: Phil Plait responds. Yes, I definitely did get colorful with the phrase "cherry-picking"...I'm sure Phil didn't intentionally ignore all the science majors with high unemployment. And yes, universities are not entirely government-funded. He and I both agree, of course, that better science (and math) education would be a really good thing, and that conservative ideologues who want to take science out of school curricula are threatening the future of the nation.
Also, I'd like to point out that Phil's immediate acknowledgment of his oversight stands in stark contrast to how most bloggers, especially econ bloggers, usually respond when they make errors. I feel like there really is something special about the culture of scientists. I think economics could use a lot of that skeptcism and intellectual honesty.