Steven Pinker famously observed in The Blank Slate that ‘Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which all loose ends are tied and everyone lives happily ever after. Yet when it comes to the science of human beings, this same audience says: Give us schmaltz.’
The same is true of the politics of human beings, where educated people want stories of individuals overcoming the odds, and hate discussing depressing, but more useful, overall patterns.
A good example is the recent meme that among the recent Syrian influx may be the next Steve Jobs, a theme repeated by that hugely profound modern-day genius Banksy.
Jobs’s biological father was a Syrian migrant, therefore the logic goes, among the hundreds of thousands of migrants there will be another Steve Jobs. The story came up in this BBC piece, where it recalled:
His son, Steve Jobs, became one of the most creative entrepreneurs, revolutionising industries from personal computers through animated movies and music to mobile phones and digital publishing.
In the current refugee crisis that might look like a fairy-tale, but it is not that implausible.
While immigrant youngsters might face cultural, social and economic disadvantages, the top 10% of 15-year-old students with an immigrant background in the United States did just as well as the top 10% without an immigrant background, as measured by the international Pisa tests.
The title of the piece is ‘Migrant students more motivated to learn’, but what the statistics actually show is that some migrant groups on average are more motivated to learn, and some on average are less. In Britain, Chinese and Indian pupils vastly outperform English kids at school, while Pakistani and African-Caribbean pupils do worse on average. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, there is no such thing as ‘immigrants’; and the problem with stereotypes is not that they’re untrue, but that the larger the group stereotyped, the cruder and less useful they are. Saying ‘immigrants’ are ‘motivated’, or ‘dynamic’, or on the other hand ‘lazy’ or ‘criminal’, is unhelpful, but we can nevertheless observe closer patterns.
And in fact migrant school scores vary hugely on a micro-level, so even among Nigerians in Britain there are big averages between Yoruba and Igbo. The Igbo scores would not necessarily surprise any African, but in the West no one wants to hear such cold statistics, because suggesting that migrants from some ethnic groups do better on average than others goes against the schmaltzy narrative of individual triumph. We’d much rather hear about Mo Farah than his less inspiring but less atypical brother.
Throughout the Merkel debacle we’ve heard repeated references to the stories of Huguenots and Russian Jews, two previous groups of refugees who both did well here. Do their stories tell us anything about Middle Eastern migrants today?
Probably not, because to make any sort of argument about migration without breaking down the statistics is useless bordering on the absurd; by all means if people want to hear about the triumph of the individual over their backgrounds, then good for them, but don’t make it the basis of government policy.
Steve Jobs’s father also went to the American University in Beirut, one of the best in the Middle East. His own father was a phenomenal businessman who owned several villages in Syria; the Apple boss no doubt inherited his grandfather’s astute intelligence, but does this reveal much about the new influx of Syrians? We don’t know, but we can get a pretty rough idea from looking at TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) scores.
National test scores won’t tell us everything about the prospects of emigrants, who may come from particular social classes (Nigerians in Britain are typically better educated than Nigerians in Nigeria) but a dull, statistical look at the TIMSS stats from 2007 does not suggest Sweden and Germany have necessarily taken in the next Steve Jobs, given how low Syria ranks. It could be the case, but the statistics aren’t necessarily that convincing.