Remember back when the George W. Bush White House leaked statements about Iraq to the New York Times, and then quoted the same New York Times for White House Press Statements? Maybe the same disinformation is happening right now in regard to high skilled jobs (and H-1B visas in the background).

Binary Art

What future in big data?

Predicting job hiring trends is tricky business. It is also easy to mislead and confuse the reader.  The American Statistical Association recently published a press release on jobs in statistics. There is now a lot of back-and-forth on which degrees have good potential for well paying jobs. This press release argues that a consistent and sizable increase in students pursuing a major in statistics means there are a lot of jobs. I hope you paused at that jump in logic because lots of students does not mean lots of jobs.

Next the press release cites an imposing report from 2011 by an economics firm (The McKinsey Global Institute). This report is not really about jobs; the report is a marketing campaign for “big data,” indicating what it is and how many businesses are interested. Big Data is all that personal stuff aggregated by our healthcare providers, by the National Security Agency (NSA), by marketers who monitor our internet searches and which websites we read. So, this report claims there will be a lot of use of this technology. I wonder who paid for this report and what influence that money had on the outcome.

The statistics press release also cites “A recent CareerBuilder survey” claiming that companies were hiring a lot of people for jobs in Big Data. This is an industry survey. Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsor snapshot surveys for recent BS and MS graduates and long-term studies that follow other graduates for decades. These surveys are generally more reliable than job surveys by industry. I especially like when outside academics like Prof. Norman Matloff and Prof. Paula Stephan analyze these government-sponsored datasets.

There are good reasons to question whether basing decisions on Big Data is worth the enthusiasm. My immediate concern is whether jobs really exist as claimed in this press release. The science and math community has predicted for decades a shortage of scientists, a shortage of women scientists, a shortage of minority scientists and also here. The problem with this press release is no solid data about actual hiring, career longevity, and pay.  It is very easy to encounter bias in these salary surveys. Age discrimination, jobs designed to exclude US citizens, confusion about classroom training vs. job-specific skills, and simple employer greed obscure the issues.

The professional association for electrical engineering and computer science and the professional association for chemists both acknowledge there is no general shortage of trained scientists and express concern over about the need for more foreign researchers during a time of large corporate layoffs.

Everyday, we encounter these disinformation campaigns. It is rare to catch one in development. PRWatch and FAIR specialize in watching aspects of this disinformation. Big money promotes charter schools and high stakes testing, an urgent war in Syria, fear over Obamacare.  Peter G. Peterson promoted fear over the national deficit, and this propaganda may have helped with the skirmish in a couple weeks over the national debt limit. It is not easy to spot the flaws when skilled professionals manufacture the arguments.

Photo by Michael Coghlan released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.