copyright notice
link to published version: IEEE Computer, March, 2014
Letter to the Editor and Response: IEEE Computer, May 2014
featured article in Computing Now, May, 2014

accesses since January 24, 2014


Hal Berghel

My first major foray into national political commentary was thirty years ago this month. At that time I challenged the so-called “Apple Bill” that would have allowed computer manufacturers to dump unsold inventory on schools in exchange for tax write-off that exceeded their cost of production. So here I am thirty years later still throwing sand into misguided politician’s crankcases. What can I say? It’s a gift!

In the early 1980's I was caught up in the microcomputer revolution – programming, building, hacking (in the positive 1980's sense). If it had to do with microcomputers, I was interested. But I didn't let my microcomputer enthusiasm suspend common sense. The flurry of federal legislation at the time that encouraged donations of microcomputers to K-12 schools didn't pass my smell test. What caught my attention was the tactic of abusing the tax laws to offload all of the cost of the donation to the taxpayer. Although there was a suite of proposed federal legislation, the most egregious allowed the manufacturers to write off the entire cost of production. When combined with the changes in some state tax codes, manufacturers could actually make a healthy profit by giving computers away. I reckoned this incentivized product dumping and over-production: a paradigmatic case of moral hazard in our current vernacular. Communications of the ACM decided to make my article the cover feature of the March, 1984 issue ( ). And that, in turn, introduced me to the world of attack politics.

Well, it's time to take on the establishment again. This time over the irrational exuberance about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education and the legislative proposals to corrupt immigration policy for the benefit of high tech corporations. This doesn't pass my smell test either.


This story begins with the 1960's space race. The Russian success with Sputnik in 1957 made U.S. politicians puce with envy. Sputnik demonstrated the Russian's clear leadership in missile and satellite technology we were told. That this alleged Russian leadership was bogus was irrelevant. It was used to justify the creation of NASA, close imaginary missile gaps, fuel the military-industrial complex, and change our national educational priorities.

Within months Wernher von Braun was converting old German V-2 rocket designs into Jupiter-C's for use in space. By the time President Kennedy took office, the space race was in full-tilt boogie. To be first in space, he argued, one needs to be first in science and technology. Research became a profit center at major universities, external funding became the researcher's coin of the realm, indirect cost accounting entered the academy through the service entrance, and academic mission creep aggressively drove the academy toward the federal trough. We now realize that the entire process was an over-reaction to an imagined fear combined with missile-envy, unhealthy competiveness, and a misguided sense of national pride – but not without benefit.

I'm not going to go Luddite on you. I recognize the great accomplishments in science and technology that we've achieved in the past half century. Most of us in computing have built successful careers that are in part a consequence of the space race. And I like an occasional glass of Tang and the taste of Teflon in my fried foods as much as the next person. My dissatisfaction isn't with what we accomplished during the space race, but rather what we lost. In our desire to heighten technical skills and achieve scientific hegemony, we lost sight of the incredible value of a diversified, well-rounded education. And this is having a debilitating effect on society today.

Wouldn't it be great to have an educational system that taught us that truth and opinion have very different epistemological ancestries, and that only one of them bears close scrutiny. Or education that showed us that we can no more get to ground truth data via media events than we can get to mathematical truths by interviewing mathematicians. Or education that explained why stakeholder journalism is not journalism at all but product placement – where the product is an agenda. Or an educational climate that emphasized the criticality of the role of confirming explanatory hypotheses in science to our survival as a species. Or education that shows how to separate marketing efforts from facts. Or the problem with the convergence between government regulators and those regulated – or for that matter the liberal use of gag orders and non-disclosure agreements to suppress public awareness of regulatory reports. Aldous Huxley predicted our current intellectual malaise in when he said that truth was being drowned in a sea of irrelevance (cf. Neal Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin, 2005). These topics are the stuff of which humanities programs are made, not STEM programs. Intellectual enlightenment will contribute more stability to society than scientific advancement and technical breakthroughs any day. Both are important, but the former is a sine qua non for a healthy society. For want of an acronym, let's think of a new educational metaphor: STEM-HUM – STEM in the context of the HUMANITIES.


Open source intelligence pioneer Robert Steele once remarked that the arts are a good way of getting us to look inward. One of my favorite examples of the use of the arts in getting at the essence of things is RSAanimate (cf. ) where both sides of the brain get exercised simultaneously. When education innovators talk about the most desirable skills (vs. most employable skills) they invariably bring a hefty dose of humanities into the mix. Here's Tony Wagner's list:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneuralism
  5. Effective oral and written communication
  6. Accessing and analyzing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination

(Creating innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Scribners, 2012; also presented at TEDxNYED ). Howard Rheingold's critical skills are attention, participation, cooperation, critical consumption (aka the Art of Crap Detection), and network awareness ( ). Neil Postman said kids should stay in school so that they'll learn when their liberty is threatened (op cit). The common theme among these educational innovators is the criticality of the humanities to being a valuable contributor to society.

STEM education is important to be sure. But STEM-HUM would be a far better metaphor. At this moment, the humanities part has been, as we say in the world of computing standards, deprecated to the point where it is the object of ridicule in job placement circles. In computing, a consequence of this diminished capacity is our under-appreciation of the social consequences of our efforts. Look at the way that computing educators relegate ethics and social issues to a minimal-credit dumpsite that also includes technical communication, presentation skills, and a dash of cyber law – a repository of topics that few colleagues want to teach. Comprehension of the social consequences of our professional activities should be foremost among our educational goals. This entails responsible stewardship of the environment, appreciation of collegiality and civility, respect for cultural diversity, openness to different opinions, a respect for natural rights and the privacy of others - none of which fall cleanly within STEM cognates or receive much STEM emphasis. It's time for us to ask whether our preoccupation with STEM is justified.

The educated community has been led into a post-modern form of Lysenkoism where the end-all is frequently a label rather than understanding. This goes far beyond Mendelian genetics. It extends to anti- or pseudo-science in ecology, evolution, chemistry, astro-physics, medicine, to name but a few. These post-modern Lysenkoists are more masters of linguistics and polemics than science. To wit, note that for these days the phrase “sound science” has come to mean “opinion in the context of economic and political realities.” We've got ourselves in the bizarre situation where for some “sound science” doesn't necessarily mean “good science” in the sense of testing hypotheses and confirming predictions but “commercially advantageous and attractive to a particular political base.”

It's reached the point where scientists have become apologetic for the lack of certainty in the scientific method. Incredibly, pseudo-scientists are too frequently unchallenged when they equate the lack of scientific certainty with falsehood for their own political gain. Creation of scientific doubt and public distraction has become a political staple for issues from undermining the health concerns over smoking (cf. the now-famous 1969 Brown and Williamson “Doubt is our product” memo (;jsessionid=9C89A99D3A0944A73A7DEAB8BBA2D4D6.tobacco03 ) to discrediting predictions of environmental disasters (e.g., the Klamath Basin environmental impact study ( ). Students need to skilled enough to navigate through the mine field of bogus science, sound bites, propaganda “interviews,” stakeholder journalism and image management to get to the truth. But what part of STEM holds the key to debunking myths and decoupling nonsense from scholarship? The manipulation of science for political gain, with all of its unsavory consequences, will prove in the long run to be far more disabling to a democracy than failing to match skill sets to job trends. When all of the job needs are satisfied, the most important questions of life will remain in the province of the classical humanities regimen.

How did we get to this point? Through an increasingly dysfunctional and politically-charged educational system that is tasked to serve too many masters with conflicting agendas and biases. The current educational climate is forced to focus on minimizing cost, maximizing economic impact, privatization, and maintaining the status quo. None of these contribute in and of themselves to producing responsible, informed, productive citizens. Don't get me wrong. Any educational system that spends twenty years teaching/training student to make widgets, will produce superb widget-makers. But it will not produce citizens who are prepared to ask whether widget production is in the best interest of society. Nor will it encourage the imagination and exploration of the possibilities of a non-widget world. As Aldous Huxley pointed out, our educational reforms have “failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.” ( , )

STEM disciplines are important. Many of us have benefitted nicely from our prowess in these areas. However, history will judge us poorly if such prowess should come at the expense of a diversified, well-rounded education and a well-informed electorate.


H.R. 6429 (aka the STEM Jobs Act - ) was passed by a 245-139 vote basically along party lines ( ). The proponents were reacting to corporate interests' demand for more H-1B visas. The detractors, including the Obama Administration, opposed the bill because it failed to satisfy their preconceived diversity objectives ( ). Both positions are wrong headed IMHO, but I'll restrict myself to the STEM Jobs Act.

H1-B visas are authorized under section 101(a)(15)(H) of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (aka the Hart-Celler Act) that abolished the national origins immigration formula proscribed by the 1924 Immigration Act (aka National Origins Act). Current Immigration policy has the advantage of paying lip service to national needs rather than just focusing on national origin, race, and religion. However it still fails the tests of consistency, fairness, and measurable benefit.

The U.S.-Mexican immigration experience is a case in point. Mexican “Repatriation” (a euphemism for deportation without due process) was the U.S. policy during the recession when labor was in ample supply. The Bracero program immediately followed to attract Mexican workers to satisfy the labor shortages of World War II and a rebounding agribusiness. Once labor supply was adequate, Operation Wetback restored repatriation. That was followed by the politically-inspired 1986 Immigration Reform Act which sought to legalize some of the immigrants missed by Operation Wetback. During the last recession, repatriation and deportations reared their ugly heads. We've used our immigration law like a yo-yo to satisfy ephemeral labor demands at the expense of consistent national policy and fair treatment of the people affected.

Two consequences of the recent recession in high tech were the concomitant downsizing of high-tech companies and the simultaneous cry for additional H1-B visas. Does that make sense to you? Is It possible that the proposed changes in the immigration law are viewed by corporations as a way of creating sufficient labor supply to satisfy short-term needs and to drive down the cost of compensation? Is this the kind of incentive that the government should support?

Wouldn't one expect if there were dramatic labor shortages in high tech that the salaries of the employees would be skyrocketing? But studies show that salaries in computing fields have been flat for the past decade ( ). And every year, U.S. schools produce more STEM degrees than there are jobs ( ) as most STEM degree holders choose to work outside of STEM fields.

What is more, industry executives would have us believe that some mysterious force grabbed Adam Smith's invisible hand and suspended the law of supply and demand just in their case. On their account, market forces have been suspended when it comes to labor requirements. The government should be enlisted because Adam Smith dropped the ball on this one. The over-arching question must be whether immigration policy is the appropriate tool to satisfy ephemeral labor needs. Immigration law is the wrong tool for short-term labor arbitraging. If the public believes that labor arbitraging is required, the use of green card alternative produces a far smaller social footprint. Isn't it ironic how the corporatists feel that Adam Smith got it so right when it comes to the opposing the government's role in regulation and oversight of their industries, but so wrong when it comes to the government's role in bailing out failed banks, and helping high tech companies drive down their labor costs?

As responsible technologist-citizens we should pause to inquire whether these claims both makes good economic sense and are consistent with our values. These are humanities kinds of questions. I think it's incumbent on all of us to re-think the optimal role of STEM education, and pressure politicians to think beyond the immediate needs of the donor class. We are in the right position to articulate these issues.

I'm pleased to report that IEEE Spectrum has an online debate on this topic at . IEEE USA also favors the use of green cards over increasing H1B visas . I recommend both resources for your consideration. The “doubt is our product” mantra is covered in depth in Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury Press, 2011.