Derb and the Magic Dirt

In which John Derbyshire discovers the power of proper rhetoric:

In the past couple of decades we’ve seen the rise of one particular explanatory strategy. That strategy recently acquired a name—or possibly it’s had the name for a while and I only just recently noticed. Whatever, I really like the name: Magic Dirt.

The core idea is that one’s physical surroundings—the bricks and mortar of the building you’re in, or the actual dirt you are standing on—emit invisible vapors that can change your personality, behavior, and intelligence.

That’s why, for example, you read so much about “bad schools” or “failing schools.” The thing to be explained is that schools whose students are overwhelmingly non-Asian minorities—blacks and mestizos—get much worse results on academic tests than schools whose students are majority white and East Asian. This has been so for decades, defying even extravagantly expensive efforts to change it, like the Kansas City fiasco of the 1990s.

Parsimonious explanation: innate differences in behavior, intelligence, and personality between the races.

Magical explanation: Bad schools! The bricks and mortar of these schools, the asphalt of their playgrounds, are giving out invisible noxious vapors that enstupidate the kids!

Bob Weissberg tossed and gored the whole “bad schools” flimflam in his 2010 book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, which I recommend to your attention.

Another aspect of the Magic Dirt theory is the current popularity of economist Raj Chetty‘s researches on social mobility. Analyzing millions of individual tax returns from the 1990s, then the returns of those individuals’ now-adult children fifteen years later, Chetty found there’s more social mobility in some places than in others. Who woulda thunk it? Sample quote:

    For children growing up in places like Salt Lake City … the odds of moving from the bottom fifth of the national income distribution to the top fifth are more than 12 percent … In contrast, in cities like Charlotte, North Carolina … a child’s odds of moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth are less than 5 percent. [The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Economic Opportunity,Brookings Institute, June 1, 2015]

Parsimonious explanation: Those places have different proportions of the various races, so race differences in average behaviors cause different outcomes.

Official explanation: Magic Dirt! Salt Lake City’s dirt has beneficial qualities that Charlotte’s just doesn’t.

A very cynical person—not me, you understand, but a hypothetical extreme cynic—might surmise that Prof. Chetty’s research is funded by the real-estate industry as part of their plan to reclaim America’s cities for upscale whites by driving out minorities and scattering them to distant towns and suburbs—so they can improve themselves by living on better dirt, you see?

Magic Dirt theory is a key component of immigration romanticism, too. Sure, Mexico and Central America are messed-up places, and presumably their inhabitants played some role in messing them up. If we just move thirty or forty million of those people to the U.S.A., though, our Magic Dirt will transform them into civic-minded Jeffersonian yeomen!

Our hypothetical extreme cynic might again wonder if there isn’t some commercial interest at work behind the scenes there. Central Americans work for very low wages—especially when they’re here illegally and dare not complain.

Magic Dirt: the explanatory power of it is truly wonderful. Perhaps we can use it to elucidate String Theory, or the Mystery of Consciousness.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Higgs boson is implicated somehow…

Simplicity + truth + contempt = effective rhetoric. As Derb illustrates, the core pro-immigration argument really is that stupidly ahistorical and cargo cultist. It is so obviously wrong that it can be accurately dismissed in just two words: Magic Dirt.