Why do people who chose not to study science and math opine on the virtues of studying science and math?

The New York Times editorial board contains people who studied history, economics, law, history (again), journalism, journalism (again), history (again, this time for the “science” expert),  journalism, English literature, French literature, English literature (again), comparative literature, law, psychology, international relations, German, modern history, and law. Yesterday, the group signed an editorial entitled “Missing from Science Class; Too Few Girls and Minorities Study Tech Subjects.” The group of history and literature majors confidently wrote about the benefits of a tech education, how to motivate women and people with particular skin colors, and the sagacity of President Obama’s proposal on preschools (my previous post on the subject; note that Obama has previous extolled the virtues of STEM education for people other than himself (example)).

Why would folks who apparently preferred other subjects suggest that women and particular minority groups be encouraged to study tech subjects that they themselves did not like and ended up not needing?

Separately, here is a much more substantive approach to the challenge of getting more women interested in computer science: “Feminism and Programming Languages” by Arielle Schlesinger. Excerpts:

  • “In the scope of my research, a feminist programming language is to be built around a non-normative paradigm that represents alternative ways of abstracting. The intent is to encourage and allow new ways of thinking about problems such that we can code using a feminist ideology.”
  • “The idea came about while discussing normative and feminist subject object theory. I realized that object oriented programmed reifies normative subject object theory. This led me to wonder what a feminist programming language would look like, one that might allow you to create entanglements (Karen Barad Posthumanist Performativity).”
  • “I realized that to program in a feminist way, one would ideally want to use a feminist programming language.”

[Among existing technologies, my personal choice for a feminist programming language would be SQL. The woman expresses her demands for data with five lines of code; a team of 100 men writes 2 million lines of C that must consider all possible ways of satisfying the the query and ultimately supply the answer.]

20 Comments

  1. J. Peterson

    December 12, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

    1

    The constant cheerleading for getting degrees in science baffles me. As if Craigslist is full of ads looking for astronomers and evolutionary biologists.

  2. Scott P

    December 12, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

    2

    I actually clicked on the link and read it to verify the quote was real. I thought it was satire. Who talks like that? No one I ever want to speak with!

  3. John Klein

    December 12, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

    3

    “I realized that object oriented programmed reifies normative subject object theory. This led me to wonder what a feminist programming language would look like, one that might allow you to create entanglements”

    What does that mean exactly? Is this a Sokal hoax?

  4. philg

    December 12, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

    4

    John: The HASTAC site seems to be depositing real checks (see http://www.macfound.org/press/press-releases/digital-media-learning-competition-provides-2-million-for-innovations-in-digital-badges/ ).

    http://feminismswest2013.thatcamp.org/author/arielle_schlesinger14/

    indicates that the poster is a student at Pitzer College. She has a Twitter feed on similar issues:

    https://twitter.com/ariellebea

  5. anon

    December 12, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

    5

    It’s interesting to note Arielle is not writing a ‘female oriented’ programming language, but rather a ‘feminist logic’ programming language.

    Good luck on ever doing a backtrace to figure out which statement incorrectly modified a variable!

  6. Kourt Bailey

    December 12, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

    6

    The literal answer to your rhetorical question is “to serve their patrons by decreasing the cost of skilled labor by increasing its supply”. An article like this has two functions:it might dupe a few gullible teenagers into pursuing a math/science career, but most importantly, it serves to “manufacture consent” (Chomsky’s book) for anti-STEM-worker laws such as indentured servitude visas (H1-B) and the diploma-mill green card. These policies are seen as key profitability initiatives by many billionaire executives in the technology industry (Mark Zuckerberg went as far as to create a nonprofit mostly to lobby on this issue), manufacturing, and administrators in academia (who currently benefit from overproduction of engineers, and would benefit even more if granted a franchise to issue green cards).

  7. Pet Peeve Boi

    December 13, 2013 @ 1:38 am

    7

    This is a pet peeve of mine too. Whenever I hear someone say this I ask them to give me the second derivative of x^3 and name five halogen elements (the fifth one is a doosey and the sixth one is generally unknown even to most scientists, frankly I would accept the obvious four).

  8. Jeff B

    December 13, 2013 @ 11:55 am

    8

    Why do people who didn’t study science encourage science for others? The same reason people who drive encourage public transportation for others.

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/report-98-percent-of-us-commuters-favor-public-tra,1434/

    On another note, there was an interesting interview in the SF Examiner with a woman who studied laser science at UCLA. She is now a certified sommelier and is co-owner of a wine bar in the mission district in San Francisco.

    http://www.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/learn-from-sommeliers-at-barrel-room-wine-bar/Content?oid=2648639

    What made you switch from being a laser scientist to a wine expert: “The path I was on would have led to a research position. I accomplished what I wanted to, and I didn’t want to be locked in a little basement lab all day and night. Wine provides enough science to satisfy that aspect of what I like.”

  9. Jeff B

    December 13, 2013 @ 11:57 am

    9

    (error in my previous post, the wine bar is located in Union Square, not the mission)

  10. Trevis Rothwell

    December 13, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

    10

    Philip: In retrospect, what do you think of your math/computer science education? Was it worth it? Do you wish you had done things differently?

  11. philg

    December 13, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

    11

    Trevis: Was my education worth it? We can look at the dollars first because that’s simpler. Remember that my education hardly cost anything by modern standards! Public school budgets, adjusted for inflation, are 2-3X what was spent on my primary and secondary education back in the late 1960s and 1970s. MIT tuition was $5300/year when I entered in 1979. That’s $17,050 in today’s mini-dollars, which compares to $43,210 today (see http://web.mit.edu/registrar/reg/costs/ ). In terms of the money that I have earned over the years I don’t think my formal MIT education was very helpful, i.e., the stuff that I learned in official classes. But being able to sit next to good programmers and develop exposure to early Internet applications paid off relatively well for me (albeit if I had gone to dental school and steadily worked as a dentist for all of those years since I graduated in 1982 I probably could have earned a similar amount).

    I like knowing how things work, so I am glad that I have a technical education, I think. But I might have been happy concentrating on something else. The fact that I went to MIT and studied “STEM” as they call it now was accidental. I went to work as a teenager and the guys in my office were physicists who had gone to MIT.

    Anyway, this is kind of off topic. As it happens I have a tech education. So the last thing I would expect to be doing is telling others that they need to study poetry and medieval history. And certainly I wouldn’t presume to tell teachers what the best way to motivate poetry and history students was!

  12. Beau

    December 13, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

    12

    As a STEM student I am raising my daughters to learn and understand small and micro businesses. Starting them in k-12 and learning each as a larger and larger project. I program because it is my art language and frankly I am only decent at math. I have an “accidental” masters because I needed to get access to a better hiring pool than where I was after my bachelors (I worked in a very geographically remote area). It was a business decision. I pay X for my Masters in exchange for a school with an excellent hiring pedigree.

    Point is. Life basics and good decision making are much more key to education.

  13. Philip Nelson

    December 13, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    13

    Because somewhere, deep down, they sense that if everyone follows their example, civilization will grind to a halt fairly quickly because everyone will be talking about doing things, but no one will be doing them?

  14. Owen

    December 14, 2013 @ 1:28 am

    14

    A science educator who works at the policy level told me there is an inverse relationship between the proportion of the population getting a science education and the support for science by the voters. So it’s in scientists’ best interests to make it hard to enter the field as possible!

  15. anon

    December 14, 2013 @ 3:55 am

    15

    Philip,

    You may be interested to know that over a 4chan some folks put together a pretty good parody of a feminist programming language. I believe it to be clever in that it nicely melds programming jargon and feminist jargon, funny as well as accurate and biting in terms of social commentary.

    You can find it at bitbucket here https://bitbucket.org/FeministSoftwareFoundation/c-plus-equality

    What is notable is that once upon a time the net interpreted censorship as damage and routed around it. But this repository was first hosted at GitHub here https://github.com/FeministSoftwareFoundation/C-plus-Equality

    Yesterday on twitter, feminists complained about this allegedly misogynistic repo. https://twitter.com/search?src=typd&q=github.com%2FFeministSoftwareFoundation%2FC-plus-Equality

    By the end of the day, GitHub had taken it down, but as of yet, I know of no explanation by GitHub for that takedown

    In our new Feminist Net, Github treats censorship as a feature and routes us to it.

    There was some discussion of this at Hacker News, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6903584 if you find this topic of interest, I would certainly believe it is worth a post.

  16. zz

    December 14, 2013 @ 7:10 am

    16

    Teachers, education in general … are easy targets, and that is perhaps the biggest reason to stay out of education (unless you can write your own ticket at a top 100 university). Nevertheless, STEM educated myself I have found it valuable time after time—it gives me a big advantage over other people in being able to tell feasible from unfeasible as well as possible from impossible not to mention true from false—even though I have forgotten almost all the STEM I ever learned.

    I have no reticence in recommending better reading and writing skills (including poetry and literature) to the STEM educated. If high school algebra included an occasional essay, it would be a great leap forward. Perhaps those people recommending more STEM do so because they have had personal experiences that make them wish they had studied it more.

  17. Tim

    December 14, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    17

    Her writing is similar to the turgid scientific output of people needing to publish something. I understood what she meant about object oriented programming reifying subject object theory, only after looking up the word reify. I am still not sure what she means by using normative vs feminism. I don’t care for the feminist ideas, but I do care about humanist ideas, which emphasis human beings. A computer is neither male or female, but rather a development of humans working on technology and philosophy problems. Let’s take it to the logical extreme. Imagine an AI indistinguishable from a human. Do you really want it using feminist logic?

    I would imagine a feminist computer language would be more like assembly. It’s cryptic and useful on a specific architecture, but only marginally useful to those working with high level languages.

  18. Semirah Dolan

    December 15, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

    18

    I am surprised that this NYT opinion page was posted only 5 days ago. I am currently pursuing STEM as both a minority and women and I feel the total opposite of this. The women and minorities interested in STEM, that I’ve come in contact with, take advantage of the idea that their presence is “rare” in STEM careers.

    The world is so full of women who wish to empower and inspire other women and I can’t imagine STEM careers without women all throughout the industry.

    This is coming from the perspective of a senior in high school. Maybe I’m privileged because, I live in Boston, a city teeming with women in STEM careers. Or maybe the world has already implementing the evolution of women and men, equal in the STEM industry. Equal is a touchy adjective but, we are on our way there.

  19. Pavel

    December 16, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

    19

    The goal of the NYT article is simple, they want to increase the supply, which lowers the cost of hiring a STEM graduate. Talking to Wall Street, Its really good for business if STEM graduates salaries start going down to the level of a non-union service employee. Lower STEM salaries would also make North American companies more competitive with China and India. STEM graduates with a non-union service salary can afford shack in Alabama much easier than San Francisco or Boston. Today, smart money goes to start companies in the southern US rather than East Coast or West Cost.

    If STEM graduates started thinking like lawyers and bankers they would do financially much better. STEM graduates need to start thinking more about how they can take advantage of society and opportunities, just like a good wall street banker.

  20. Alex T

    December 16, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

    20

    I am a thirtysomething web developer with decent degrees in history and pol-sci, and I *totally* regret wasting my education on such fluff. I had the opportunity to learn useful stuff properly, from the ground up, which would have saved countless hours of toil later and given me confidence I still don’t quite have. Instead I chose subjects which allowed me to pass exams on the back of almost no work at all. I love the humanities but I should have kept them as a free-time passion and given more serious thought to my future career. Of course, it is all entirely moot because back then I had no interest in programming computers. And luckily for me, my mistake didn’t cost anything at all since the British taxpayer paid for it.

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