Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The hand-wringer test

I have a casual interest in linguistics--I enjoy browsing an Indo-European dictionary and occasionally tweet about what I learn.  I thus came across this discussion of whether linguistics qualifies as a STEM field.  If the question is whether linguists approach questions in their field with a scientific mindset, or draw upon approaches akin to those in the natural sciences, the answer is an unambiguous yes.  Moreover, if that is enough to qualify a field as STEM then most/all social science fields are either STEM fields or at least have sub-fields that count as STEM.  Linguistics may have elements that are more akin to humanities (qualitative and descriptive analysis of texts and behavior), but it also has social science and even natural science (e.g. neuroscience) components.  It is, a minimum, a good fit for the stated description of STEAM, if not STEM.

However, I mostly approach the definitions of words from a descriptivist perspective, not a prescriptivist perspective.  STEM sits on a pedestal, and the descriptivist's question is not whether linguistics belongs on the pedestal but whether the gatekeepers will recognize its right to stand on the pedestal.  Linguistics may fit the gatekeepers' stated criteria for inclusion in STEM, but people are rarely honest about the criteria that they actually employ to determine admission to a pedestal.  You have to watch their actions, not just listen to their words.  And from my experience in a university where the local culture perceives its moral legitimacy as deriving from our work on bringing students into STEM, social science is only STEM when we're trying to be collegial with social science faculty, or when a social scientist is studying issues of STEM equity and the STEM workforce.

As I said in my post about STEAM, the way to figure out if a field is STEM is to do a though experiment involving students changing majors.  Suppose that two twins, Alice and Bob, start off as electrical engineering majors.  Alice then changes majors to physics, while Bob changes to a social science field.  Which decision would elicit more hand-wringing among the people who worry about the STEM Pipeline?

A tempting rejoinder is that we shouldn't care about the hand-wringers, we should just look at the intellectual rigor of the field, and we'd have to agree that there are plenty of things in linguistics that qualify as science.  I don't deny that, but I would note that (1) there are plenty of people whose work is definitely not science but is nonetheless intellectually rigorous (e.g. good scholars in the humanities) so why is intellectual rigor a sufficient criterion for inclusion in STEM? and (2) if we go down that road then most departments on a university campus would have STEM components (e.g. there's plenty of chemistry in art, plenty of acoustic science and technology in music, plenty of behavioral science in marketing, etc.) and STEM becomes so broad that it papers over the distinctions that make for intellectual diversity.  If STEM is the arbiter of good then everything is STEM and everything is good and everything belongs on campus, but we already agreed that the art and literature and business faculty should work on the same campus as the physicists and biologists and mathematicians, so what was the point of this label again?  Oh, right, STEM is on the pedestal.  Well, maybe instead of putting everything onto the pedestal we should point out how silly the pedestal is, and how ultimately destructive it is to the notion of intellectual diversity.

Anyway, I have a casual hobbyist interest in linguistics, and I certainly respect the rigor and value of the field, but I think that instead of including everything in STEM we should question why inclusion in STEM is considered so valuable.

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