Monday, March 24, 2014


I don't know about you but I am sick unto death of people talking about how great science and technology are and how kids ought to all major in science disciplines and how if only the kids could all become engineers all the intractable problems of modern young adulthood would somehow cure themselves.

In the US and Canada there seems to be this idea that if you could just get all the kids to study SCIENCE instead of sociology or english or art history or whatever, those kids would all get nice scienc-y jobs and the under-employment of college kids problem would go away.

Right off the bat you know is a CRITICAL THINKING FAIL. The production of more engineers or microbiologists is not going to create more engineering and microbiology jobs. It doesn't work that way. Conversely, whatever people major in, someone is still going to be making your Starbucks Chai Latte, someone is going to be watching your kids at daycare, and someone is going to be emptying the trash in your workplace. The logic of "just change your major, kids!" is the logic of highly educated baristas. And, I would add, at least if the baristas major in film studies they'll have something interesting to talk about while they foam your soymilk.

It's like someone looked at a graph that showed "income ten years after graduation" plotted against "major," noticed that scientists and engineers tend to do pretty well, and inferred that if more people became scientists and engineers the more people would do pretty well. Which is so dumb it makes you want to say, "What did you people study in college, anyway?"

This whole thing is even more annoying from the big picture view. Because despite the steady drip of implications to the contrary, most of the world's most pressing problems just do not have science or technology solutions at all. They are human and social problems.

Look at international conflict and war. There's violence in the Middle East, there are Syrian refugees, on whatever day you're reading this I'm sure you can open the paper to find some horrible situation in which people are dying and there doesn't seem to be any workable solution. Huge world problem. What's the science angle exactly? New weapons, robots? Oh - I know, we'll make a giant shield to protect us forever! Awesome!

OK, maybe that example is too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel. All right, well what other problems do Earthlings have? Surely one of them has to do with the creation of wealth -- how does it happen? -- and the appropriate sharing of the goods that result from prosperity. Developing countries don't have enough of most things. Countries like Greece are falling into serious economic hardship where people can access basics like food and medicine. Rich countries are trying desperately to recreate boom time conditions. Given the global effects of the 2008 economic crisis and how ill-prepared for it we were, it would seem we have a few things to learn about how, exactly, all this works.

Where's that knowledge going to come from? You know, crazy as this sounds, I'm guessing it it won't be from the microbiology department. In fact I'm guessing it might have something to do with the social sciences and humanities. You might need some economics. But because you'd be thinking about what people do and why you might also need some psychology. And because you'd be thinking about which of the many impossible trade-offs are the right ones to make, you might need some philosophy. And because you'd be thinking about how things work not in some magic unicorn place but rather in situated social groups, where things happen in certain particular ways for certain particular reasons, you might need history and literature. I could, obviously, go on and on.

Because when you've got a hammer everything looks like a nail, people like to offer technological solutions to problems you might have thought were largely social in nature. Whenever anyone questions some new biotech food technology craze on grounds that no one has any idea what the long term effects of altered crops and so on are, you always hear the same indignant response, that there are hungry people and they need improved crops and who are you to stand in their way?

But in fact, as a species, we're producing more food per capita than ever. From what I understand the world produces enough food for everyone. The problem is who has it and who doesn't. What would you study to try to solve that problem? Nanotechnology? Chemistry?

Listen, I've got nothing against science. Intellectual curiosity, production of major great things, massive improvement in the comforts of life, etc. etc. Who could forget the great gift of hand-washing to prevent the spread of disease? That really is genius.

But it's not everything, it isn't the key to unlocking utopia, it isn't even useful for many of the things we need to figure out.

Meanwhile, everyone's falling all over themselves about the benefits of learning to code. Right -- because if there's one thing we need more of, it's apps. For example, it's good to know the best and brightest minds of someone's generation have recently busy producing an app called "Secret" that will allow people to gossip anonymously.

Finally, someone is doing something about our limited options to gossip online! Whew!

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