IEEE Spectrum (what, you don’t get it delivered?) recently published a short article about the relationship between STEM and STS.

STEM, as most of us know, is Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. Pundits the world over like to remind us how important it is that we graduate as many STEM folks as possible. (That notion is wrong, by the way. We should encourage people who like STEM to pursue STEM.)

STS is less commonly known. That’s “Science and Technology in Society,” and the name describes well enough. STS people study science itself: its processes, people, culture, and outcomes.

I believe I am one of a relatively small cohort of people who are both STEM-y and somewhat STS-y. The former, I get from my engineering degree and my natural proclivity to figure out how things work and to make my own working things. The latter I get from my policy training, which included an introduction to some of the basic concepts in that field. (My wife, an STS scholar herself is also a big factor!)

But I think the seeds of my STS-orientation came much earlier in life, when I was still an undergraduate in engineering school. My engineering program, at the University of Virginia, required all undergraduates to write a thesis, and that thesis had to address important STS concepts like engineering ethics. It was not just the thesis, either. My BSEE required several classes at SEAS’s own engineering humanities program, with required books, such as To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (Petroski),  The Design of Everyday Things (Norman), Normal Accidents (Perrow), The Civilized Engineer (Florman) and, of course, Frankenstein (Shelly). At the time we wondered, why, at a world-class university, would the school of engineering host its own humanities classes? Now I can see that there was something truly cutting-edge about it. (It’s not like we were barred from taking classes outside the engineering school.)

Perhaps because I was indoctrinated at a young age, or because the concepts are right, I firmly believe that an engineer who works without considering the consequences of his creativity is at risk of creating less valuable things than he might. We can all easily conjure a list of the “blockbuster bad ideas” of the 20th century (mustard gas, nuclear weapons, etc). But even when the engineering output is an unalloyed good, with a bit of STS consideration, it is entirely possibly that something even better could have been created. Also, I just find it kind of bizarre that STEM folks might be discouraged from thinking about what there work means. I guess its part of the myth of the objectivity of science that there is no meaning to think about. That’s wrong about science, and it should be prima facie obviously incorrect about engineering, which is by definition, a process directed by human desires.

But this kind of more holistic thinking isn’t particularly common, and as a result, places like Silicon Valley seem to be pretty bad at considering consequences. When you’re racing to create something, who has time to stop and think about its implications, much less let those implications determine the course of development? One simple example: hundreds of years of history led to the universally accepted notion that the integrity of a sealed letter should be maintained by all couriers involved in its delivery. When email came along, no such consideration was made. Why? How would the Internet as a means of communications have evolved if privacy were a consideration from the get go? Could the Internet have been “better?” (Yes, duh.)

Anyway, the IEEE article seems to conclude that most of the barriers to getting STEM folks to take on STS thinking are due to the culture of STEM. Though there is truth to that, it’s not the whole story, by far. For example, STS, philosphy, and policy folks have their own jargon and shibboleths, and it’s not easy for someone not trained in the game to participate. Furthermore, even when you do have something to add, I have found the policy crowd rather hostile to direct participation from STEM folks. One reason is that STEM folks are very analytical, and want to talk about all sides of an issue. On the other hand, policy people, at least non-academic “practicing” policy people are usually focused on a predetermined desired outcome, and the whishy-washiness of the engineers is not very welcome or useful to their campaign. It doesn’t help that engineers often expect carefully curated analysis to “speak for itself.” It doesn’t. I can also attest, again, from firsthand experience, that analysis is not highly prized in policy circles. Analysis comes with strings attached: subtlety, complexity, and confounding factors that are of no help when you are trying to persuade.

It’s also important to remember that most engineers work for someone else. They make their living realizing others’ goals. As such, their leeway to affect the direction of their work is limited and to engage in too much STS thinking is to risk their livelihoods.

And finally, in our toxically overspecialized world, it’s just punishing to be a “boundary spanner.” There are no rewards, and it’s a lot of work. If you have the skills, it is very difficult to find employment that will draw meaningfully on both reservoirs of knowledge. This, perhaps, has been the biggest frustration of my career, as I have bounced between these worlds repeatedly, missing one while in the other.

Finally, a parting shot: If you want to bring STS concepts to the fore, you need to bring them to the people with power. Those are not the heads-down STEM practitioners, those are the C-suite masters of the universe. Let’s see some STS thinking more deeply integrated into the curricula at top business schools. Not just an ethics class to check a requisite box, but something more integrated that leads students to think holistically about their companies’ activities and products rather than, say, applying some post-hoc greenwashing or CSR.

2 thoughts on “STEM vs STS”

  1. But, self-driving cars!

    Seriously, well thought out. I want to see commenters post here instead of FB, just so Zuckerberg loses an infinitesimal number of eyes and few thousands of a cent’s worth of advertising.

    As someone who is professionally trained (to the extent that the social sciences are any sort of profession), how do we bring STS concepts to the folks in the corner offices?

    1. Thanks for the supportive comment. I definitely started this blog with the hope that my friends would use it as a place to kibbitz, but the Force of FB is powerful.

      I don’t have answers on how to add STS to SV corner offices. I can think of some good reasons it’s hard. I have no hard data, but my gut tells me that the corner office types tend to, as a group, just not be the reflective sort. That means that a philosophy that requires reflection is not going to get much traction. But they also have a strong incentive not to get to reflective, as applying such a philosophy to their business presents just one more constraint on their actions, complicating business. In the worst case scenario, it can mean walking away from money — an unattractive choice, especially when you know the next guy won’t be as selective.

      An example: the AI-customized news feed. People like getting news that matches there “preferences” and that has turned out to be a successful approach to media. But evidence is mounting that it’s having dire political consequences. Was this predictable? I’m pretty sure it was predicted. (I haven’t researched it.) Would Zuck have stopped, or designed his algorithms differently, if he knew that they would ultimately contributed, to, say, the rise of a certain sociopathic demagogue?

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