Friday, 27 September 2013

Do you prefer your sciences hard or soft?

High profile entrepreneur Luke Johnson prefers them hard, at the expense of the soft.

I criticised him for his view that research and education funding should be concentrated even more on science, technology, engineering and maths subjects in my post on the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference blog, which can be accessed here.

To summarise the post, it points out that the view that technology alone holds the key to individual, corporate, political, economic and social progress holds sway in business and politics. What is alarming now is that the humanities, social sciences and liberal arts are seen as irrelevant and suffer funding cuts and declines in student numbers whilst STEM skills and STEM oriented businesses are lauded.

Not for politicians such as Florida Governor Rick Scott and businesspeople such as Ed Conard broad arguments about the value of critical thinking, a knowledge of world history and imagination for a capable citizenry, narrower arguments about the humanities/liberal arts backgrounds of key businesspeople or even more pointed arguments about the relationship between an exposure to the arts and entrepreneurial success for STEM majors: No, these politicians and businesspeople doggedly assume a STEM education can teach you all you need to know about making things (whereas it might dull the ability to appreciate what people need), that STEM advances always enhance economies (they can actually shrink GDP) and that more STEM graduates are needed (but there might be an oversupplythere certainly isn’t a shortage).

In my capacity as one of the organisers I also invited Luke to attend EPIC. I wanted him to hear at first hand why "in order to be an engineer it is not enough to be an engineer," from some representatives of the technology companies he lauds.

Luke declined the offer and I responded: The exchange can be found below.



Thanks for the invitation.

I’m afraid I have too much to do to attend your conference.

I understand why you hold the views you do, but I stand by my opinion on the importance of STEM education if the UK is to retain its relative economic strength in the 21st century.  Social scientists didn’t found Google, Intel, IBM, Facebook, Microsoft etc.




Thanks for your response Luke,

Sorry to hear you can’t make the conference. Two points I’d like to make before signing off:

The STEM education / tech company success link isn’t that straightforward, because:

a) Microsoft et al.’s global dominance might be better (or at least co-) explained by a domestic US culture of risk taking or the availability of VC money for example
b) China and India churn out hundreds of thousands of engineers, yet lag in terms of innovation related to most STEM fields (measured by e.g. patents)
c) A number of US tech company founders dropped out of their STEM courses and are proud of it

As a senior person developing products at a well-known Internet company confided in me recently “purely engineering-driven companies do not succeed for long.” Most large players are investing heavily in understanding what people want so that their original inspirational ideas live on in relevant ways, or so that they can take bold new directions. In the UK, Amstrad might have been a different proposition with social scientists or humanities trained researchers on board

Kind regards,



  1. In my experience, people with no hard-edged STEM aspect to their early education find it very difficult to get to grips with those subjects later on. The opposite just isn't true the other way around. Simply because they are more aligned with the reality of what it is to be human, the humanities are accessible to all with an interest and a willingness to think and apply themselves.
    By contrast, STEM subjects require the ability to develop many different modes of thinking which are variously at odds with 'natural' modes. Just to mention a few, consider the calculus, complex numbers, the fact that all the solid materials around us consist largely of empty space, the mechanism of evolution, the anti-common sense answers to many simple questions of probability - and I've deliberately chosen topics which are addressed at secondary level - at undergraduate level all of these begin to seem like kid's games.
    Thus many technologists and engineers are able to apply wide cultural/artistic/sociological thinking to their work, without needing any re-training or formal process of any kind - they just need to read some books and have some conversations, look carefully at life and think hard and honestly (you may say that I'm oversimplifying here, and you may be right, but essentially that's what an education in the humanities consists of - there are no fundamentally un-natural modes of thought of the kind that abound in the sciences that need to be learned).
    There are many instances of STEM path types forging successful careers in the humanities and creative sectors, but I can't think of any artists/sociologists/linguists who became successful engineers/technologists (of course, there are many such people working within engineering/technological organisations, but that's not the same thing - it would be like claiming that being a lighting technician in theatre is the same as being an actor). Note that I am not stating that there are no such people - just that I don't know of any, and couldn't immediately find any examples via google.
    So, more STEM educated people is unlikely to mean less people available to do work that needs cultural knowledge/skills/experience/interest/ability (they might be a little older on average as some will have transferred from a STEM background, but the wider experience that comes with age is often an advantage in the humanities), but on the other hand, less STEM graduates will absolutely mean that there are less people available who can do tech jobs, because transferring is intrinsically hard.
    This is absolutely not to denigrate or devalue the humanities as areas of study or expertise - just an observation about reality.
    As it happens, I'm a great critic of the Cartesian mindset that scientism tends to suggest is the only way to really find out what's going on (instead of being one among many useful modes of metaphysics).
    Older cultures, it seems to me, often (by no means always) did a better job of addressing the fundamentally hard reality of the complex systems which life enmeshes us with, willy-nilly.
    In denigrating subjective, contingent, non-rationalised cultural modes, we may have freed ourselves from all sorts of thoughtless traditional oppression, but we have also weakened ourselves, perhaps terminally, in our capacity for dealing with complexity - and considering that the climate is deeply complex, that's not a good thought.

    I do hate to agree with Luke Johnson about anything, though.

  2. By the way, I arrived here because I just started a new blog,, to document my experiences as I, an architect of 51, try to transfer into the tech/start-up world. I called it that because in many ways I feel like an anthropologist trying to learn a new culture - the contrast being so clear from the construction industry.
    I hope this isn't too annoying. I'm not in the slightest laying any claim to doing real anthropological work, but nevertheless I agree with you that digital technology seems to be changing all the rules. My feeling is that we are just in the foothills of the changes that digital culture will bring to our society, and further, that the results are utterly impossible to predict. Just to take one example, it seems likely that perhaps a billion or more young people will become digitally active across asia and africa in the next three to five years, as mobile smart devices make the lack of hard-wired infrastructure increasingly irrelevant. A billion!
    Interesting times, indeed.

  3. Hi - thanks very much for your comments.

    You are no doubt right that (as another person puts it): “deeply caring about the humanities (including the arts) does not require majoring in philosophy, English or foreign languages” ( and that conversely, making the jump to STEM would be hard to accomplish for many such majors later in life. But here are some things to consider, in no way making a coherent argument but thought provoking nonetheless:

    1. A STEM education might actually dull certain empathetic abilities that arguably lead to better design (
    2. It is encouraging that we have critical commentary on the scientism that you mention is dulling our ability to tackle complexity but many of the most profound reflections on STEM itself are provided by those identifying as humanities/liberal arts scholars, yet who are qualified to work in STEM (
    3. Humanities trained researchers and applied social scientists employed by STEM companies to help them produce products alongside engineers stress that their work is highly specialised and takes as much training as any of their STEM qualified colleagues. Perhaps lighting people would say the same thing when comparing their own craft with acting but at the minimum when lighting people/actors and design ethnographers/engineers work in concert, they can produce the best results (
    4. The ability to develop many different modes of thinking which are variously at odds with 'natural' modes are in fact fundamental to the liberal arts/humanities/social scientists. I would cite the core concern of anthropology to reveal the assumptions that undergird what we consider to be common sense, which takes a lot of effort (

    For the record I have no problem with your blog’s name and admire your shift in focus. However, I anticipate that many of the inter-field differences you will encounter will be on the surface. When I say ‘technology seems to be changing the rules’, the word to emphasise is ‘seems’: the research that I and others do often uncovers patterns of behaviour that endure or change in spite of not because of technology. There are other forces at work aside from connectivity and determining how these forces interact is part of the work of digital anthropology.