The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Disastrous Rise of STEM

STEM includes the natural sciences, math, engineering, and technology-related fields. It’s all the rage, and at the same time universities are shutting down or reducing humanities and social science faculties and offerings.

In one sense this is a simple result of market forces: university is ludicrously expensive, especially in the US (but tuition has risen massively in many other countries) and the “degree premium” has declined. Once just having a bachelor’s degree was enough to get you a good job, now it’s enough to let you apply, competing against a ludicrous number of other candidates, for a wage that often won’t allow you to afford a house or children.

But STEM jobs are in demand, although this may be changing. The current downturn has seen a large numbers of coders laid off and Chat-AIs threaten a lot of programming jobs, though I suspect less than it seems, so far.

I bow to none in my admiration for science, but our society suffers from a simple problem: we’re doing mostly the wrong things with our technology. For all the increases in renewable energy, the climate change and ecological collapse charts  show no change in trajectory. We’re in ecological overshoot, and we’re accelerating it.

This is not a technological problem. We’ve known what to do for a long time, and we haven’t used the technology we have to fix it.

To put it more simply, more technologists just pours fuel on the fire.

A fairly strong case can be made that our problems have been made worse by technology, but more to the point, the solution to our problems is not technological. Our problems require social and ethical change: they are problems related to the social sciences and humanities. We have to do the right things, not the wrong ones.

I’m not sure that the social sciences and humanities have a solution, but they are at least oriented in the right direction, with the exception of Economics and perhaps political science.

Now there are larger problems with academia. For the current topic, let’s just say that they’ve become disconnected from society, and mostly aren’t working on solutions, because of an overemphasis on sterile “research”, publishing findings for other specialists which don’t get to the general population or influence elites for the better.

But a start to solving those problems is to not worship funneling more programmers to figure out how to serve ads better and create superior echo chambers and walled gardens.

A lack of programmers isn’t holding us back. A lack of good ideas becoming influential is.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – April 30, 2023


Violent Determinants Of Social Hierarchy


  1. Feral Finster

    The most dangerous class in any society is that of surplus elites. STEM represents job training. An engineer with a job and a mortgage is not going to appear on any barricades.

    STEM is also encouraged because it is seen as technical and technocratic, and therefore politically neutral. It encourages finding of narrow solutions to externally defined problems, not to question what problems need to be solved or why those problems are selected for focus.

  2. Mark Level

    Thanks, Ian, you call it accurately again. I’m retired from teaching the humanities (at the high school level) for 3 decades & saw the BS rise of “STEM” in influence starting some time this millennium. It combines very well with the NeoLib TINA regime (the Market rules all) and the violent Empire that tries to invade and occupy everywhere in the world to force “Market based” solutions onto everyone . . . add a healthy dose of technocracy to “manage” the little people (who have no political power or choice anymore.) Put your “faith” into experts and master manipulators, shut your mouth, keep your head down and OBEY. You may vote (since that changes nothing) to pretend you live in a “democracy” or a (degraded) “republic” if you are a little better educated. Your “echo chambers & walled gardens” sums it up nicely!! Fukuyama’s Folly, “the end of history” is here in the West, though the rest of the world may not be accepting that given recent events in Europe and the Slavic hinterlands where the NeoCons ignited another failed wars like the earlier models (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, etc.) As for Elite rule, let’s remember something we all learned when we went online in the 90s (or whenever), the “GIGO” formula. When it’s Garbage In it can only be Garbage Out. As to the remaining scraps of U.S. “society”, education or even “culture” the Elites have decided to rule via GIGO. STEM as currently implemented is a shiny, empty version of that, like school privatization, student loan debts, etc. Same old, same old. Hope is a degraded Obama scam, & a surprisingly large sector of the public does know the U.S., U.K., Canada etc. are circling the drain.

  3. Brian

    Science without humanity is a recipe for disaster. I think of most of the nuclear scientists AFTER they made the bomb, suddenly became humanitarians. Or is it more humane to be like Ettore Majorana and peace out to Venezuela instead of helping make the atomic bomb.

    Science plus capitalism is what will kill most of us. I think of Midgley et al. pushing Tetraethyl lead because it could patented and make lots of money as opposed to the alternate – ethanol which not great but sure as hell wouldn’t lower the IQ of generations.

    I see us on the verge of some amazing things, if I worked in a few disciplines I would peace out too, as I fear we don’t have the humanity to avoid the evil from those things.

    On second thought, we need more than humanity. Humans in general are petty brutal and shortsighted. We need better.

  4. GlassHammer


    The anti-humanities a.k.a. the business schools are filling the void of moral/ethical teaching and they would have to be dislodged from their current position.

    This is happening but…. it’s primarily being dislodged by psychology as managers learn that manipulative psychological tactics nets you more workforce efficiency than any of the management techniques they were taught.

  5. Willy

    I’ve been driving past my exurban town’s school zone past our separate but closely located K-12 campuses, each very highly rated, for over 30 years now.

    I’m a bit shocked that half the kids are suddenly now brown (Mexican, Indian, Somali, Malaysian…). Not necessarily shocked by their color but how quickly the change has happened. At the nearby Costco store I’m in the minority now as a native English speaker. I have no way to know how many of them were brain-drained away from their native lands or if most just showed up looking to get some opportunity.

    But I do know that the promises which were made by STEM-pushing neoliberals didn’t include importing that much cheap labor. I recall Biden telling coal miners to learn how to code. I don’t think that any of these students are their kids. I’m also doubting that many of these 1st and 2nd gen immigrant students will be voting anti-establishment progressive when they reach the work force. More like, “Well at least we aren’t flipping kababs back in the ‘stan so let’s maintain the status quo.”

    Anyways, yeah… increasing population and technology without any humanistic guidance allows unchecked concentrations of power to strengthen. Be nice if we could redirect some of our angry MAGA former coal miners toward the real causes of their angst.

  6. different clue

    The current elites in power and authority poison the mainstream landscape and mindscape with their carefully fostered and nurtured bad ideas to poison the mainstream ground against any good ideas germinating and beginning to grow. This is their deliberate policy.

    People with good ideas of their own or with the legacy good ideas of others in their mind and brain will have to find the undominated spots of counter-society, counterculture, counter-economy, etc. wherein to try putting those good ideas into practice and into the minds of other people who are aware of those same counterspaces.

    People with good ideas and the knowledge to apply them can perhaps interact with the uncontrolled counterspaces to create and entrench countermainstream doomsteads, civic survivalist lifeboat survival fortresses, etc. The “living through hard times” thread which Ian Welsh once gave us might still be a good place to find and put such information, thoughts, links, etc. Another good place might be at the end of every Weekly Wikrent Sunday Wrapup report which Ian Welsh lets Tony Wikrent post here every Sunday. That would also be easy enough to find as a category and just go to the end of discussion threads to find or place information/ideas about counterculture, counter-economy, counter-society, etc. survivalism.

    And a personal understanding of some scientific facts and principals can help in doing counter-mainstream thinking and performing counter-mainstream actions. There have even been books from time to time for helping people do their very own personal amateur science. Here is a link to an article about that concept which includes mention of a relevant group and a relevant book, for example.

  7. Trinity

    I would only add that a lack of ideas that are also focused on a different value system is what is needed.

    There is still good science work going on in many places. Those papers are currently ignored, however, because they don’t fit with the “agenda”. The rise of tech was also to support the rise in surveillance, and of course, profit. Having multiple screens bleating out multiple opportunities to capture and enthrall doesn’t hurt, either. Lots of modes to disseminate lies, or just plain distract. It was also about setting a bar just a little bit too high, and then raising it again (and again, and again). Most of my working day is spent trying to get all this marvelous technology to do as is always promised. Something always breaks, because it was poorly designed to begin with. Every month they add bells and whistles, and break something else in the process. There’s nothing like receiving 100 emails a day, and a recent update means you can’t find the delete button because they moved it, three times to three different places in the last three months.

    Also in defense of some of the wonderful professors I’ve had, the overall goal is to privatize education at all levels. Replacing tenured professors with poorly paid adjuncts increases profits, with the added benefit of destroying faculty unions at the same time. There are still plenty of good professors working hard, but there are fewer of them every year. The “metrics of success” to retain tenure have also changed (ratcheting up) to the point where only a few will be able to meet those goals moving forward. Just like jails, nursing homes, and health care, the goal is still profit and power, and “gimme more” is still the elites’ main objective.

    I sometimes like to think that something even better can arise in out of all these problems, crisis is also an opportunity to make something new and better. Most days I don’t think that way, however.

  8. Garushulion

    Something that almost certainly contributed to the decline is how those studying humanities are forced to subsidize stem students. Universities charge the same tuition for humanities as for stem even though the latter gets a far bigger budget.

  9. different clue


    Sanders was reaching the angry MAGA former coal miners to some extent. I remember reading when he went to West Virginia, people there showed up to give him a respectful hearing. I remember reading one them said something like ” at least Senator Sanders has visited us which is more than Senator McConnell ever did.”

    The DLC-Wall Street-Clintobamacrats were afraid of the power of Sanders’s reach into MAGA country. That is why they manipulated and fraudulated-when-necessary their primary process against Sanders.

    People who are disappointed that Sanders was not the Great Savior of their dreams should learn to stop looking for Saviors in politics. He was never a revolutionary and never a “vanguardist leader” type of person. His whole political method was mass-movement and anti-vanguardist. His biggest fear was re-election of a Republican President, especially the New Fascist Republicans lead by Trump and whatever comes after. He was never going to try a Third Party or Independent run in a few key states in order to get revenge on the Democrats for defrauding him and his supporters or also to begin an extermination, disinfection and political bio-remediation process against the Democratic Party to build a legitimate political party on top of the rubble.

  10. Carborundum

    A non-trivial part of the reason why students are gravitating towards STEM is the comparatively low level of culture war in those departments. The culture war dynamics, in conjunction with the stunning increase in publication volume required to maintain position on the tenure track you allude to (and the rise of more precarious teaching stream positions you’ve highlighted in other contexts), goes a long way to explaining why social science has been largely neutered.

    Essentially, many of those who would have gravitated to social sciences in the past have been siphoned off to the more applied parts of the STEM machine. Lamentably, in the absence of social sciences training, they don’t seem to have the grounding in epistemology that used to be their principal differentiator.

  11. Purple Library Guy

    Honestly, I think complaining about STEM is barking up the wrong tree. The rise of Business departments, now . . .

  12. StewartM

    As I have previously written, I have degrees in both the humanities (European history) and in the sciences. I worked c. 38 years in a STEM field, before retiring last March.

    I think that the pursuit of STEM degrees in preference to those in other fields was something driven by economics. In the 1970s, jobs in the humanities started to dry up. This is largely due to the fact that many of these jobs are linked to government direct employment or subsidies, and the 1970s (with Nixon’s election in 1968, and Reagan in California earlier) these jobs started to dry up as politicos started to use “slashing the government payroll” as a campaign promise. Moreover, at the same time the era of low-cost college was at its end, and tuitions started to rise. Finally (and I can attest to this personally) the competition over the remaining jobs in academia became more fierce, with universities hiring even PhD graduates from Ivy League or other “elite” schools, working them like dogs for a few years, then letting them go without granting them tenure. The latter was a big reason why I didn’t pursue my history degree further, but decided to get a degree in a STEM field.

    STEM jobs were less affected by the 1970s and 1980s–in fact the Reagan defense budget spend-a-thon made defense-related STEM jobs lucrative (cue in Timbuk3’s “The Future’s So Bright, I gotta wear shades”).

    I was fortunate that I didn’t have to go that route, like some of my fellow grads did, getting a job with a company who made mostly commercial products. I spend 38 years in that job until being “retired” in March. So the simple reason why there was a massive shift towards STEM careers (plus medical, plus banking) was that that was where the demand was, and the demand was changed significantly by shrinkages and changes in the allocation of government funding.

    With the sciences, however, my insights are different. I don’t see the past two or three decades of STEM endeavors as some sort of golden age, certainly not compared to the era between 1940-1980. Companies have repeatedly slashed R&D budgets and downsized their scientific staff, and I think the quality of the work suffers due to it. The previous “big science” cured polio and sent men to the moon; now we’re bragging about a new mobile phone? Please….!!!! The biggest breakthrough have come in the biosciences field but to me even some of that seems a tad overblown. By contrast, during one HPLC lecture I attended one of the presenters made a remark that “such-and-such was developed during the 1960s, when most of our material science knowledge was expanded” and instantly I thought “Apollo”. The ‘big government’ science driven by the Apollo project had benefits that spilled out far from its original purposes, and indeed even things that ‘failed’ for Apollo found uses elsewhere.

    I have mentioned previously how I think our university educational system fails us, in particular, the doctorate programs. You get a doctorate by delving a very deep, very narrow hole into ‘new knowledge’ but without having to fully demonstrate proficiency in the ‘old knowledge’ that will make up the bulk of everyday work in any scientific field. As for an example, in chemistry one of the most single useful things to know is how to “read” certain types of scientific data–NMR spectra, FT-IR spectra, Raman spectra, mass spectrometry spectra, rheology data, and the like. Recent PhD graduates may (or may not) have uses these techniques in their dissertations, but usually only very superficially, and even in a “deep dive” might only know how to “read” the data from a single compound or set of related compounds. If you were to plop an unknown NMR or FT-IR spectrum in front of them and ask “What is this? What does this data tell you?” they can’t answer that question. Even thought the ability to “read” such data is the *single most useful skill they will need to know*, they will not emerge from school with any more than a rudimentary understanding. Even something you might think is straightforward, interpreting optical microscope images, takes care and expertise. What we get straight out of school, then, is something like a medical doctor who struggles to make sense of an an X-ray.

    So what kind of crazy educational system do we have where the most useful things needed in the job are scarcely taught at all, simply because they are regarded as “old knowledge”? How these skills were obtained during my work tenure was by a mix of experience, and by external classes—the Bowdoin FT-IR (and Raman) courses, John Dolan’s HPLC training courses, the Leihigh University Electron Microscopy courses, the McCrone Institute optical microscopy courses, plus many more. However, what I saw during my work tenure was companies “going cheap” by cutting back on funding such training, resulting in many of such courses withering on the vine, and being forced to downsize as a result (the cost of these courses, is a few thousand dollars, which in terms of one’s work, a cost one might recoup (and more) if these courses helped you avoid a single mistake in one’s data interpretation).

    Of course, like most of the things our Wall Street geniuses do, it was penny-wise and pound-foolish. To our Wall Street geniuses who run most companies now, even the tech ones, a new PhD is a cheaper PhD than an older one, and since they’re both PhDs, what’s not to gain by replacing your workforce with cheaper workers with poorer benefits? Moreover, they are blind to the facts I have just laid out, how unprepared the new PhDs are to do what will be required of them. In the past, at my company we recognized this fact, so the new PhD hires would be mentored by a senior one and work alongside them, and there was a process set up to develop new hires; it was recognized this process would require years. But increasingly, they are now just thrown into the fire and to deal with things as best they can.

    Consider all this, and then I will understand why I am not as sanguine about our current science, which I believe to have been both corrupted and compromised by Reagan capitalism. I have read papers that had the raw data displayed which looked so awful I thought “I wouldn’t have published that”. I have listened to presentations and seen people make elementary mistakes in data collection and interpretation; if I had a chance, I would pull them aside to gently offer some ‘suggestions’ and resources to read to improve their work. And don’t let me get started about the instrument vendors, who I think at least ‘exaggerate’ the capabilities of their instrumentation and sometimes are just flat-out wrong about the basics of the science too. Plus the scientific instruments of today usually aren’t as robust or as well-made as those 20 or 30 years ago to boot.

  13. StewartM

    What DC said about Bernie. Sanders is actually a fairly conservative ‘radical’. And no, he had no chance to win a general election as a third-party candidate. Sometimes my fellow lefties think as wishfully as the Trumpists who thought “Trump really won California in 2020”.

    And I think Bernie was right in his fears that with the new R fascists, there would no longer be any chance of reform, as the Rs now have shown that when elections go against them then they’ll find a way to invalidate the results (either manipulate a recount, remove the winner from office, or–in the case of voter referendums–a R legislature will simply invalidate the voter referendum result. They have now done all of these).

  14. StewartM

    To the question of “STEM” versus the humanities, I think the real problem is we need to make universities centers of learning again and not somewhere to get career credentials. What I find is awful now is that *high school kids* are being forced to decide “what do I want to do”? even before having spent a single hour in a college classroom. Let’s make college a place where you learn, and you don’t declare a major until after year 2. Instead, you find out by taking classes what you want to do.

    In essence, the 4-year degree would be dead, as you might have to spend 4 more years in a field. But heck, if college was free that’s not a big deal. Done right, it would reduce the number of PhD candidates too (which we don’t need) as the BS and BA degrees would career-ready if done properly.

    Finally, make the PhD students focus on theory, knowing it from ‘first principles’ onward, backwards and forwards, instead of having them dig narrow, deep, knowledge holes. Doing the latter just to say “I did something new” often isn’t very useful, whereas having a thorough understanding of theory and of present knowledge in a field always is.

  15. Sub-Boreal

    If I may offer myself as a data point, I will reflect on this from the point of view of someone on the threshold of retirement.

    “STEM” wasn’t a thing back when I was a student, but from today’s vantage point, I guess that’s how my education and career path would be classified.

    In my early undergrad days in the early ’70s, I was really torn on what to study. I loved reading, so English lit. was a possibility, but the most likely career outcome was teaching, and my memories of what my high school peers were like were too fresh to make that prospect appealing. I was also intrigued by geology, from childhood experiences with fossil-hunting and building a rock collection. But the geology dept. at my U was pretty hardrock-oriented, and I didn’t fancy a career working for INCO as it was then called.

    So my compromise was Geography, which had a strong dept. at my U, but I still took English electives just for fun.

    I don’t think it was just bad luck, but all of my encounters with the “social sciences”, both within and outside Geography, did not impress me. Quite simply, it all seemed like puffed-up bullshit, with atrocious jargon-filled prose to wade through.

    So by 3rd year, I decided to stick to the physical side of Geography, and because of one particularly capable prof, I discovered soils, which allowed me to connect my geological interests with with my environmental concerns. After beefing up some of my basic science gaps, I eventually did my MSc and PhD in Soil Science, which led me into a very satisfying and socially-useful career, with gigs in consulting, the public service, and for the past ~ 20 years, academia.

    A big part of why I’ve had such a good time in this work is the people that I’ve collaborated with. With the exception of a few very ambitious consultants, it’s pretty hard to get rich in this field. You can make a decent professional income, but if you’re really cash-hungry, you should go elsewhere. So that has been a pretty effective way to screen out a lot of assholes and sociopaths.

    And I find that working in a profession which has a pretty material connection to reality – you still need a shovel even if you have a PhD – has kept me ethically grounded, and out of many of the identity politics culture wars of our time.

    So I’d make a plea not to condemn all of us in “STEM”. There are many histories and pathways that got us here.

  16. Jorge

    It’s more of a finance problem than a technologists problem. Finance has diverted a huge amount of talent away from useful activities.

    At this point, if you build something with actual wires and electricity in the US, you need to hire old men in their 60s and 70s to debug and manufacture it. Mining engineers are even older.

    The heart of the problem is regressive taxation. If you couldn’t make that much more in finance, most people would not go into it.

  17. Willy

    Honestly, I think complaining about STEM is barking up the wrong tree. The rise of Business departments, now . . .

    Makes sense. It doesn’t much matter how many STEMs you’ve got if your business model has devolved into a money extraction racket.

    I’ve seen a variety of STEM businesses crippled by their own MBAs. It usually starts out well. When STEMs hire MBAs it’s sorta like the naïve business owner who hires a tax accountant for the first time. “Wow, I didn’t know there were so many ways to save and make money!” Pretty seductive. But unlike with tax accountants, MBAs can keep going in the cutting and slashing and outsourcing and taking advantage and false advertising directions until your customers start figuring out your products have turned to crap.

    Maybe that’s one pithy way of describing “late-stage capitalism”. It’s when creators have been replaced by parasites, when the mutual exchanges of products and services have become money extraction rackets.

    Maybe somebody from the humanities department has tried to point this out, but they got called “jealous” by the freedom crowd. Yeah, they’re “jealous of greed”. As if that’s even a normal healthy thing.

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