Anti-humanities sentiment in geekdom

2010 October 11

A sort of an “Ask a Geek Feminist” bonus round, from KMF in the open thread (you can always ask questions in the open thread, but they may or may not be promoted to the front page like this):

I’m a longtime geek and feminist, but a newcomer to geek feminism. I’m glad I found this blog, because it gives me the opportunity to ask a question I’ve been pondering for a long time. I’ve seen a lot in geek feminist circles about anti-science bias in feminist circles, but what about anti-social science/humanities bias in geek ones?

Allow me to clarify: I do steampunk, listen to nerdcore rap, play online RPGs, and write (horrible) fanfiction. I love geek communities of all kinds. However, when it comes down to talking about women in geekdom, I feel a bit out of place. Although I love math and science (and have done a fair amount of coursework on the history of science), I’m not professionally or academically focused on a field in STEM. I’m a double major in music history and women’s studies. In geek communities, I sometimes see women’s studies (and other areas in the humanities) criticized or dismissed for being “anti-science,” and women in these fields called out for not wanting to be scientists.

I’m not anti-science (quite the opposite) and I didn’t buy into some sexist pressure against women in STEM. I just want to be a feminist historian. I also happen to be a geek. I feel that this shouldn’t be too difficult.


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This post was written by mary.

Mary is a Free Software contributor, computational linguistics research student and programmer at large. She can also be found at and Hoyden About Town.

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24 Responses
  1. Restructure! permalink
    October 11, 2010

    Yes, there is both an anti-science bias in feminist/social science culture, and an anti-social-science/humanities bias in STEM geek culture. I am both a humanities geek and a science/tech geek, and I shake my head at both types of anti-intellectualism.

    xkcd’s Purity exemplifies the anti-social-science mindset. In extreme cases, you have physicists who think that they know more about social science than social scientists. (I also blogged about a related point. STEM geeks see their fields as more pure than social science, so they see social scientists as more biased than STEM geeks.)

    Whether a specific criticism about social science/humanities is actually anti-science or not depends on the specific criticism.

    I think there should be a lot more cross-fertilization between humanities/social sciences and science/tech. Unfortunately, many people are taught that people are either good at humanities or good at science (and that humanities is female and science is male), so people who are good at one thing assume that they are bad at the other.

    • Andrew permalink
      October 12, 2010

      Interestingly enough, there are a few quotes from Richard Feynman about this:

      Feynman isn’t really argueing about purity though, at least not in this video. This is more of a criticism of their their methods.

      • Restructure! permalink
        October 12, 2010

        I hope you are not one of those Feynman worshippers who think that anything Feynman says is golden. I don’t know anything about you other than this comment, but it’s very easy for geeks to idolize Feynman, and many geeks do.

        Feyman is anti-philosophy, because he experienced some blatant anti-Semitism from philosophy professors. He is also anti-psychology, because a lot of the psychology at that time was bullshit, and he tricked a psychologist. I agree that the ‘knowns’ of philosophy and psychology are very little compared to the ‘knowns’ of physics, but that’s because of the subject matter. Other subjects (e.g., humans) are more ‘complex’, and if Feynman became a psychologist, applying whatever methods he liked, he wouldn’t have gone very far either. (Actually, Feynman’s conclusions about women based on experimentation are biased and self-confirming to the extreme, revealing his piss-poor reasoning skills when it comes to some things outside of math/physics.)

        Also, the fact that philosophy professors can be anti-Semitic (therefore illogical and biased) does not mean that philosophy in general can be dismissed. Humans are generally biased a myriad of ways, including Feynman himself, which is not a reason to dismiss science.

      • Restructure! permalink
        October 12, 2010

        Actually, I was thinking of Feynman when I wrote the first comment, but as an example of someone who can do both science (physics) and art (drawing).

        Randall Munroe is another example of someone who can do both physics/math/computer science and drawing/language. (Randall Munroe is a good artist. He can do more than stick people, but even his stick people are extremely well drawn, since they lack faces but convey emotion/facial reactions through body posture.)

  2. Wednesday permalink
    October 11, 2010

    I think there should be a lot more cross-fertilization between humanities/social sciences and science/tech. Unfortunately, many people are taught that people are either good at humanities or good at science (and that humanities is female and science is male), so people who are good at one thing assume that they are bad at the other.


    I do not get the hate on social scientists.

  3. Eivind permalink
    October 11, 2010

    I think you’re right. There’s substantial anti-humanities bias in atleast parts of geek culture and similarily, substantial anti-science bias in atleast parts of humanities.

    I think, to some degree it’s logical, the thing is, if you’re very well versed in science, you can’t help becoming aware of glaring mistakes and problems in humanities. You notice that too often, they don’t have an actual way of separating that which sounds reasonable, from that which is true. The most famous example of this is for sure the Sokal affair. (where Sokal, in his own words tested if a peer-reviewed cultural studies journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions” — the answer to which was: Yes they will.)

    But the reverse is ALSO true. Harder sciences are prone to reductionism, and in practice, that doesn’t work and is a huge mistake. You cannot, infact, learn anything useful about, say, culture, by studying elementary physics or chemistry – despite the fact that cultures consist ofpeople and people consist of molecules. Social Darwinism is just one example of how wrong one can go.

    There should definitely by more cross-fertilization. Both sides have a LOT to learn from eachother, and in particular, people with one foot in each camp, who are able to see both sides of the issue, and draw on the strengths of both cultures, are immensely valuable.

  4. Matt K permalink
    October 12, 2010

    My sense of what’s going on here is similar to Restructure!’s. I think there is a continuing (if unstated) distinction between masculine physical sciences and feminine social sciences/ humanities (which I’ve heard lumped together before — granted, the distinctions can be fuzzy at times). XKCD is a terrible offender here, of course.

    What’s really sad to me, though, is when social scientists take the bait of a narrow conception of science and try to show that they’re just as science-y as the “real” scientists. It hasn’t helped that some of the most forceful public defenders of science in the last few years (I’m thinking here of folks like Dawkins) have been neo-atheists who generally espouse reductionist and positivistic ideas about science that tend to render social scientific and humanistic explanation irrelevant.

    Also, wanted to put in a shout out for Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox.” It’s not perfect, but it’s a good book length a rebuttal to E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience” which is sort of the precursor of the Dawkins-esque view of the relationship between “hard” and “social” sciences.

  5. supergee permalink
    October 12, 2010

    As Jerome Kagan pointed out in a book of that name, there are three cultures: science, humanities, and social sciences. Lumping the latter two together as “not us” is not a useful map.

  6. DTL permalink
    October 12, 2010

    As someone who’s studied both in the humanities (English Lit) en the sciences, I also get that some of the science students do look down on the arts and humanities. “Oh, they don’t study as hard as we do, they’ve got less lectures.” “Oh, their studies aren’t as important as what we do.” That sort of thing. It really is too bad, because there’s plenty these fields can learn from each other.

  7. Tia permalink
    October 12, 2010

    This is why I’m an hci lady. I get to study some social science stuff in the guise of studying computer science.

    …Which also means I’m assumed low person on the totem pole when talking about my work and its difficulties, despite the insane amount of time/work that goes into putting together something that’s more than just good.

    I’ll never understand why hard science folk think dealing with people is somehow “easier.” People may be squishy, but damn are they complicated.

  8. Lilivati permalink
    October 12, 2010

    I have nothing against the humanities. There are a lot of times when I think my life might have been happier/better suited to me if I hadn’t been hellbent on a hard science major and explored a little more. And that’s despite a deep and abiding love of science.

    That said, nothing gets on my last nerve faster than people trying to pass off as science what is definitively not science, or at best is bad science. I’m thinking in particular of a women’s studies/linguistics professor who would make us read or listen to a three-minute conversation between two subjects and then draw vast, sweeping conclusions from it. When I requested further evidence/data she was -never- able to provide me any, and indeed got pissed at me for suggesting the given data was insufficient. (I did ask politely, not condescendingly…just for the record.) I won’t even start on the “articles” she had us read. I think this is an example of someone who could have been doing real, valuable science but found it too inconvenient or difficult, and was in a field that permitted her to put her opinions ahead of her data. (I say “field” on the basis of the articles she assigned indicating a broader scope that just her or her department, but I admit it’s anecdotal.)

    You get enough of that, and geeks in the “sciences” eventually conclude all the humanities are full of BS…and yes, that’s heavily encouraged by the culture of purity and egoism. “My science is harder than yours”. Sadly I also think this is what drives so many people and especially women out of the sciences as well. I don’t think the conclusion that the humanities are worthless is at all fair or accurate. There is more to life than what can be discretely quantified.

  9. Meg permalink
    October 12, 2010

    As someone with an art degree, my nerdy circles have always been intersectional. Especially with gender studies, but also theater, classics, music and especially history. A lot of the programmers I know read history or did history minors in college. I suspect that part of the issue the questioner has experienced is that many of the conversations on the web labeled “geeky feminism” are about how to get by in a hostile work-world of STEM, rather than about geek-dom itself. Which is likely an oversight; we could be talking more about things like Racefail and Moonfail, and expand the focus beyond the work-a-day world. On the other hand, it is important to keep these conversations about being a woman in STEM going as well as expanding outward.

    If we look at the women in philosophy web page, it’s clear that while STEM may have specific issues that some other professions don’t face (like venture capital, or expectations that you’ll already have learned the field on your own prior to entering college), other issues that we think are ours and ours alone aren’t. On the other hand, finding the space that is all female developers can be incredibly freeing, since I can talk about my nerdy stuff and don’t have to worry about whether people are interested or understand. The question of how public those discussions are without alienating non-STEM women is an interesting one; I’m not sure what the balance should be.

    I think partially it will depend what circles you run in. At a computer conference, most people are probably STEM folks. I think the biggest instance of prejudice I’ve seen is resentment of near-tech women being asked to speak at technical conferences, especially on “Women In Technology” panels, and especially when there exist technical woman who aren’t being asked to speak. I suspect that the resentment there would be far less if the same conferences went out of their way to find men near tech to speak, rather than having the split be technical men and non-technical women. In most not-field-explicit circles I’ve run in, if anything it’s somewhat expected that you are coming from a non-technical background.

    But there are other spaces I end up in: Ren Faires, SF/F conventions, fanfiction, MIT mystery hunt and all the non-STEM conferences (I once went to the nerdiest craft conference ever, where scholarly articles on fiber arts were presented and everyone there was a woman) that are all about getting our non-tech nerdoms on. These areas may not be respected by the hard-core engineers, but if anything they are more a part of “geek” culture than engineering. Talking to old-school SF/F folks, you hear about nerdy engagement with the Communist Party prior to US involvement in WWII, because they were strongly opposing Hitler. It is clear that nerd-history isn’t limited to technology and I doubt the future will be either.

  10. October 12, 2010

    I wish I had some good advice, KMF. I’m in a similar boat–in fact, I recently argued with one of Britain’s leading sceptics on this matter on Twitter. Sweeping generalizations about how humanities students/academics are all proponents of bad science make me itch.

    Maybe it’s because I did cultural studies, but I like to think there’s a difference between quantifiable data and sociocultural analysis–both of which are equally valid. I wouldn’t call what I do with regards to cultural analysis ‘science’, as it’s a different piece of the greater puzzle of truth.

    Then again, I’m also one of those people who prefers theory in application, whether it’s regarding film/television or various US subcultures…so I may not be the best example.

  11. Aoede permalink
    October 12, 2010

    …forgive my cluelessness. There’s an anti-science in feminist circles?

    • Aoede permalink
      October 12, 2010

      And I accidentally a noun, but I think it’s readable…

    • Matt K permalink
      October 12, 2010

      I think the reference here is to the work of feminist historians of science and others who have pointed out that science has often been far from the objective search for Truth it has purported to be, but rather has been informed by masculinist ideals and the biases of individual researchers. Personally, I wouldn’t characterize this recognition as anti-science, but some might.

    • Elizabeth G. permalink
      October 12, 2010

      I am going to disagree with Matt K’s reply and say that within feminist communities (online and off) there is a serious anti-science bias if science does not support the feminist scientific assertions. I really wish that feminism would stop making scientific assertions. Also if we get into the specific examples it will derail this whole thread.

    • Restructure! permalink
      October 12, 2010

      Yes, there is. (These link to criticisms of anti-science sentiment among some feminists, and the first is a post of mine.) Some feminists internalize the idea that science is male/masculine, so an extension of that is that science is The Patriarchy that must be resisted.

  12. Mel permalink
    October 12, 2010

    I’ve been thinking hard about what to say, because I don’t want to invalidate your experience–I fully believe you’ve experienced anti-humanities/social science prejudice in STEM circles. So I’ll just say that there are feminist and geek circles where being enthusiastic about anything and everything, from deep-sea exploration to social history to young adult novels is welcomed and celebrated. We’re out here.

  13. Dorothea Salo permalink
    October 12, 2010

    I’m a little surprised nobody’s mentioning the digital humanities movement. Check out the brand-new DHAnswers site to get a bit of a sense of things.

  14. KMF permalink
    October 15, 2010

    Wow. I disappear from the Internet for a few days (sacrilege, I know!), and I find all these great responses. Thanks! I’m glad to see that so many geeks out there are embracing all forms of geekdom, not to mention calling out both bad science and humanities!fail.

    (I actually posted my question following a heated argument with a friend over a Richard Dawkins lecture on “pseudoscience” in which he blamed women’s studies as a discipline for leading women away from science. Yeah…)

  15. Lord Anonymous permalink
    October 17, 2010

    That works both ways you know. I can recall lots of times where people involved with the humanities have explained how superior their field is in rendering valuable concepts and ideas usable in the society at large. How things generated in the STEM field is cold, sterile and technocratic.

  16. Restructure! permalink
    October 17, 2010

    As a general comment, the Dunning-Kruger effect is relevant when STEM people dismiss arts/humanities/social science, and when arts/humanities/social science people dismiss STEM fields. People who are knowledgeable only in their own narrow field think that other fields are crap, because they don’t even have the basic 101 knowledge about what the other field even studies. For example, people who don’t have Psychology 101 knowledge think that psychology is about Freud, dream interpretation, and even psychic power, so they think psychology is a pseudoscience. On the other hand, people who don’t have a basic understanding of what computer science is think that computer science teaches you how to use or fix a computer, so they think computer science is not an academic subject.

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