I'm a known cynic, getting more hardened and bitter year by year. So I was intrigued by this post over at Zuska's asking us to give our opinions to Skeptifem who's trying to decide whether a career in STEM is really the right thing for her. I've blogged about this before, in that it's hard for me to recommend STEM to anyone because even though I think the pros outweigh the cons for me there is a lot of soul-crushing life changing negativity and obstacles that's hard to suggest anyone follow in a similar path. Some elements of Skeptifem's personal story remind me of myself five-ish years ago:
What happened to me was that I never imagined I could be a college graduate or learn the sciences/maths (mostly because of being a woman in this culture)...
For me not because I was a woman (that kind of opposition hadn't kicked in yet) but I definitely felt like math and science were these amazing/elite things I just couldn't come close to touching. I believed I was smart, just not math smart. Now here I am, a bazillion calculus classes later, knowing if you're smart you're probably math smart too. Or at least math capable. Skeptifem goes on to add in a comment(emphasis mine):
I once had similar ideals. I was in college thinking positive thoughts about the environment and though I wasn't specifically anti-corporate I knew there were good companies and bad companies. Say Google is your good company and Exxon or Enron or Raytheon were your bad companies. I felt like Skeptifem seems to me to be feeling; I didn't want to entrust my work or my heart to these places. I worked in a non-profit for a few years and I did "good" things.People who work in STEM have the products of their labor used in ways that oppress other people. I mean, the military subsidizes research all the time, and then turns it over to companies when the resulting technology can be sold for profit (this happened with computers). All the fun of inquiry is within this toxic context.Women in STEM careers gives me the same feeling as when they become CEOs- it is being an honorary man. We are being equal in a patriarchal and oppressive system. If women had some kind of say in how complex systems like this operated I doubt that it would end up being the war machine that we currently observe.
I'm not sure when I turned the page. Maybe it was just for a paycheck. Or maybe at my non-profit I saw how even well meaning medical clinics become a place for BigPharma to dominate and control. I saw the dichotomy where people who couldn't otherwise afford care and drugs were able to get on them for lifesaving help, how so many others were turned away, and how many in third world countries would never see the drugs or care we were testing. There was no clean cut "these drugs save lives." Period. There was no way to put in all the expense on developing these drugs and then testing them in a clinically repeatable way that would allow them to get to third world countries. And in order to test them, and make better drugs, you had to have reasonable studies. Meaning enough people were on placebo and many people could not qualify for the medical help they so desperately needed. Yet at the same time, people were no longer dying of this horrible thing. This research and testing had allowed probably millions to extend their lifespans and live much more "normal" lives. So maybe I realized there's nothing altruistic left in this world. That in order to do good you have to do evil, or allow evil to happen which seems much the same.
Or maybe it was because I wanted the paycheck and a steady job. Those things don't necessarily fall in your lap when you want to save the world. Maybe we all justify what's "good" and "bad" at any time in our lives and it changes for our convenience and experience rather than the world changing. I certainly wasn't anti-military but I resented the military-industrial complex. Now look at me. All my ideals of youth have melted away with only a cold, metallic exterior that thinks we had better stay in Afghanistan or Iraq until we're sure it's the right thing to do to leave. I could be blindingly anti-war only a few years ago, but now all I see are shades of gray. I'd like to think it's more than the paycheck. That I've realized the world is a gritty, multi-faceted place where extremes have no place. But maybe that's just what I'm telling myself so I can sleep better at night. I'm not sure.