Thus Spake Zuska

Passionate Reason and Pseudo-Passion

This is the second of several discussion posts for Week 3 of Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science. You can find all posts for this course by going to the archives and clicking on Joy of Science in the Category section.

This post deals with the readings by Margolis, Fisher, & Miller (MFM), and Hynes. (Summaries are available here.)

Why might women want to become scientists or engineers? Do their motivations and interest differ from that of men? If so, is the difference in intensity or in kind?

In the two papers by Hynes and by MFM, we read about women’s early interest in science and computing, and about what factors contribute to extinguish that interest. MFM report women’s early enthusiasm for computing and the possibilities of integrating it into medicine, the arts, and other fields. Hynes describes the excitement and “passionate reason” that initially drew her and her colleagues into the study of science. Yet all these women experience loss of interest and excitement – whether at the undergraduate level, as in the MFM study, or in their graduate and postgraduate study, as in Hynes’s paper.

Both of these papers suggest that women are likely to have a different type of interest in, and orientation to, science than men do.*** Furthermore, this difference from the norm is problematic, and their awareness of it can cause them to modify their behavior. In the case of the undergraduate women in computer science in the MFM paper, they may come to feel that their difference means that they are not qualified for the field, and this lessens their interest. They question their commitment in light of their waning interest. Subsequently they decide to leave the major. Some few of them will decide that they can tolerate being different and will stick it out.

In the case of graduate and postgraduate study that Hynes describes, continuing and succeeding requires that women adapt more and more to the norm of behavior, which means subduing passion and curtailing wide-ranging interests. Ultimately she and her colleagues felt they had reached a point where they had forgotten the excitement that once drew them to study science. Hynes says:

It was…the erosion of intellectual passion that I found to be the most appalling in science. I was, and I remain, confounded by the contradiction that the more advanced our study of science, the more remote becomes the subject of our intellectual passion: nature. It is absurd that field trips in botany courses for nonscience majors and lectures in “physics for poets”…conjure up the dynamism, the variability, and the intelligence of nature, whereas fluid mechanics and advanced thermodynamics are arduous, mechanistic, and often spiritually dulling exercises in rote problem solving…Patriarchal science has no passion. It has fractured passion into a chilling logic and pseudo-passion.

Pseudo-passion, Hynes says, thrives on competition and the thrill of “inclusion in the high priesthood of science”. Hynes connects the erasure of women from science – historically, and in the present by promoting the myth that women cannot do science and math – to the erasure of passion from science. By talking with each other, sharing our ideas and interests with each other, Hynes says we can rekindle our passion for science and remind ourselves of all the many things we used to be curious about. We can rediscover the passionate reason that drew us to science.

MFM recommend ways to broaden the culture of computer science that would promote women’s interest and passion for integrating computer science with other fields of study. Creating a climate that supports women’s broader interests would actually benefit the field.

In the MFM study, the young men speak of “falling in love” with the computer and developing a relationship with it in ways that women do not. This reminds me in part of the quote from Bronowski that I cited early on in this course. Bronowski speaks of the pleasure that is aroused within the scientist by the handling of the tools of science. Women experience this pleasure, too; they talked to MFM about the “rush in having my program run”. But it was consistently the connection of computer science to other fields, its use, the context in which it existed, that made computer science relevant and interesting to the young women. For the young men, the computer itself was an “ultimate toy” and was means and end in itself.

Hynes suggests that getting lost in this sort of pleasure with a disconnected, decontextualized object leads to or is itself a symptom of the problems of patriarchal science. She might well label the obsessive love the hacker has for his computer as a form of pseudo-passion. Pseudo-passion is what leads men to describe the site of the first atomic bomb explosion as “romantic”. Hynes says we need to keep our passions connected to nature and the world around us.

What drew you to science? Do you feel the same type of passion and curiosity you did in the past? What feeds or kills your passion for science? What do you think of Hynes’s concept of “passionate reason” as opposed to “pseudo-passion”? Talk to me.

***Differences between men and women are not attributed by MFM to innate differences. They describe cultural influences that account for the differing orientations men and women display towards computer science. There is more detail on this issue in the book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, by Margolis & Fisher. Hynes is not explicit, but I suspect she would also attribute the differences to culture and not nature.


  1. #1 jt
    April 6, 2007

    Well, womens’ interest was really “invariably” linked to applications of computer science, rather than computer science itself, that would go a long way to explaining the dearth of women in the high end of the field. Advance study requires specialization, which in turn separates you from real implementations that much more.

    Take a look at physicists or computational biologists. They’re more than decent programmers, but often have little or no computer science perspective. If you like computers, but it’s the applications that really set you off, then Computer Science really is the wrong field for you.

    “Hynes suggests that getting lost in this sort of pleasure with a disconnected, decontextualized object leads to or is itself a symptom of the problems of patriarchal science.”

    Personally, this work sets off my BS meter something awful. The ‘passion’ and interest that I feel for my field (EE) comes from 1) gaining insight and 2) building things, regardless of how either relates to the real-world.

    Conflating the slogging work of discovery with the joy of discovery is plain old wrong, in my case. Not to say there isn’t pleasure in the slogging– but it’s a “Look at us, aren’t we tough, staying up all hours, working like crazy”, marine-camaraderie type pleasure. Very different from the actual work itself.

    To suggest that the main study of physics should be more like ‘Physics for Poets’ is ridiculous– the excitement is in the work. You don’t need a field trip, or excess verbiage if you understand the equations. Sure that understanding takes work, but the work is not the end.

    I think the reason why you don’t see that many women in science and engineering is much less frame-changing. Stereotype threat, and a slowly dying old boys club.

    Everybody deals with the ‘Oh my god, these folks are so smart, I don’t belong’ crap, but the added pressure of representing some group which isn’t expected to perform well, means that the impact of that is felt more by women. Combine that with gatekeepers who have spent their professional lives in a single-sex (or almost single-sex) setting, and intentionally or not, it’s hard to break in.

    Much simpler, and it doesn’t require critiques of ‘Patriarchal Science’ (which, last time I checked had a distinct lack of genitalia).


  2. #2 leornian
    April 6, 2007

    What drew you to science? Do you feel the same type of passion and curiosity you did in the past? What feeds or kills your passion for science? What do you think of Hynes’s concept of “passionate reason” as opposed to “pseudo-passion”? Talk to me.

    What drew me to science is that I like to know things. I’m endlessly curious about how the world works, all sorts of sciences and social sciences interest me. The reason I chose to study physics was partly because I didn’t seem to be able to pick up a book to learn it for myself, which is what I do with many things.

    What I’ve ultimately learned about physics is that there is a reason you can’t learn it from books. Because a lot of what you need to know about it isn’t in the books. And there are things they don’t talk about, but if you study it long enough, you’ll realize they are missing. Students spend a lot of time working out equations, but virtually no time considering the underlying assumptions and the things we actually don’t know how to do. And there is a lot we can’t do, because the beautiful equations of physics are only solvable in a few special instances. Physicists look for the simple rules that underly how nature works, but there are a lot of areas they ignore, because many things are really complex.

    Many things lead to the eroding of my passion for the field. I would have loved to wander down the road of complexity, but few are interested in going there. I would have loved to work on teaching physics better, but there is no pressure to change how physics is taught. I would have loved to spend more time exploring assumptions and ideas, but its all about working out equations.

  3. #3 Matthew
    April 7, 2007

    “Yet all these women experience loss of interest and excitement”—is this something unique to the female math/CS student experience, or is just part of the student experience in general? I seem to know a lot of male students with a lot of disaffection that has built up over the course of their studies too.

    The greater prior experience of male students, although it doesn’t correlate with success, makes me wonder if the male students have already self-selected more (this obviously applies more at the undergraduate level). If you’re drawn to a field on the basis of its applications, rather than just the topic in of itself, you might have a lower chance of sticking it out academically (I can recall some guys who thought they were interested in programming because they liked computer games but didn’t enjoy coding). After all, just because you like to eat doesn’t mean you like to cook.

    Lastly, I’m curious how reliable people’s interpretations of why they chose their area of study are. I myself couldn’t really tell you why I chose a math major, it just, you know, felt right. I’m sure I could make up a reason why, and maybe even convince myself that it’s right, but I’m not sure that it’d be true. So there’s even a possibility that the respondents’ accounts of their choice have an extra layer of cultural gender expectations mixed in on top of any differences in the actual causes of the choice.

  4. #4 emily
    April 9, 2007

    I didn’t find fluid mechanics or advanced thermodynamics to be merely “mechanistic” or “spiritually dulling exercises in rote problem solving” at all. Much like my first physics course, one that was quite safe for poets, I found them to be exciting venues for learning about the mechanisms of nature. True, as the problems got more complex the math got more challenging, but the material was simultaneously moving closer to the real world. In that first physics class I learned how to solve problems that had been stripped of any non-linearity. This was interesting in terms of learning how people apply math to analyzing the physical world, but I quickly got frustrated by the limitations of those simple tools. Fluid mechanics and thermo gave me tools that I could apply to real, interesting problems. That felt very powerful to me, something I absorbed more after the courses were over and I stopped being distracted by the demands of specific problem sets.

    I chose to major in engineering because I wanted to build things. My advanced courses taught me how to build better things, which was wicked fun.

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