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Star Trek Posters in the Echo Chamber

Every once in a while a librarian makes it into the right-wing echo chamber for saying or doing something that strikes the unwashed masses as outrageous. Usually it strikes the washed mashes as outrageous, too, but the washed masses are too busy washing to make a big deal out of it.

The latest bete noire of the right-wing echo chamber is the library director at MIT, who told a crowd at a library conference that, “There is research that shows that workplaces that are plastered with stereotypically ‘tech or nerd guy’ cultural images — think Star Trek — have negative impact on women’s likelihood of pursuing tech work and of staying in tech work in general or in that particular work environment.”

I, like the author, and probably like a lot of others, was first inclined to protest. The author points out that about half the attendees at Star Trek conventions are female, which is unsurprising.

Women are nerds now, too. They don’t grow neckbeards, and they probably don’t live in their parents’ basement, but they’re still nerds.

The numerous vocal women fans of Doctor Who are one indication of this, as is, oddly enough, the whole Gamergate controversy. Sad little gamer men are angry because of women’s growing influence in the gaming industry.

But the lesson to learn about almost any story that makes the rounds of any politicized echo chamber, right or left, is that if your first impulse is to click and protest, then there’s probably something being misrepresented.

It’s true that the MIT librarian did say the sentence in question at a keynote address, and one of the echo chamber articles links to her blog post about it. It seems to be in the context of a larger quest for inclusive workplaces. I searched for Star Trek and didn’t read the whole thing because it’s long and I had a blog post to write.

So far, so good for our protest. Part of the protest, though, is about the research that the comment is based upon.

The article links to the research in question, and comments that though the librarian “insisted…that her concerns were based on research, a glance at the study she cited reveals that it had a sample size of just 52 students.”

But that critical comment isn’t accurate, not at all. The study is on “ambient belonging” and cites other different but related studies.

Also, and here is where sloppy reading and angry partisan sentiment meet, the study of 52 students was just the first of four studies the article reviews. Together, there were 280 students studied, so the echo chamber article reduced the size of the sample by 79.4%.

That’s probably statistically significant or something. I wouldn’t know, because I only know enough about statistics to publish library science articles, so basically almost none. But it’s certainly very inaccurate.

We could dig into this further. That 2009 article cited about 65 sources, and according to Google Scholar has been cited 477 times, including by articles with titles such as, “Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics,” “The role of stereotype threats in undermining girls’ and women’s performance and interest in STEM fields,” “Mere belonging: the power of social connections,” and “Do female and male role models who embody STEM stereotypes hinder women’s anticipated success in STEM?”

They are small studies, within the context of other related studies, the totality of which we might be able to use to establish some actual facts. That’s how science works, even if it’s just social science.

It gets even more ridiculous when one reads the conclusion of the protesting article: “No posters could’ve stopped me from studying English and journalism in college. It would take something far, far worse to make me abandon the pursuit of my dreams — and I’d like to believe that most women are, in fact, strong enough to feel the same.”

She complains about a study of only 52 people, which was really of 280 people within the context of numerous other related studies, and then bases her opposite conclusion on a study of one person: herself. English major, indeed.

When I first encountered this teapot tempest, my first thought was that most of the people with Star Trek memorabilia at work I know are women. Then again, that’s merely anecdotal evidence.

Even if we get past the usual tendency to fight little evidence with no evidence, there are a lot of social trends coming together in this microcontroversy, particularly the politicization of everything and manufactured outrage at ideological dissent.

Reading the protesting articles, I get the sense that the authors really couldn’t care less; they just need something to protest about to distract their potentially angry readers. 

As for the politicization, there’s clearly a ton of research on women in STEM fields, and all of it is politicized. Only people concerned about gendered economic inequality would study it. What you think about that depends on what you believe about equal economic opportunities for women and men.

Librarians, and probably most of the psychologists and sociologists studying this topic, tend to believe that equal economic opportunity for women is a good thing, and thus think trying to figure out what might be creating inequalities is also a good thing.

I haven’t run across much, other than this librarian’s talk, that says basically “Star Trek posters in the workplace are sexist, so you should remove them,” but I can imagine a left-wing echo chamber automatically reinforcing that view, but that’s not a scientific view. It’s a political one, a political response to the facts.

The right-wing echo chamber would emphasize freedom or maybe “traditional values” such as sexism over equality, so it naturally finds statements recommending limiting free speech, in the form of Star Trek posters, repellant, and thus attacks a librarian who makes that recommendation.

Where should librarians stand in all this? It would seem to be part of one’s intellectual freedom and freedom of speech to put up Star Trek posters in one’s workspace. On the other hand, libraries also seek to be inclusive, for patrons if not for staff. On the third hand, libraries are hardly typical STEM workplaces, even the more STEMy parts of them, so who cares.

I know where this librarian stands. Keynotes, blog posts, and all of the echo chambers are just so much noise, and to get upset or angry about them is just silly. And Star Trek posters are the least of our problems regarding inclusive workplaces.

But they can all be fun distractions from the workaday world.



  1. Libertarian Librarian says:

    Well, as a woman library director I say you will pry my Star Trek posters from my office over my dead, red shirted body. I love Star Trek. It was actually one of the first TV shows that presented women in positions of authority. Come by, I’ll take you on a tour of my other nerdy collectibles.

  2. Consider the source – National Review.

  3. Librarian99 says:

    Chris Bourg’s blog also states that white people and men should not say their opinions unless asked by non whites and women. Why is this overlooked? What if she had said non whites and women should not speak their opinions unless spoken to.

    • dan cawley says:

      “beam me up, scotty. there is no intelligent life on this planet.” -james tiberius kirk

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