Nobel Laureates’ Letter Supporting Precision Agriculture

Genetically modified foods are one the most misunderstood scientific processes of our day. The world’s leading research organisations have shown that there is no scientific basis for the moral panic over GMOs. Billions of people eat foods that have been enhanced or otherwise modified every day – without problems or objections, mostly because people are unaware of what GMOs are and how the science works. From the humble carrot to new developments like Golden Rice, designed to address vitamin and food shortages, GMOs have long been a part of our food supply. Continue reading Nobel Laureates’ Letter Supporting Precision Agriculture

Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

The state of Victoria in Australia is facing a measles outbreak due to parents in relatively progressive suburbs choosing not to vaccinate their children. The anti-vaccination movement has its roots in Western societies in the myth that vaccines cause autism. The science demonstrating that there is no link between autism and vaccines is peer-reviewed and well-established. The original paper that made the assertion that such a link existed was retracted by the original publisher, The Lancet, due to fraud by Andrew Wakefield and his team.

Given that the myths of vaccines have been thoroughly debunked, what is behind the anti-vaxxer movement? I start by discussing the scientific evidence about the fraud that inspired the anti-vaxxer movement before providing a broad sketch of the public who don’t believe in vaccination.

Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement
Continue reading Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Impact of Injustice on Indigenous Australian Health

Indigenous health continue to be in a woeful state in Australia. In late August, a young Yamatji woman, Ms Dhu, died in police custody in Western Australia due to lack of basic health services. She was arrested for not paying a fine. She had a blister that seems to have become infected, and she was vomiting and screaming in pain for hours. Plus she had fractured ribs. She pleaded with police to be taken to hospital. The police ignored her pleas: “when the cops finally took her to hospital they were laughing and saying she was acting.” She died in hospital.

More recently, an inquest has begun into the death of, Stanley Lord, an Indigenous Australian man who died in custody early last year for a similarly petty issue. He was serving 18 months for driving while disqualified. At the time of his arrest, he was not driving drunk nor was he arrested for reckless driving. He suffered a heart attack in jail after a delay in getting him adequate healthcare, having being resuscitated five times before being taken to hospital.

The argument that Indigenous people should follow the law does nothing to address the inequity of over-policing of Indigenous Australians. Non-Indigenous Australians are not jailed at the same rate for similar misdemeanour offences. Paying fines is difficult for Australia’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable. It should not cost them their lives. Continue reading Impact of Injustice on Indigenous Australian Health

Explaining Ebola

Most of what the media is reporting about the epidemic is incorrect. Ebola is not airborne. It is transmitted by close contact with blood and bodily fluids and secretions. This is why Ebola is spreading in developing regions in Western Africa that have inadequate healthcare.

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and I speak with virology expert Professor  Vincent Racaniello and Infectious Disease Epidemiologist Dr Tara C. Smith. They talk about what Ebola is, how it’s transmitted, how the current epidemic might be contained, and we also talk about some of of the media-driven misconceptions about the virus. We discuss why an outbreak in developed nations is unlikely and we cover the socio-economic factors sustaining the epidemic in poorer nations. 

Vincent is a professor of virology at the University of Columbia and is a fantastic science communicator. Tara is an epidemiologist at Kent State University who has written numerous articles debunking some of the myths surrounding Ebola.

Women’s Mental Health and Celebrity Culture

Last time, I talked about the problem with holding up celebrity lifestyle habits as reasonable health advice. A popular young American actress had reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She shared this information during an interview, saying she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media jovially shared this story, especially when a writer decided to try it out and recommend the practice, not bothering to investigate whether the health claim was true. This is my second in-depth case study showing why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.

Today let’s look at why the so-called “Rushing Woman’s Syndrome” is scientifically invalid. This is a marketing term coined by a self-described “holistic nutrition specialist” who argues that women who feel emotionally overwhelmed and who show other signs of mental illness are abnormal. She argues their emotional issues boil down to a busy lifestyle and hormone imbalance. A celebrity athlete and parts of the Australian media ran with this term, giving the impression that women’s emotions need “biochemical” intervention (at the cost of $600 a pop). This narrative grossly penalises women’s expression of their emotional wellbeing and serves only to stigmatise both women as “moody bitches” (quote used by celebrity Lisa Curry) and it further stigmatises mental illness.

Vulnerable women who are suffering depression or who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements. Continue reading Women’s Mental Health and Celebrity Culture

Vaginal Mysticism: Women’s Health and Celebrity Culture

Many people understand that celebrities are not health experts, yet the media persist on giving them a public forum to share their health and lifestyle advice. Journalists insist on printing celebrity musings without critical insight. This is dangerous. We see this in the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s pervasive in other ways. Over the next couple of days I’ll present a couple of case studies focusing on why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.

First up, I show the problems of presenting scientifically invalid ideas about vaginal health. A popular young American actress, Shailene Woodley, has reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She says she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media has repeated this advice and even recommended it with relish.

Young women who have limited access to sexual health education and who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements.

Let's talk about vaginal health in an honest and informative way.
Let’s talk about vaginal health in an honest and informative way.

Continue reading Vaginal Mysticism: Women’s Health and Celebrity Culture

Why Ecology and Environmental Science is Everyone’s Business

I’ve summarised one of our Science on Google+ Hangouts on Air. Our guests discussed three fascinating fields of ecological study: air quality; marine life; and extreme weather events.

Our most recent Science on Google+ Posterside Hangout on Ecology and Environmental Science was excellent and well worth watching in full. It highlighted the intersections between climate change the social consequences of environmental damage. The presentations covered the measurement of air quality; disease outbreak amongst fish; and the relationship between extreme thunderstorms and global warming. Below I give a detailed summary of the points I was most interested in as a social scientist (I will do the same for our previous hangouts).

I urge you to watch the presentations in full and comment on the talks from your perspectives. I am particularly interested in different social science reactions to these talks: how can we make a contribution to weather and marine sciences using the ecological frameworks and methods described by the presenters?

Environmental advocacy is truly an interdisciplinary endeavour that requires both critical public debate and empirical solutions. This includes improved data collection and innovative responses that connect scientific theory to social policy and practice. A collaborative and proactive approach to climate change is not assured. Australia recently changed Government and one of the first tasks our new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, put into effect was to dismantle the Climate Change Commission, which was led by eminent scientist Tim Flannery. (Thankfully the work continues thanks to crowd-source funding.) Abbott also removed the position of Science Minister (along with other adverse social policy shifts). Climate change policies in some other countries are in a better state, but many nations remain reactionary to environmental disasters. For these reasons, ecology and environmental science require our full participation.

Continue reading Why Ecology and Environmental Science is Everyone’s Business

Sociology of Government-led Climate Change Denial

Photo via Flickr
Photo via Flickr

The Abbott Government in Australia has previously stated it does not believe in climate change and it has significantly withdrawn funding for this line of research in its latest Budget (along with funding for most non-medical scientific research). A recent change on the Department of Environment’s website has removed a reference to the link between extreme weather conditions and climate change. The Department says this change reflects the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is incorrect. In order to provide some context for my post, it’s best to understand the Abbott Government’s historical and current position on climate change. I specifically focus on the public discourse by Abbott and his Ministers. They discuss climate change science as both something that is open to interpretation and something that can be fought with selective use of science.

The IPCC describes climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.

Climate change action is an interdisciplinary effort, requiring the knowledge and contribution of scientists, community planners and health workers, and other experts from many fields. It requires research as well as social policy intervention at the local community, state, federal and international levels.

I wrote part of this post on my Google+ and I encountered much push-back from a vocal minority of individuals vehemently opposed to the science of climate change.* As such, I wanted to expand on my original argument, and put climate change denial in sociological context. Research shows that political interests shape the extent to which climate change science is rejected, particularly when individuals have a direct or vested interest in an economy of fossil fuels, or where they have an ideological opposition to renewable energy and social change more broadly.  My focus is on the sociological consequences of extreme weather events, specifically on community planning and community resilience (the knowledge, resources and planning necessary to deal with extreme events). Continue reading Sociology of Government-led Climate Change Denial

Unscientific Culling of Great White Sharks

The Western Australian Government refused to review a law that initiates the culling of Great White Sharks. In one protest alone, over 4,000 people in gathered on Perth’s beaches to protest the move. I’m interested in this with respect to the sociology of animals and wildlife conservation. Institutions like the Government and the media have the power to shape public perception of animals and how we protect or neglect certain species. Sociologist Corwin Kruse writes:

Human action is embedded in a world populated by many species. By any measure, the role that animals play in human society is enormous.

Continue reading Unscientific Culling of Great White Sharks

Sustainable Growth is a Human Right

This post focuses on a 2013 United Nations  report on population trends to 2050. Our planet will be home to 9.3 billion people by then, which raises various ecological, humanitarian and sustainable planning issues. The UN argues that sustainable growth is a matter of human rights.

Continue reading Sustainable Growth is a Human Right