End the Hero-Worship of Bigoted Scientists

Crowded lecture threatre with many people raising their hands to speak.

There is a troubling trend of famous scientists receiving increased attention to speak at academic events and on conservative media. In The Humanist, I recently wrote about the resurgence of political scientist Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve. The book has been universally critiqued as an example of modern-day scientific racism. Yet Murray is being embraced by right wing media personalities, as well as by research institutions. He was the focus of a student and faculty protest after being invited to give a talk.

Published in 1994, The Bell Curve was founded on a flawed premise that inferred a correlation between intelligence, socio-economic achievement, and genetics, without accounting for the effects of discrimination. The research was funded by the eugenics-promoting Pioneer Fund. Time has proven the book to be scientifically “reckless.” It enjoys a resurgence in 2017, the era of Trump, specifically because it is read as proof that White people are superior to racial minorities, especially Black and Latin people.

We can see a similar pattern in the renewed embrace of Dr James Watson. He is famous for being awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA along with Francis Crick, but they did so by stealing the work of a White woman scientist, Rosalind Franklin. Watson has also promoted scientific racism and sexism throughout his career, arguing that Black people are less intelligent and that women have no value in science careers. He also spread racist pseudoscience, saying there is a link between sunlight and increased libido. His reasoning: “That’s why you have Latin lovers.” He has further argued that thin people are more ambitious, and he subsequently validates that discrimination towards fat people is understandable. All of this, of course, is without any scientific evidence.

What message does his continued elevated status send to underrepresented and marginalised groups in academia?

Continue reading End the Hero-Worship of Bigoted Scientists

SciComm Cycle of the March for Science

Woman of colour reads her phone in front of a laptop

Over the next couple of days, in the lead up to the March for Science, happening globally on 22 April 2017, I’ll be republishing a few of my articles and analyses of the March here on my blog.

On 13 April 2017, an article in Science Magazine featured the academic research planned about the March for Science, and interviews with one of the march co-chairs. The journalist reported that George Mason University was seeking email addresses of supporters for a planned study.

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George Mason University requests email addresses of march followers: Source screengrab via Science Magazine

Scientists around the world who have been holding the march organisers accountable criticised the ethics of such a proposed study. This eventually led to the organisers requesting a correction from the journalist.

How did this major error happen?

Two days later, on 16 April, the March for Science was forced to issue a public apology after appropriating African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in a now-deleted tweet (below). This was heavily critiqued, especially by Black researchers, who pointed out the hypocrisy of using AAVE when Black scientists had been marginalised by the march, and received abuse for speaking out on inequalities within the march. Black scientists were also ignored when they encouraged the organisers to work with established social justice groups, including Black Lives Matter. Cultural appropriation of AAVE is doubly offensive in given these patterns of exclusion.

These are just two recent examples in a long line of problems. The organisers have established a damaging cycle of communication failures and weak apologies since the March for Science was first promoted.

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Continue reading SciComm Cycle of the March for Science

Analyzing the March for Science Diversity Discourse

Analyzing the March for Science Diversity Discourse

This article was first published on DiverseScholar, on 27 March 2017.

Given the high profile of the Women’s March against the Trump Administration on January 21, 2017, the March for Science (MfS) seeks to rally against the science policy changes, funding cuts, gag orders, and the administrative overhaul of science organisations by the Trump Government.

The March for Science is scheduled to occur globally on April 22 in over 400 cities. The aims and functions of the march have been drastically altered in the first two months of its existence, especially as the organisers began to receive critique from the scientific community regarding diversity issues. By setting up the march as being “not political” and by reproducing various problems of gender inequality, racism and other forms of exclusion, the march organisers have inadvertently created an anti-diversity discourse, which has been subsequently adopted by a vocal majority of the MfS supporter base.

In sociology, the concept of discourse describes how language comes to convey and justify dominant ways of thinking, talking, and behaving. Discourses are built around the social identities, values, interests, and power of dominant groups. This means that the stories we tell about “why things are the way they are,” reinforce the status quo, and thus justify the reasoning, policies, and practices of groups that already have institutional control.

The idea that White men are the taken-for-granted norm of what it means to be a scientist is learned early in school, and then reinforced throughout education, career progression, prestigious prizes, and the publication and funding systems. Institutional mechanisms in science serve to reinforce a discourse that naturalises White men’s dominance in science.

My article on DiverseScholar shows how the MfS organisers have come to reproduce the existing discourse of science, by normalising the interests of scientists who are White and from majority backgrounds. I present an analysis on public reactions to the third (of four) MfS diversity statements that reflect this position.

I analysed 354 comments and over 3,300 reactions to the MfS diversity statement. There were two broad response types to the March for Science diversity statement on the public Facebook page: comments were either discouraging or encouraging of the MfS diversity statement.

The discouraging comments fell into four sub-groups: people who felt that diversity was either politicising or dividing the practice of science; and those who felt that diversity was depreciating or distracting from the goals of the march more specifically.

The encouraging comments included individuals who felt uniquely positioned to be informing others about why diversity is important to the march, and supporters who thought that diversity is enhancing science more generally.

Discourses reflect the history, culture, identity, and politics of those in power. To make the MfS truly inclusive, the organisers need to think more strategically about how to manage misconceptions about science. They will also need to be more proactive in promoting a new discourse about the march.

Read more on DiverseScholar.

Analyzing the March for Science Diversity Discourse

The March for Science Can’t Figure Out How to Handle Diversity

The March for Science Can’t Figure Out How to Handle Diversity

This article was first published on Latino Rebels on 14 March 2017.

Inspired by the impact of the Women’s March, March for Science (MfS) emerged from a series of social media conversations. The ScienceMarchDC Twitter account was set up on January 24, and a Facebook page three days later. Their follower base ballooned from a couple of hundred people to thousands. At the time of writing, the Twitter account has 337,000 followers, the public Facebook page has more than 393,000 likes, and the private Facebook community has over 840,000 members. There are currently 360 satellite marches being organized in various American states and in many cities around the world.

The MfS organizers go to great pains to separate science from politics, and science from scientists, as if practice and policies are independent from practitioners. For example co-chair and biology postdoctoral fellow Dr Jonathan Berman says: “Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest.” Another co-chair, science writer Dr Caroline Weinberg, recently told The Chronicle: “This isn’t about scientists. It’s about science.” These sentiments strangely echo other highly publicized opposition to the march, and are being replicated in some of the local marches. The idea that a protest can be “not political” and that science can be separated from scientists are both political ideas. These notions privilege the status quo in science, by centring the politics, identities and values of White scientists, especially White cisgender, able-bodied men, who are less affected by changes to the aforementioned social policies.

The topic of diversity has dominated online conversations between many scientists across different nations who are interested in making MfS inclusive.

Even as the movement gained swift momentum, the leadership and mission were unclear in one key area: diversity.

Discussions over the march are important not just due to the planned demonstration. The debates matter because they reflect broader issues of diversity in science.

Read more on Latino Rebels.

March for Science Can_t Figure Out How to Handle Diversity

Muslim Ban and Visas for Researchers

Trump Uphold Human Rights for ALL

Update: a few days after going public with this story, which especially received a lot of attention on Twitter and Google+, I received an email saying that my visa waiver was approved. It came one month after I’d initially applied, and too late to attend the United Nations conference.

Given the Trump Administration’s Executive Order that aims to revoke visas to nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, what is your professional society doing to further support conference travel to the USA?

This is my story as a non-Muslim Australian. I’m sharing it as a minor example of the confusion and possible ramifications of the “Muslim ban” on academics. The broader context is much more perilous for Muslims who have a concrete fear for their lives and future under President Trump. As my blog has a strong focus on enhancing social justice in academic and applied research settings, and sociological responses to social change, these are the dual topics of this post. The bigger picture beyond considerations for academic travel is more insidious.

I was invited to speak at a conference in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The event, Gender, Science and Sustainable Development: The Impact of Media – From Vision to Action, was held on February 10th, 2017 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, USA. Gender equity in science and academia is a field in which I’ve long worked, researched and volunteered, including in a previous role where I implemented and managed a national program to increase gender equity and diversity in science. I was invited to discuss my public writing on women in science. I was excited.

In preparation for this travel, I applied for the visa waiver program in January, as is my right as an Australian citizen. This program should provide automatic approval for people holding an electronic Australian passport. That’s me. I received an automatic message when I applied that I was not auto approved but that I’d hear an outcome within 72 hours, as is the maximum waiting period for this service. The time came and went and there was no response. I have not been denied a visa, I have simply not been granted one and not given a reason.

Then the Muslim ban was in full effect. Let me provide the background and how scientists have responded, before I tell you more on what happened to me, and what research organisations may need to consider in terms of academic conferences.

Continue reading Muslim Ban and Visas for Researchers

Sociology of Kiwi Foo, an Unconference

Kiwi Foo Baa Camp timetable

On Friday the 11th of March, I travelled to Auckland New Zealand for Kiwi Foo, a two-and-a-half day “unconference” where 150 participants from New Zealand and other parts of the world from a wide range of professional backgrounds self-organise the sessions. This includes people from technology companies, policy and community organisations, as well as academics . The idea behind Foo Camp is to bring together like-minded individuals who might otherwise not meet, and listen to one another and look for ways to connect in our common goal to make the world a better place.

In order to attend, one must be nominated by a previous Foo alumn from Kiwi camp or SciFoo from the UK. You pay for your own travel but all other costs, including food and lodging if you want it, are provided. When you accept the invitation, you nominate three keywords. Upon arrival, in a large hall filled with around three hundred people, each person stands up to introduce themselves by their name, their affiliation and their keywords, without elaboration. It took awhile but it was really fun. I went representing myself (and this blog!) and my three keywords were: gender equity & diversity; science communication; sociology.

Kiwi Foo proved to be one of the most personally challenging but most rewarding experiences I’ve had. It was an insightful sociological weekend. This is part one of two posts. Part one focuses on what I learned, how I was inspired, and why you should jump at the chance to go, should you get  a chance. Part two contains my talk, Informed and practical ways to enhance gender equity and diversity in STEMM. Continue reading Sociology of Kiwi Foo, an Unconference

How Informed Science Can Counter the “Nasty Effect”

How Informed Science Can Counter the Nasty EffectIn September 2013, Popular Science announced that they were closing down their comments section. This has lead to many public debates, including discussions on Science on Google+, a large community that I help manage. I wrote the following post in response to our community discussions at the time. I discuss the role of public science moderation in context of one scientific study that Popular Science used to support its decision to close their comments section. The research shows that people who think they know about science are easily swayed by negative internet discussions, but these people more likely to be poorly informed about science in the first place. For this reason, popular science publications and scientists need to step up their public engagement, not shy away from it due to the so-called “nasty effect” of negative comments made through social media. I also reflect on my own moderation experiences with the hopes of encouraging sociologists and other scientists to contribute to public science education and engagement.

Continue reading How Informed Science Can Counter the “Nasty Effect”

Megan Smith: STEM Woman in the White House

You may have heard that Megan Smith former Vice President of GoogleX is now the Chief Technology Officer for The White House. Smith has both a Bachelor and a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, she serves on the MIT Board, and she is also a successful entrepreneur. She has an outstanding commitment to gender diversity and she is one of the few big-name leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) who is visible in her work with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. Smith was formerly the CEO of PlanetOut, an online LGBT organisation. Let’s take a look at Smith’s amazing credentials and her work on women in STEM and LGBTQ advocacy.

The Tech industry needs us badly. - Megan Smith
The diversity of all of the millions of us, the technical women, the computer science women, is broad. This industry and this planet needs us badly. – Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer, USA

Continue reading Megan Smith: STEM Woman in the White House

Letting Women Shine: Undoing Gender Inequality in Education

Australia’s Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne recently defended Budget changes that will make education highly unaffordable for most Australians. To add insult to injury, he used a sexist argument. On ABC Australia’s 730 Report Pyne was asked about the collective concerns of Australian Vice Chancellors, who fear the proposed increased university fees will create further inequity, especially for women and economically disadvantaged groups. Pyne argued that women go into teaching and nursing and that these courses won’t cost as much as the courses that men take.The problem here is that Pyne fails to recognise that women actually study a variety of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Moreover, given his portfolio, it is startling to hear the Education Minister speak so flippantly about women’s higher education debt given that countless studies show women are severely disadvantaged within women-dominated fields, and beyond. There’s a lot that the Minister might learn by looking at the research on gender disparity. Taking a leaf out of Japan’s economic policies, Mr Pyne would see exactly why women are at the heart of their economic reform.
Undoing Gender Inequality
Undoing Gender Inequality

Continue reading Letting Women Shine: Undoing Gender Inequality in Education

How Media Hype Hurts Public Knowledge of Science

Photo: Astronomers by vastateparksstaff via Flickr, CC 2.0
Photo: Astronomers by vastateparksstaff via Flickr, CC 2.0

Remember that news article that was going around saying that a high proportion of Americans can’t tell astrology from astronomy? We tackled this news on the Science on Google+ Community, by going to an analysis of the original source. I’m republishing my comments and parts of our Community discussion.* I expand my argument to make two points: 1) Media hyperbole on science needs careful critique by scientists. 2) Scientific literacy requires our sustained engagement. I include some of interesting figures from the USA National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Engineers Indicators report for 2014, focusing on Public Attitudes and Understanding of science and technology. This information speaks to the public’s lack of understanding about what scientists do, how funding works, and how trust in scientists influences the public’s assessment of the output of our research. I’d like to start a conversation about how to move forward in dispelling the hype and myths surrounding science.

Continue reading How Media Hype Hurts Public Knowledge of Science