Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

The lower two-thirds is an oil painting style photo of an older woman with grey hair. She has her back to us and is reading a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. The top third is the title to this post

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of public sociology because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. What follows has been in the works for a couple of months. As previously promised, I’m now coming back to this because of the ongoing need to increase public awareness about the science of the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, I worked with some colleagues on an early literature review scoping policy responses to the pandemic, and I’ve provided feedback on evolving policy research. As an applied sociologist, my focus has been on how race, culture, disability, gender, and other socioeconomics impact how people understand and act on public health initiatives, as well as ethical considerations of COVID research “on the run.”

Since then, I’ve been keeping up with both the research and media coverage of public health responses. I’ve been providing summaries of unfolding information on my social media (primarily Facebook and Instagram stories, as well as Twitter). This started partly to address some of the misconceptions I was seeing amongst my friends and family and I’ve kept this up as it’s been the most efficient way to help people in my life better understand what the restrictions mean for them, or to correct confusing reports.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation. People are hungry for practical advice, but don’t know who to trust (they don’t know where to look for credible resources), or they feel overwhelmed with too many conflicting directions. This is known as information overload, and it leads to poor decision-making.

One of the patterns that has been especially concerning are people writing social media posts, op eds and even setting up consultancies to profiteer from COVID-19 without any health training or policy experience. This contributes to public distrust, conspiracy theories or poor discussion that is not based on evidence. People are choosing to confirm their pre-existing beliefs, rather than engaging critically with scientific information that challenges their perspective. This is known as confirmation bias. It stops people from considering new information and different points of view that might be helpful to their wellbeing.

Reading original scientific journal articles is not always possible as there is often a paywall. Plus, science papers are, by definition, published for the academic community. The language is technical, and the principles can be hard to follow for people who are not subject matter experts. This makes it more important for scientists who have access to write about science research in an accessible manner and to share findings through different communities.

While data on COVID-19 are evolving, and no one can claim to be a definitive COVID-19 expert, the best sources to trust are official sources, such as state Health Departments, epidemiologists, virologists, health practitioners who are providing front-line services (such as Aboriginal-controlled health organisations), and policy analysts who work on COVID-19 responses. Additionally, reliable news sites include the ABC News Australia live blog, Croakey and individual health researchers, such as epidemiologist Dr Zoe Hyde (University of Western Australia) on Twitter.

If you read about a study, how do you know if you can trust the conclusions? What’s the best approach if you wanted to write about a study’s findings for a broader audience, whether it’s your friends and family reading your Facebook feed, or an article in a major news site? Today’s post gives tips for how to read a study using critical thinking principles from sociology, and things to consider if you want to write about, or share, studies that you read about.

Continue reading Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

Institutional Action on Sexual Harassment

Drawing of an Asian woman standing by the side of a glass building. Her face is obscured

Trigger warning: this post discusses tactics used by sexual harassers to evade justice and the impact on survivors.

Today is International Women’s Day. I don’t much feel like ‘celebrating’ on this occassion. I feel burned out by the lack of racial justice and exclusion in the promotion of this day in Australia. Plus I am spending much of my spare time working through research and writing on my experiences working in equity and diversity. In particular, the myriad of ways in which women of colour are doubly or even trebly disadvantaged when they seek help on sexual harassment, racial discrimination and other inequity. So today’s post is not about ‘celebrating’ women and femmes. Instead, it is closer to the original impetus of the day. International Women’s Day is a day of protest that began with women’s workplace rights (United Nations Women Australia 2019). Join me in witnessing how far we still have to go to have our stories heard with dignity, and the lack of accountability by institutions to uphold our safety at work.

One in five women experience sexual harassment at work. In academia, from 2010-2016, 575 cases of sexual assault were reported in Australian universities, but these led to only six expulsions (see Zevallos 2019). Women students are three times as likely to be assaulted and twice as likely to be harassed as men. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as disabled people experience a disproportionate level of sexual harassment and sexual assault, as do lesbian, gay, bisexual people, and especially transgender students, who experience up to twice the rate of harassment as heterosexual students.

What is sexual harassment? It is not subjective. Workplace law says it includes “any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.” For example:

  • unwelcome touching;
  • staring or leering;
  • suggestive comments or jokes;
  • sexually explicit pictures or posters;
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates;
  • requests for sex;
  • intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body;
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person;
  • insults or taunts based on sex;
  • sexually explicit physical contact; and
  • sexually explicit emails or SMS text messages.

Perpetrators of sexual harassment use five tactics to deflect blame (“outrage tactics”):

  1. Cover up;
  2. Devaluing victims;
  3. “Reinterpreting” events;
  4. Using official channels to give an appearance of justice;
  5. Intimidation.

‘Official channels use’ is an especially pertinent outrage tactic that relies on institutional processes to disempower victims. I use the term ‘victim’ here strategically. Flavia Dzodan (2018) argues that moving away from the term victim (in favour of ‘survivor’) evades the need for justice.* Paula McDonald and colleagues (2010) write:

‘Using official channels includes reports to senior officials, grievance procedures, and appeals to organisational boards, internal ombudsmen, external bodies, or professional organisations. Most official channels emphasise formal processes, require confidentiality, and focus on technicalities. Despite the best intentions of those running the procedures, the effect of many official channels is to dampen outrage: the immediacy and urgency of the problem is lost in the slow, ponderous processes. Meanwhile, observers often believe justice is being done, although outcomes seldom live up to expectations.’

– Paula McDonald, Tina Graham and Brian Martin (2010)

Let’s unpack these outrage tactics via official channels, and the role of institutions in re-traumatising victims. I discuss how organisations can instead take more proactive action to end sexual harassment.

Continue reading Institutional Action on Sexual Harassment

Indigenous Women’s Leadership

This past week, Australia celebrated NAIDOC Week (8-15 July), a time to recognise the leadership, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Originally standing for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee, NAIDOC Week has historically reflected the ongoing resistance to genocide, assimilation and land dispossession, famously culminating in the annual Day of Mourning in 1938 (a protest against Australia Day on 26 January). The NAIDOC committee emerged in 1956, and has in recent decades coordinated local and national events and awards to promote Indigenous excellence. This year’s theme is Because of Her We Canpromoting the multiple leadership roles of Indigenous women for their families and communities, as they push for social justice and human rights at the local community and national levels.

I share with you two events I attended that highlight the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in academia, journalism, business, law and social policy. Continue reading Indigenous Women’s Leadership

Behavioural Science for Education and Vocational Training

Drawing of a woman tradesperson holding a mobile phone. The text reads: this is what your apprentice is learning this week

Have you ever wondered why people behave in unexpected ways, often against their own interest? This is because many of our social institutions, including the law, education and economy are built around rules that don’t always take into account people’s social context and their motivations when making decisions. Convention in Western societies is that financial incentives and punitive measures (like fines) can incentivise people to do the right thing. Behavioural science research shows this is not always true. In fact, while money and sanctions work in some situations for some groups, most behaviours are not able to be easily changed through cash and penalties. (These can sometimes backfire!)

Behavioural science is the use of behavioural economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences for the purpose of improving behavioural outcomes. Behavioural insights is specifically the application of this science to improve effectiveness for decision-making, public services and policy. Here’s a case study of behavioural insights in action in education and vocational training.

Using fieldwork research and randomised control trials, the Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) test low-cost behavioural science changes to issues affecting different groups in society.

For example, we know that 48% of apprentices in New South Wales cancel their contracts within the first year, and 77% will cancel within two years. That’s a tremendous personal cost to these students, which also translates to $91 million loss of the state’s economy in cancellations alone, and upwards of $348 million in related revenue. BIU’s research shows apprentices who cancel their employment contracts do so because they often feel they are subjected to tough working conditions for little pay (undertaking menial, repetitive tasks and long hours), receiving little guidance about their progress on the job.

Continue reading Behavioural Science for Education and Vocational Training

Beyond Lazy Stereotypes of Gen Y

Is generation y lazy and self-entitled? Spoiler alert: no.

This infographic draws on a number of market research surveys by popular websites. The data show that Millennials are highly educated, entrepreneurial and hard-working. But what does the social science research say?

Research by Pew Research Centre shows that while a high proportion of American millennials are highly educated and employed, 37% of young adults under the age of 30 are struggling to find employment. This is an outcome of economic forces, rather than some inherent “laziness.” At the same time, 40% of 18 to 24 year old youth are still at university, making this generation the most highly educated in recorded history.American millennials are also less religious than previous generations, and although they are highly committed to the idea of marriage and having children, they are more likely to delay this into a later age. Millennials are also more optimistic about the future and they are more likely to think that the government should intervene in social and political matters.

Sociology of Science

Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue.” ― Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure
Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue.”― Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure

Robert K. Merton is seen as the “father” of the sociology of science. His research posed the question: What are the social and cultural bases of knowledge? For example, Merton examined the role of socioeconomic status, work, ethnicity, power and other social processes of competition and conflict. The cultural bases of science include the values, the dominant ideas in broader culture. Continue reading Sociology of Science

Visual Sociology of Questacon and National Library of Australia

Canberra blends science, education, arts and humanities with various public art around the Parliamentary Triangle. Questacon, Australia’s national science museum, has various outdoor mathematical and scientific sculptures. A tree-lined pathway from Questacon to the National Library of Australia has more musical and artistic installations. The National Library is currently hosting an exhibition called “Celestial Empire,” covering 300 years of Chinese culture. This video also covers some of the history of the National Library and its extensive collection.

Filmed on my Snapchat: @OtherSociology. 

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

Publication: Sexism in Science Reporting

This article was first published in DiverseScholar, on 20 April, 2015.

In my previous DiverseScholar article, I showed why the study behind The New York Times Op Ed (claiming the end of sexism) was methodologically flawed and ideologically biased [Zevallos 2014]. I showed that a focus on an individual choice narrative to explain why women are disadvantaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is fundamentally unsound when understood alongside the long-standing empirical evidence from the social sciences. Here, I will review several science controversies related to the editorial and institutional decisions within STEM. These patterns show that everyday interactions contribute to gender inequality, from the use of images, to dress, to the way distinguished women scientists are described in the media. I start with a selected timeline of events highlighting gender inequality in STEM. Continue reading Publication: Sexism in Science Reporting

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”