Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Any time there is an article about vaccine initiatives, a segment of the public begin to shout about government conspiracies and their perception of nefarious science. 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.

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 The original paper that made the assertion that such a link existed was retracted by the original publisher, The Lancet, due to fraud by Andrew Wakefield and his team.

People who are convinced that vaccines cause autism have never read the original article that made this outlandish claim, let alone understand the science and its motives. For example, the fact that the study used a sample of only 12 boys; that the methods and conclusions were falsified; and most importantly, that Wakefield had a financial interest in making his fraudulent claims. He was funded by lawyers who were engaged in a lawsuit against vaccine companies. The retraction can be clearly seen on the original paper. The original retraction states:

“no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.”

It is rather ironical that some people imagine there is some financial or political incentive amongst scientists to support vaccines. This is simply not true.

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

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.

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Sociology of Gender Bias in Science

A new study by Dr Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues has analysed the public’s comments in response to a prominent study on gender bias in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The researchers find that men are more likely to post negative comments in response to scientific findings about sexism in STEM careers. To provide a flipside illustration, I share some examples of what it is like to be a woman moderator of a large, international science community on Google+. This case study will illustrate the recurring arguments used to invalidate the science on inequality in STEM. These arguments are focused on biological (mis)understandings of gender; stereotypes of what motivates men and women; and a desire to police the boundaries of science. Denying that sexism exists is a common tactic to invalidating the science on gender bias in science, and attacking the social sciences is concurrently used to discredit findings on inequality, as well as support the idea that inequality does not exist in STEM.

Sociology of Gender Bias in Science
Sociology of Gender Bias in Science. Photos: Texas A&M University-Commerce, CC 2.0

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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

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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

Applied Sociology in Action: Student Protests in Taiwan & Australia

Photo: Jimmy Kang via Flickr
Photo: Jimmy Kang via Flickr

In March, sociology students in Taiwan were criticised for being released from class to attend peaceful protests occupying the Legislature Yuan from the 18th of March 18 to the 10th of April 2014. Sociology lecturers called this “the most practical lesson of sociology.” Since dubbed the “Sunflower Student Movement,” the youth were protesting a trade-in-service agreement with China. On the one hand, Taiwan’s Education Minister said that teachers should support their students’ education rights. On the other hand, he criticised teachers for supporting this through peaceful protest. Instead, he argued that teachers should have done this “through rational debates and discussions.”

Today in Australia, students are being similarly critiqued for protesting the deregulation of university fees as a result of the impending changes to the national budget. Universities Australia told the ABC program Lateline on the 3rd of June that increased fees will mean up to a 60% increase in debt for some university degrees. This translates to an additional 6 years of repayments for full-time workers. For a part-time worker who takes time away from paid work to start a family, the research suggests this could mean up to 20 years of additional debt.

The similarities in the media and political discourses of how the Australian and Taiwanese students conducted their protests are worth exploring further.

Continue reading Applied Sociology in Action: Student Protests in Taiwan & Australia

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.

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The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science

The Art of Knight JJ, via Tumblr
The Art of Knight JJ, via Tumblr

This the story of how sociology can improve public science. I discuss the social science research explaining why some sections of the general public resist research evidence. As some of you know, I’m one of around 20 Moderators who run Science on Google+. Our Community is managed by practising scientists and our membership includes researchers as well as members of the public who are interested in science. I run the Social Science stream (along with Chris Robinson who created the Community). Our Community aims to improve the quality of science posts and public outreach, by connecting the public to real scientists. This week, we celebrated the fact that our Community has grown to 200,000 members. The Community receives numerous posts each day. We want to move discussion away from people sharing their personal opinions on “fluff” science pieces that often end up distorted in the news, and instead we’d like to focus on the relevance, validity and reliability of peer reviewed science. Invariably, we get people coming to the Community specifically looking to argue about how all science is wrong (usually with regards to social science), corrupt (often regarding life sciences), or “just a theory” (creationist arguments against the physical sciences).

These critics do not focus on the scientific content of a study. They focus on moral and cultural arguments, which to them are scientific. For example, when discussing research on gender inequality in science, there’s a variation of: “In my engineering class there’s only two women. I think that most women just aren’t interested in science. That’s not sexism to point out the truth.” (Yes, it is sexist.) When discussing research on climate change: “There’s inconclusive evidence on this!” (No, the evidence is compelling.)

Most of these people do not use credible scientific research to back up their claims, but they evoke some general statistics (“everyone knows…” and “countless studies show”).We ask for links to peer reviewed science, which never come.  Sometimes they post links to conspiracy videos that have no scholarly merit. Despite their lack of evidence, these people are thoroughly convinced that they are scientists or that they are very well informed on a topic. They cite ideas of science from popular culture (“science is about questioning everything!”). Otherwise they draw on something they heard in the news or they revert to personal anecdotes and subjective observations.

These critics are the exception, as most of our Community members are genuinely curious in science and learning. The problem is that these anti-scientist “scientists” take up a lot of time and they derail discussions. So what motives them?

Chad Haney, one of our colleagues and a Curator for the excellent Science Sunday, wrote a fantastic post about how social psychology concepts might explain why people refuse to engage with scientific evidence. Chad invited me to comment on his post, and this has led me to crystallise thoughts that I’ve had circling my head since I started blogging seven years a go. Other than a sheer love of the social sciences, why bother with public science? Who is our audience? Does it “work” and how do we measure its success? How can we improve it?

My post will discuss the sociology of beliefs, values and attitudes to describe the cultural, institutional and historical ways in which the public has engaged with science. I present two case studies of “hot topics” that usually draw anti-science comments to our Community regarding gender inequality and genetically modified foods. I show how cultural beliefs about trust and risk influence the extent to which people accept scientific evidence. I go on to discuss how sociology can help improve public science outreach. Continue reading The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science

Paternalism, Colonialism and Indigenous Education

Photo by Mark Roy via Flickr
Photo by Mark Roy via Flickr

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the content on this page may contain images and references to deceased persons. (Why this warning?)

The Council of Australian Governments has conducted a national review of Indigenous socio-economic outcomes. Its recent report finds that while some measures are improving, there is still a large gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This post provides a snapshot of the findings with a focus on education and responses by the state. One of the solutions being offered to improve educational outcomes amongst Indigenous youth is to send them to boarding schools. I discuss this in relation to Australia’s colonial history and the Government’s paternalistic views on Indigenous welfare.

I review other approaches to Indigenous education, which focus on working to students’ strengths in order to improve outcomes. This means making curriculum more focused on applied skills, vocational training within remote communities, and ensuring knowledge is culturally relevant. At the same time, educational efforts must avoid “pigeon holing” Indigenous students and teachers. Instead, education needs to make leadership and career pathways more accessible, and ensure that Indigenous insights are being fed back into the education system.

Finally, my post explores how sociological teaching and activism needs to change in reflection of the history of Indigenous educational practices.

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Adapting Sociological Teaching and Learning for Online Environments

ImageA new sociological study finds that students who study online perceive that they have learned less in comparison to students who attend face-to-face lectures. The researchers, Kelly Bergstrand and Scott Savage, find that online students also feel they have been treated with less respect by their lecturers and they generally rate their courses more negatively. Is there an issue with the way sociology is taught specifically that does not translate well to an online environment, or is there something broader at play? Today’s post examines the skills and resources that sociology demands of students, and questions whether the training and delivery of these skills are being adequately supported by the higher education system. I also discuss the influence of larger online courses that are offered “free” to the public and how this relates to funding cuts and a push for online learning in the tertiary sector.

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