Sociology of Spiders

A tiny spider on a centre of an orange wall, in a halo of light

A diminutive spider accompanied by its tiny shadow had me captivated as I pondered the sociology of spiders and fear.

Spiders inspire irrational fright, despite the fact that most spiders can’t harm humans. The small percentage that can are not usually found in our homes and they don’t specifically seek us out for attack. Yet even I overreact at the sight of a spider at home (or in my swag during a recent camping trip!).

Our collective fear of spiders in urban areas is culturally determined, and it far outweighs the risk posed. Spiders feature as focus and metaphor for different types of fears in Western societies. Even amongst educated people, spiders are a source of disgust and anxiety. Why might that be the case?

Continue reading Sociology of Spiders

Barangaroo and the Four Thousand Fish

Two people walk along the foreshore. In the background, other groups gather at the pier taking photos and looking around, while others are near a giant vessel. The sun shines brightly as it sets over the water

My Weekends With A Sociologist series is going to start coming to you more frequently and completely out of sequence. I will share with you my visual sociology adventures from different places, at different points in time, showing you what has captivated my sociological imagination most recently, through to what has lingered with me over time. The purpose of this series is to showcase what it is to see the world through a sociological lens. (For visually impaired readers, descriptions in the alt.) So let’s get started!

What better way to restart our journey, than with the enduring legacy of a strong Aboriginal woman, Barangaroo.

Beginning in the first week of January, Sydney annually hosts the Sydney Festival, with various sites around town housing performances, public art and sculptures, including many interactive installations. The best this year was the artwork, Four Thousand Fish, curated by Emily McDaniel, artist from the Kalari Clan of the Wiradjuri nation in Central New South Wales. The artwork blends sea song, visual story telling, sound, lighting, sculptures, landscape photography, music and of course, a beautiful nawi (bark canoe).

Held at the Cutaway in Barangaroo, every weekend this past January, the site was transformed into a public art sculpture that was set ablaze nightly at dusk. I attended an event hosted by the beloved street photographer, Legojacker (formerly from Melbourne, they had moved to Canberra in recent months).

Barangarro is named after the mighty Cammeraygal woman of the Eora nation, who defied colonialism in Gadigal, her homeland (also known as Sydney).

Continue reading Barangaroo and the Four Thousand Fish

Sociology of Small Scale Farming

Woman farmer in Sapa, Vietnam

By 2013, Vietnam had halved malnutrition by investing in small scale (family) farming in just 12 years. Can the same happen in other nations? The United Nations believes so. What are some of the sociological considerations to boost the success of small scale farming? While this agricultural enterprise may be able to help families reduce hunger, it may not necessarily help households rise above the poverty line, unless social issues such as gender inequality are also addressed.

Sociology of the National Arboretum

Playground at the National Arboretum Canberra

One of the themes of my visual sociology is the representation of science. Conservation is as much about social practices as it is about earth science, biology and other natural sciences. Today’s post is about the sociology of the National Arboretum, which sits on Ngunawal country. Ngunawal people are the traditional custodians of this part of Acton, west of the city in Canberra. Less than a seven minute drive central business district, this is one of the world’s largest arboretums for rare and endangered trees. I am no arborist. I cannot even claim to be a fan of gardening. I was interested in the Arboretum first in an attempt to capture a visual sociology of Canberra, and second to see how people interact with this place as a science centre. The focus of my post today is on the social dynamics of the Arboretum, especially on community aspects of conservation and the trees that drew the greatest interest amongst the crowds I saw: the Bonsai and Penjing Collection .
National Arboretum (18)

Continue reading Sociology of the National Arboretum

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

Publicly resharing this post where I summarised one of our Science on Google+  Hangouts on Air.

Publicly resharing this post where I 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.

Originally shared by Zuleyka Zevallos

Why Ecology & Environmental Science is Everyone’s Business

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.

Sometimes All I Need is the Air That I Breathe… and Mobile Technology

Gustavo Olivares is an air quality scientist from New Zealand. His talk demonstrates the importance of being proactive in studying changes in the environment even in picturesque places. Gustavo reports that the air quality in New Zealand is very good in 97% of the country, where the land is rural or un-developed. In the other 3% of the country, the population is concentrated in urban areas. Gustavo notes that 70% of New Zealand’s population lives in urban regions, where 38% of people burn wood for heating and where 52% of households have more than one car. In these areas, 15% of the population suffers from asthma that can be linked to air pollution. One New Zealand study found that every year, 1,100 people die from respiratory illness linked to pollution. This is why it’s important to monitor the relationship between air quality, public health and environmental practices.

Air quality is difficult to measure because people are spread out and air obviously moves around. It is costly to study one site, let alone several sites. Gustavo reports that a single data collection point costs up to USD$60,000 to run for one year. Gustavo’s research studies how useful one data collection site is for monitoring air quality. He uses spatial statistics to examine the spatial correlation between the data collection sites. To put it another way, how far can you stretch the data collected at one point and still use it as an average point of comparison for another location? So for example, if you were collecting data in one suburb (Glen Eden) how far away from that focal point can you go and have the data still be representative of a broader region, such as the city of Auckland?

Gustavo’s team has a specially fitted car (a “mobile platform”) that contains various data collection technologies to help them capture information as they drive around. They would drive through different neighbourhoods in Auckland from 6pm to 2am collecting data on winter nights. The data are of a high resolution, with information being captured every second, driving at a speed of 40km-50km per hour. This is important for the environment in Auckland where air pollution in winter is greater than in summer. Gustavo explains that in summer, the wind moves along swiftly so pollution doesn’t stagnate in one place for too long.

Gustavo’s mobile methodology for testing data collection is very useful. Not only is data collection expensive, but analysis is time consuming. Testing the data collection process itself, and seeing how far one can “stretch” the data and still have the findings be reliable and valid is more than efficient. It’s also a quality check of the data, which ensures that robust, targeted information is being used to address air pollution. The proactive approach on environmental damage is highly inspiring and not to be taken for granted.

The Messy Ripple Effects of Marine Disease Outbreaks

Tommy Leung is a Parasitologist and Evolutionary Biologist who studies parasites. His posterside talk focused on how latitude affects the spread of disease amongst fish. In particular, he spoke about how viruses, bacteria and other parasites affect the death rate and outbreak duration in different global regions. Tommy finds that fish that live closer to the equator had an 88% mortality rate during a disease outbreak, whereas only around a third of fish in cooler temperatures died during an outbreak. Conversely, fish in tropical climates endured a shorter outbreak period, usually around a week (and up to 2 months). In cooler waters, the outbreak lasted up to 192 days. Outbreaks were also more likely to kill off younger fish, though adult shellfish lived through a shorter outbreak period (15 days) versus adult finfish (30 days). Tommy says little is known as to why this latter finding has emerged amongst different types of adult and juvenile fish, however, he notes that there are several ecological and social implications of this research.

Tommy says “Ecology is really messy.” Ecology illustrates various interlocked macro patterns. In warmer regions there is a high rate of biological diversity but along with this diversity comes a higher rate of infectious diseases. This finding is true for humans living in warmer climates, and it seems to hold for fish and other species. In cooler regions, however, there is a higher incidence of parasite-related disease outbreaks. 

The implication of Tommy’s research is that there is a high probability that diseases amongst fish could potentially spread to other species. Tommy references a current legal case in Australia where the wild abalone industry is suing the Victorian Government for negligence, after an outbreak of herpes spread from an abalone farm into the wild abalone population. The case shows that being reactive to ecological patterns ensures that diseases will continue to spread, affecting vulnerable populations and disrupting industry.

From a management perspective, Tommy’s research demonstrates that ecology is important not just for the environment and the marine ecosystems involved, but also to humans who depend on fish for their livelihood. As Tommy argues, the social implication is that developing nations who are most dependent on fishing are also more at risk from outbreaks. This is because they use fishing not just to bolster their economy but also for food. Unlike wealthier nations who have a broader access to other food sources, developing nations don’t have the infrastructure to respond to outbreaks. Tommy’s research also shows they have less time to respond as disease spreads quicker and causes more devastation.

Tommy notes that stories of disease outbreaks amongst marine life don’t make it into the news despite the high ecological and social costs. Tommy argues that there needs to be stronger collaboration between ecologists and scientists from other fields in order to ensure that the observed trends are adequately addressed and made more visible to the public. This is a social policy concern as much as it is a biological phenomena. 

Thunderstruck: Mapping Severe Weather and Climate Change

Noah Diffenbaugh is a Climate Scientist who presented his recently published research on thunderstorms. Noah examines the relationship between the amount of energy from the sun and the energy trapped in our atmosphere due to greenhouse gases. He studies how these energy patterns impact our climate, including the weather, seasons and extreme events. He also studies how these weather patterns could potentially be a response to global warming.

Noah reports that the rate of carbon dioxide today is higher than it has been in 800,000 years. This is measured via information drawn from Antarctic ice cores. Looking at other geological evidence such as data from rock samples, the carbon dioxide rates are higher than they have been in 20 million years. Noah is using mathematical modelling to run experiments on the physics and chemistry of the climate system, which he maps against observations of climate trends around the world. He is studying, amongst other things, the increase in the risk and severity of increased thunderstorm events. Noah reports that severe thunderstorms created 11 billion dollars’ worth of damage in 2012 for the USA alone. This includes severe rain that can cause flooding as well as severe hail and wind (including tornadoes) that cause catastrophic damage.

Noah notes that there are many uncertainties with climate change, but the biggest issue for the rest of this century is the human dimension. How high will human population climb in the near future? What might be the per capita energy access of populations in different parts of the world? There is a great gap between the minority of countries that are technologically advanced and can easily access reliable energy, and the vast majority of the world, namely developing nations who lack reliable energy. Noah reports that there are 1.7 billion people who lack basic access to light, transportation to retrieve clean water and other basic energy technologies. Noah’s research poses the question: what source of energy should we invest in globally for our future? Should it be carbon-based or some other type of energy? The world is currently overly dependent on carbon energy, which will increase climate change adversely. What can be done about this?

Like Gustavo and Tommy’s empirical evidence, Noah’s research shows that it’s paramount to be proactive about measuring environmental changes and preventing ecological disasters.

Participating in Ecological Change

I commend the presenters for demonstrating the dynamic ways in which scientists are thinking about and measuring ecological and environmental patterns. Although the talks sometimes veered towards technical aspects about data collection and analysis (this was a Science Hangout after all!) the presenters and moderators did a great job on communicating their research as clearly as possible. The three talks had the common theme of anticipating ecological and environmental disasters through empirical tests. The news may focus on large observable events such as a big tornado, but the mainstream media does not pay attention to the smaller patterns leading up to such cataclysmic events. Nor does the media pay heed of other environmental disasters such as the rate of fish outbreaks and what this may mean for broader society. In or out of the spotlight, ecological and environmental science research act as a vanguard against future disasters, some of which can be prevented by listening to, and engaging with, the research being done today. 

As an aside, the moderators from Science on Google+ called out the presenters on their academic jargon from time to time. This is so important in public communication of science! I saw the benefits of holding this Hangout with an interdisciplinary panel, where not everyone speaks the same scientific language. The jokes about “cute” graphics were both funny and necessary. This phrase refers to putting up graphs and images that are complicated to read and hard understand by a lay audience . Even when speaking to a science audience, the moderators reminded us of the importance of keeping scientific language and visual aids as simple and straight forward as possible. Why is this essential? Public outreach is one of the key goals of our community. We aim to provide a space where practising scientists can share their research and insights, given that the media either sensationalise science or otherwise ignore research findings. It is important that we demonstrate the social value of research, which all the presenters did with great finesse.

I’ve been enjoying the Posterside Hangouts which I am not always able to attend. Luckily they’re all available online, so revisit them and don’t forget to comment and pose questions! Keep looking for ways that  you might use your knowledge and experience to advance the scientific discussion in new ways!

Visit the Hangout Event page to read the abstracts to the talks, links to the published research and Gustavo has shared his presentation slides. You can also see the questions posed live by the audience:

#ecology   #environmentalscience   #environment   #climatechange   #globalwarming   #thunderstorm   #disease   #marinelife   #biology   #newzealand   #australia   #unitedstates   #research   #scienceongoogleplus   #scienceongoogle   #socialscience   #sociology   #hangoutsonair   #scienceeveryday   #airquality   #fish  

The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science

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.)

Judging you

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

Science as Creative Learning

The research on “emotional learning” in science presents an interesting model for engaging young people in science. As Dr Louisa Tomas Engel explains in the video  below, young people’s interest in science drops dramatically in the middle years of school. Tomas  Engel’s broader research draws on new pedagogical practices which aim to help young people see science as a creative endeavour, rather than a memory retention exercise. This research may be of interest to science educators, biodiversity researchers, as well as other scientists who are eager to grow public outreach.

Continue reading Science as Creative Learning

Sociology of Eco-Tourism


In this post, I show how sociology can contribute to collective understandings of sustainable tourism in China. I was inspired in response to the #ISeeTheWorldWithScience initiative promoted by a community I co-manage, Science on Google+. This is a game where members of our community are invited to write a caption for science images using their scientific perspective. The image for this week was of a beautiful forest (above). The instructions were:

I See the World with Science Image Game

Pillars of solitude. Life grabbing hold. Misty Mountains eroded by time. 

What more does science let you see?

#ISeeTheWorldWithScience Game: Suggest a short caption for the picture.  The caption must be founded on solid science but the more surprising the better. The community moderators will choose the best caption and repost an image with the caption on it in. Vote for your favourites by +1ing to influence the moderator’s choice!

Discussion: Discuss any aspect of the photo and what any field of science tells us more about what we are seeing and it’s context, including how we are seeing it, why it’s important.*

I captioned my response with ‘sociology of eco-tourism.’ Here’s why. Continue reading Sociology of Eco-Tourism

Positive and Negative Perceptions of Renewable Technology

A study finds that photos of renewable technology that are focused on the future improvement of our planet make participants feel like they can positively affect climate change. Photos of the negative impact of climate change (such as soil degradation and drought) make feel people feel as if climate change is inevitable and that it can’t be changed.

This is pretty standard knowledge in the marketing literature: positive emotions have a better impact on people absorbing a public information campaign while negative emotions (fear, guilt and shame) turn people off the message.

Photos of celebrities talking about climate change also has a negative effect on perceptions. Celebrities make people think that climate change is not very important.