Students from Sydney’s Newtown High School of the Performing Arts give Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott a tough question time that he was evidently poorly prepared to answer with grace. The clip begins with Abbott giving weak environmental advice (“plant a tree… but don’t raise taxes”). He then faces questions about why he opposes gay marriage and his inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Flustered and annoyed, he resorts to his infamous sexism: “Let’s have a bloke’s question, OK?”

Working off the cuff and under estimating Australia’s youth, the Prime Minister is clearly out of his depth.

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

In the Howard years Australia became a much meaner and more self-interested country … We are the richest people per capita in the world, if you just look in material terms, and we are the richest people ever to live on the Earth… Yet there’s this air of dissatisfaction and a feeling that we are being cheated, and that is a cultural shift that came out of the Howard years and has been promoted mightily by the Murdoch media — and that flows on through the ABC and all the other radio shock jocks and so on….

People voted for that with their eyes wide open [on the removal of environmental policies]. And I might add to that, that they voted for $4 billion dollars in foreign aid to be not spent.

Retired Greens Senator Bob Brown says Australia got the Prime Minister we voted for… but before you decry that you didn’t vote for Tony Abbott, don’t fall into complacency or fatalism. Brown says the Australian public can still exercise choice and have our voices heard.

There’s an ennui or a feeling of ‘Why bother?’ or even fatalism — that action doesn’t make any difference — which has to be gotten over. Because if people in wealthy countries like Australia can’t be motivated to get out and defend the future of the planet, and people on the planet, and life on the planet, you can’t ask others to do it.

Via New Matilda. Read the whole article, it’s great. 


Surviving the Storm: Documenting the Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan on Instagram

Want to help the victims of Typhoon Haiyan? Visit the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to learn how you can help.

Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest tropical storms ever recorded, made landfall in central Philippines on 7 November, resulting in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. An estimated 4 million people have fled their homes—a figure that outnumbers the displaced populations of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami combined.

Thousands of emergency shelters have been set up, and international relief agencies are working around the clock to provide aid, but parts of the Philippines are still lacking basic supplies, medicine or clean water and food.

Photojournalists, reporters and residents have been documenting the relief efforts on Instagram, capturing the resilience of the Filipino people and the massive job ahead for the survivors and countless volunteers.

See more images by following journalists @jeffcanoy, @dguttenfelder, @jethromullen and @ivancnn.

This photoset shows the untapped potential of using Instagram for visual sociology. Visual sociology refers to sociologists taking photos, or creating other visuals to represent sociological phenomena. It also incorporates photos and visuals that sociologists ask their participants to take as part of their methodology.

These photos are not visual sociology because they have not been taken by sociologists, but they show the importance of documenting significant events as well as everyday life in a visual format.

These photos show a diversity of experience, with ordinary people reproducing their world from their own point of view. Rather than having events selectively documented by journalists, or simply described by the words of outsiders, photos taken by locals open up a new avenue of perception that would otherwise be less accessible without the use of social media.

Follow the #Haiyan hashtag on Instagram and you’ll see various posts documenting the plight of survivors, the devastation and clean up over those who died, and the various efforts to provide shelter, necessities and to rebuild. You’ll see people expressing gratitude over the distribution of humanitarian aid from Government, aid agencies, groups, individuals and international donations such as this school from Washington; volunteers showing their work; and photos of people coping with the disaster in various ways, including young people playing sports

Visual sociology receives minor attention within our discipline. Having researchers use a visual methodology is a powerful way of illustrating the sociological imagination. More on this soon. In the meantime, you can follow my #VisualSociology series using that hashtag on Instagram. 

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

What do you know about GMOs?

In Hawaii, the Occupy Maui movement seeks to drive out Monsanto which uses local land to grow genetically modified (GM) crops as well as carrying out open air chemicals testing. Hawaii activists are protesting the health risks and political influence of Monsanto over Hawaii’s government.

Monsanto is the largest corporation in Hawaii but other biotech companies also have strong influence in Hawaii. Protesters say that the biotech industry is another form of colonialism, as it evokes parallels with the USA sugar industry in 1893 which deposed the Hawaii Kingdom, effectively removing the local custom of land as a communal resource. 

Al Jazeera cites that in 2012 alone 170 million hectares of land around the world was used to grow GM crops, and around 69.5 million hectares of this was in the USA. While some researchers say that GM crops are perfectly safe and necessary to feed the world’s rapidly growing population, the problem is that the law does not require GM foods to be labelled. Effectively, this disempowers consumers from making informed choices about their own nutrition.

Images & information: Al Jazeera. Infographic by