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

Why We Shouldn’t Excuse “Casual” Racism

In this video, an American entertainment reporter has confused Samuel L. Jackson with Laurence Fishburne. Rather than letting him off politely, Jackson riffs on him: “We don’t all look alike! We may be Black and famous, but we don’t all look alike!” The reporter tries to laugh it off but Jackson says, “Hell no!” After speaking about his role on Robocop, the reporter mentions the other cast members. Jackson says: “Make sure you don’t confuse them with those *other* White actors.” Continue reading Why We Shouldn’t Excuse “Casual” Racism

How Media Hype Hurts Public Knowledge of Science

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

Justice for Dr V: Journalism Ethics and Transphobia

Storify is closing down. This is an archive of my post, Justice for Dr V: Journalism Ethics and Transphobia. First published on 20 January 2014.

Dr V (Dr Essay Anne Vanderbilt) is a transgender woman who invented a golf club. Journalist Caleb Hannan outed Dr V’s transgender identity even though he understood she did not want this to be revealed. She consequently died by suicide. These are my tweets showcasing the best articles on this story. #JusticeForDrV.

Continue reading Justice for Dr V: Journalism Ethics and Transphobia

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

End of Business Review Weekly

Former BRW journalist, Ali Cromie, reflects on the end of publishing titan Business Review Weekly. While BRW will move into digital publishing, some of its better known features will migrate to the Financial Review.

This interview is fantastic. Cromie speaks passionately about the low points (“hi-jinx”) that BRW reporters faced as well as what it represented as a media institution of over three decades. She tells a detailed story of how she got under Rupert Murdoch’s skin. She also said she left journalism because she felt she could no longer protect her sources due to phone tapping.

Cromie argues that the BRW’s parent publisher Fairfax failed to have a cohesive strategic vision. It pulled apart BRW’s entrepreneurial section, it mixed in BRW stories into a broader pool of financial reporting, therefore hurting its niche readership.

Cromie argues that the BRW brand still has power, but it requires dedicated management. “The problem is not the platform. It’s the board.”

Bad Science Journalism

Huffington Post Science published an article on a research study “proving” that heterosexual men and women can’t be platonic friends. I immediately had questions about the problematic assumptions and methodology of this study… except they never bothered linking to the study; they didn’t think it was relevant to name the researchers or the journal or website where the original data are published. Instead, there are a bunch of silly and irrelevant links, a couple of which may be paid links to advertisers.

This type of lazy science journalism is very disturbing. Stories like this are published “fact” (“Science says men and women can’t be friends”) and then shared by the general public who don’t understand science. All this does is verify “common sense” assumptions that science is set up to critically explore. How are scientists meant to critique and engage with such a poorly written article? 

Representations of Black Gay Men on American Television

I don’t wholly agree with this researcher’s argument that the gay male characters in The Wire and The Shield challenge stereotypes of gay Black men. Yes, as Lewis notes, these men are represented as being “hyper masculine”, which is the opposite of mainstream portrayals of gay men as “effeminate”. At the same time, these characters problematically play into other stereotypes of Black men as violent drug criminals, or as being “on the down low” (not publicly identifying as homosexual). Lewis includes some interesting clips from Noah’s Arc, essentially arguing that some presentations of gay black men is better than none, as they encourage Black communities to discuss and move past their fear of gay masculinity. This “micro lecture” is worth watching and debating.

The Legal and Social Plight of ‘Gulnaz’, the now-freed Afghan rape survivor

Gulnaz. (Via CNN)

Two years a go, a then-19 year-old Afghan woman known only as ‘Gulnaz’ was charged with adultery and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment after she reported that she had been raped by her cousin’s husband. Gulnaz became pregnant from the rape she endured. She gave birth in prison. Gulnaz and her child lived behind bars for two years until the international community heard about her plight. Her case became known when the European Union announced it had banned a documentary about Gulnaz and other victims of gender crimes, citing a fear for the women’s safety should their story become public (CNN).This rationale drew international criticism. Five thousand people signed a petition for Gulnaz’s release in late November.

Continue reading The Legal and Social Plight of ‘Gulnaz’, the now-freed Afghan rape survivor