You may have read in late September that the ratio of women receiving Royal Society funding has “plummeted from one in three in 2010 to one in 20 this year.” While the Society also awards the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships to early career women researchers, this award exists to boost women’s participation in science, not to augment or mask the issues in the Society’s mainstream Fellowship program.
The Royal Society was silent for a couple of days after its list of fellows list was made public, despite a large outcry by the scientific community on social media and opinion columns in the media. The Society President, Sir Paul Nurse, finally announced an investigation a couple of days after the fact. The question is: why did the Society wait until it was made public to assess their program?
I want to stress that while I’m using the Royal Academy’s Fellowship outcomes as a case study, the issue I am illustrating is the reactionary treatment of gender bias in all fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The point here is to tease out institutional patterns and to make the case that institutional approaches are needed to address gender inequality. While this point may seem obvious, the fact is that inequality in science, as with other spheres of social life, is still treated as a surprise. This is because, on the whole, organisations (and society in general) remains reactionary to addressing gender inequality. Diversity is an afterthought, when it should be a proactive and ongoing project at the organisational and societal levels.
This is the first in a series of articles I’m writing on why the scientific community, inclusive of various disciplines, needs to re-examine its position on the problem of inequality in STEM. The picture I am building up is one of methodological rigour and interdisciplinary collaboration in order to better work towards gender inclusion.
The Milgram Experiment, which supposedly shows that all human beings are capable of participating in torture under the watchful eye of an authority figure, has captivated popular culture for half a century. Why is that, given that there are finer social science studies out there? This post describes the experiment as well as another famous psychology experiment, the Stanford Prisoner Experiment. I critique these studies as well as exploring the public’s fascination with them, despite their methodological flaws. I provide a case study of how popular culture reproduces the Milgram Experiment as a universal “truth” about humanity’s innate propensity towards “evil.” The truth is that the Milgram Experiment is highly flawed and it tell us very little about our genetic predisposition for torture. What the Milgram Experiment does show, however, is that storytelling falls back on simplistic narrative about good and evil. Social science, in this case psychology and neuroscience, is just another plot device to reproduce the basic notion that “good people” can be made to do “bad things.” The social reality is much more complex and disturbing because it forces us to re-examine the relationship between obedience, culture and social interaction.
Last year, I read about anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s participant observation field research with the Ashaninca, an indigenous group living in the Peruvian Amazon. His research is detailed in the book, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, as well as the follow up,Intelligence in Nature. I’ve thought a lot about this research since. Narby’s research focuses on the way Western scienceconstructs medical knowledge in ways that do not accommodate mystical experiences from Other cultures. Western medicine has come to adopt the Ashaninca’s knowledge of rare plants, as they have been proven to positively affect health. Nevertheless, Western scientists refuse to take into consideration how the Ashaninca gain this knowledge because it is derived through drug-induced hallucinations. This is in spite of the fact that these hallucinations come from the same plant ecosystem that Western science is eager to plunder. How do we reconcile this knowledge divide? Narby argues that the Ashaninca’s understanding of plants and ‘alternative medicine’ must be understood in concert with their pathways to this knowledge. This includes the hallucinations which are used to commune with nature.
One of the most frustrating and circular arguments in the history of modern families rears its ugly head yet again in Australia. The Australian Senate has received a submission by 150 medical professionals. These medical doctors have misused scientific studies to argue that children raised in same-sex families are worse-off than kids who are raised by heterosexual parents. This argument has been refuted by robust empirical studies within sociology and other social sciences for the past couple of decades.
The Australian Psychological Association has refuted the claims made in the Senate submission, arguing that the most comprehensive, longitudinal data show that children raised in same-sex families are not disadvantaged due to their parents’ sexual orientation. In some cases, the data show the opposite – and it all goes back to the economic and social resources available to parents. This includes emotional support from supportive networks. The biggest disadvantage to children raised in lesbian, gay, transsexual, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) families relates to how societies or communities fail to accept and integrate the diverse reality of modern families.
In praise of public science, I want to draw connections about why race and minority studies are central to challenging the way general audiences are presented with scientific “facts”. Below is part of an article by students from Northwestern University, responding to a critique of the utility of African-American Studies. The article was published by The Chronicle. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, La Tasha B. Levy, and Ruth Hays defend the anti-intellectualism stance put forward by by blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley, who derides the importance of African-American Studies. I love seeing students take up the challenge of public social science. The authors feel forced to defend why the higher education sector needs courses dedicated to anti-racist, post-colonial ways of knowing.
Last week, the Facebook Data Team released its social network analysis research, Anatomy of Facebook (on Facebook of course!). They have annotated their algorithms in two academic papers The Anatomy of the Facebook Social Graph and Four Degrees of Separation. Facebook claims their data show that connectivity between people around the world has dramatically increased – so much so that we are only four links away from someone in the most remote part of the world, whether that is a tundra or rainforest. A sociological look at the data dispels this notion. Despite its impressive sample, which includes 721 million active Facebook users and their “69 billion friendships”, Facebook’s findings replicate widely-held sociological knowledge about the way people form social ties. Nonetheless, Facebook’s data has great potential to address important social questions, if we can just set aside those pesky social science concerns about research ethics, informed consent and privacy…
Facebook’s study has an extraordinary sample of ‘active users’ representing one tenth of the world’s population The term active user is defined by Johan Ugander and colleagues in one of the aforementioned academic papers. This refers to someone with at least one friend who had logged on once in the past 28 days from the study’s commencement in May 2011. This is less frequent than the Facebook’s company definition of an active user, but the divergent definitions are not explained. For the record, Facebook currently reports it has 800 million active users and 50 percent of them log in at least once a day. Lars Backstrom, computer scientist and one of the Facebook Data Team’s lead researchers in this study, reports on the aims and key findings. The Team found that only around 10 percent of active users have less than 10 friends, while half have a median of 100 friends (the average is 190 friends). See below for more detail.
In a vexing new twist on the established theories of altruism, a neurologist, an engineer and a veterinarian argue that ‘selflessness’ can be ‘pathological’. They’re talking about human behaviour, even though they are not social scientists who are trained to study the social consequences of human behaviour. Natalie Angier’s New York Times article interviews the researchers about their upcoming book, ‘Pathological Altruism’, which will explore the hazardous and self-destructive extremes of ‘helpful behaviour’. The research used to exemplify ‘pathological altruism’ includes:
highly empathetic nurses who ‘burn out’ because they care too much for their patients
anorexic patients in hospitals,
victims of abuse,
so-called ‘animal hoarders’ (people who take care of too many animals they cannot afford to keep).
There are several individual and institutional causes for stress, mental illness and abuse that are not easily explained by altruism-gone-wrong. It seems especially problematic to suggest that a victim of abuse is being altruistic through their experiences of violence. Provocative, yes. Helpful? Probably not. The sociological study of altruism reveals why this is the case.
Duncan Watts recently wrote a wonderful piece on the myth of common sense for Freakonomics.com. What resonated most for me was the challenge that sociology faces in making our public contribution valued. Watts points out that sociologists deal with everyday social experiences that are familiar to many people – such as family, gender, social networks, fame and success, popular culture and so on. Due to the familiarity of these topics, most people think they can explain sociological phenomena using their common sense. Watts argues that common sense is problematic because the people we have around us have similar worldviews and this does not necessarily make informal observations valid. The problem with sociology is that unlike other sciences, such as physics or mathematics, sociologists do not offer up concrete answers or predictions. Duncan writes: