Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

The lower two-thirds is an oil painting style photo of an older woman with grey hair. She has her back to us and is reading a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. The top third is the title to this post

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of public sociology because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. What follows has been in the works for a couple of months. As previously promised, I’m now coming back to this because of the ongoing need to increase public awareness about the science of the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, I worked with some colleagues on an early literature review scoping policy responses to the pandemic, and I’ve provided feedback on evolving policy research. As an applied sociologist, my focus has been on how race, culture, disability, gender, and other socioeconomics impact how people understand and act on public health initiatives, as well as ethical considerations of COVID research “on the run.”

Since then, I’ve been keeping up with both the research and media coverage of public health responses. I’ve been providing summaries of unfolding information on my social media (primarily Facebook and Instagram stories, as well as Twitter). This started partly to address some of the misconceptions I was seeing amongst my friends and family and I’ve kept this up as it’s been the most efficient way to help people in my life better understand what the restrictions mean for them, or to correct confusing reports.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation. People are hungry for practical advice, but don’t know who to trust (they don’t know where to look for credible resources), or they feel overwhelmed with too many conflicting directions. This is known as information overload, and it leads to poor decision-making.

One of the patterns that has been especially concerning are people writing social media posts, op eds and even setting up consultancies to profiteer from COVID-19 without any health training or policy experience. This contributes to public distrust, conspiracy theories or poor discussion that is not based on evidence. People are choosing to confirm their pre-existing beliefs, rather than engaging critically with scientific information that challenges their perspective. This is known as confirmation bias. It stops people from considering new information and different points of view that might be helpful to their wellbeing.

Reading original scientific journal articles is not always possible as there is often a paywall. Plus, science papers are, by definition, published for the academic community. The language is technical, and the principles can be hard to follow for people who are not subject matter experts. This makes it more important for scientists who have access to write about science research in an accessible manner and to share findings through different communities.

While data on COVID-19 are evolving, and no one can claim to be a definitive COVID-19 expert, the best sources to trust are official sources, such as state Health Departments, epidemiologists, virologists, health practitioners who are providing front-line services (such as Aboriginal-controlled health organisations), and policy analysts who work on COVID-19 responses. Additionally, reliable news sites include the ABC News Australia live blog, Croakey and individual health researchers, such as epidemiologist Dr Zoe Hyde (University of Western Australia) on Twitter.

If you read about a study, how do you know if you can trust the conclusions? What’s the best approach if you wanted to write about a study’s findings for a broader audience, whether it’s your friends and family reading your Facebook feed, or an article in a major news site? Today’s post gives tips for how to read a study using critical thinking principles from sociology, and things to consider if you want to write about, or share, studies that you read about.

Continue reading Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

How Facebook Squashes Not-For-Profit Pages

I’ve been wanting to tell you this for awhile – I don’t post on my Other Sociologist Facebook page as often as I used to because Facebook is a racqueteering platform. Research has shown that since 2014, pages have lost at least 60% of ‘organic reach’ (that is, individual followers seeing page posts without promotions paid by brand pages). Some market research has determined that for most pages, only 6% of followers see their content, while other analysis shows it’s closer to 2%. My discussion is not new; social media analysts have been attuned to these patterns for the past decade. While the issues I discuss apply to many different companies and brand pages, I’m focusing on the impact that the Facebook model has on not-for-profit pages, specifically those like mine, which aim to educate the public for free.

Source: Edgerank Checker
Continue reading How Facebook Squashes Not-For-Profit Pages

Blogging Stocktake

I’ve been busy the past few months consolidating all of my writing onto my blog. It’s been a humongous undertaking, but the task was designed to help me save my work in future. My blog has proven to be the most reliable way to preserve my content. The consolidation project began because, late last year, Google+ announced it was shutting down in April 2019. Long-time readers would know that, outside of this research blog, much of my public scholarship emerged from Google+. From my involvement in a community run by multidisciplinary scientists, Science on Google+, to my co-management of STEM Women (a community and website supporting the careers of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), as well as my own sociology posts, much of my public sociology and outreach happened thanks to Google+.

Google+ held over 3,000 (!) of my public posts on my personal profile, let alone hundreds of private community and interpersonal messages. Importing my content to my blog was the easy part – editing has been a massive effort.

Google+ is much like other microblogging sites like Facebook or Twitter, where you can make original posts, or simply share things you find interesting. In the early days, I reshared a lot of content, which I now only privately consume. For example, I read and commented on a lot of news, but nowadays, I mostly publicly discuss specific issues tied to my professional life, rather than comment on everything that captivates my attention. It was a massive task to re-read every G+ post and decide their past and future value. It was also a kick to see how my sociological social media ‘voice’ has changed over the past few years. You can see a little of that on my blog; I rarely nowadays post just for fun, but I did this in the early days.

Having already faced the shut-down of Vine and Storify, I couldn’t go through the potential loss of my content all over again. After I finished importing not just my personal posts, but another three G+ pages I managed, I started to import, and curate, my Tumblr. This was yet another 3,000 public posts and a few hundred drafts to organise. Phew! The process was both fun and it also brought dejection along the way. Continue reading Blogging Stocktake

Racial Preferences in Dating

A White man leans into the ear of a Black woman who is laughing with he eyes closed

In October 2017, I was interviewed about racial preferences in dating for the Triple J show, “The Hook Up,” along with Dr Denton Callender, a research fellow at the Kirby Institute, and Dr Ian Stephen.

The podcast included calls from listeners who shared what it’s like to be fetishised on dating apps, as well as the racial biases that White people exercise.

I am featured at the beginning, when host Hannah Reilly asks me to comment on ethnic preferences. (Note that ethnicity is about culture, and race is about physical traits. To illustrate this distinction: there are Black Latin people – they’re classified as Black in terms of race, and Latin in terms of culture.)

Below is my transcription of the segment that features me.


[From 2.19 mins] Hannah: I asked sociologist, Zuleyka Zevallos, where these ethnic preferences might be coming from.

Zuleyka: It goes back to the way we think about beauty. We’re socialised from a really young age to be looking out for certain types of physical traits – and a lot of them are associated with Whiteness. It’s about: having very light skin; having a particular type of nose – various types of features that are more common amongst people who are White.

Hannah: So you think beauty is a cultural idea, not a physical one?

Zuleyka: It is very much shaped by culture. We know that because there are patterns. You talked about the patterns on dating apps. There are patterns in which people couple more generally, in marriage – those types of patterns. If it wasn’t culturally shaped, there wouldn’t be patterns because everyone would have an equal chance of hooking up with people, and having relationships with, people outside of their own racial group. Continue reading Racial Preferences in Dating

Interview: Crimes on Facebook

I was interviewed by TRT World on the crimes being broadcast on Facebook. I discussed the sociology of public violence over time and why technology companies need to be more proactive in revising their algorithms and reporting practices. The local studio was in Rozelle, just outside the city of Sydney. Here you see the green screen and the room where I was filmed. Continue reading Interview: Crimes on Facebook

Muslim Ban and Visas for Researchers

Trump Uphold Human Rights for ALL

Update: a few days after going public with this story, which especially received a lot of attention on Twitter and Google+, I received an email saying that my visa waiver was approved. It came one month after I’d initially applied, and too late to attend the United Nations conference.

Given the Trump Administration’s Executive Order that aims to revoke visas to nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, what is your professional society doing to further support conference travel to the USA?

This is my story as a non-Muslim Australian. I’m sharing it as a minor example of the confusion and possible ramifications of the “Muslim ban” on academics. The broader context is much more perilous for Muslims who have a concrete fear for their lives and future under President Trump. As my blog has a strong focus on enhancing social justice in academic and applied research settings, and sociological responses to social change, these are the dual topics of this post. The bigger picture beyond considerations for academic travel is more insidious.

I was invited to speak at a conference in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The event, Gender, Science and Sustainable Development: The Impact of Media – From Vision to Action, was held on February 10th, 2017 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, USA. Gender equity in science and academia is a field in which I’ve long worked, researched and volunteered, including in a previous role where I implemented and managed a national program to increase gender equity and diversity in science. I was invited to discuss my public writing on women in science. I was excited.

In preparation for this travel, I applied for the visa waiver program in January, as is my right as an Australian citizen. This program should provide automatic approval for people holding an electronic Australian passport. That’s me. I received an automatic message when I applied that I was not auto approved but that I’d hear an outcome within 72 hours, as is the maximum waiting period for this service. The time came and went and there was no response. I have not been denied a visa, I have simply not been granted one and not given a reason.

Then the Muslim ban was in full effect. Let me provide the background and how scientists have responded, before I tell you more on what happened to me, and what research organisations may need to consider in terms of academic conferences.

Continue reading Muslim Ban and Visas for Researchers

Girls in STEM

A post I co-authored with Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and Professor Rajini Rao has just been published on the science website, Nature.com. We address the false idea that girls are fundamentally inferior to boys at science due to our biological capabilities. We examine how gender stereotypes negatively impact women’s careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Gender stereotypes are perpetuated through the stories we tell children as soon as they’re born. We show how children in Prep and Grade 1 tend to draw scientists in gender-neutral ways, but by Grade 2 onwards, they start drawing White men in lab coats. By Grade 5 the stereotype that only White men are scientists has taken hold. The stereotype is both gendered and racial, as research shows that even minorities tend to draw White men, thus affecting diversity in science on multiple levels. Continue reading Girls in STEM

Social Justice in Ferguson

Over 1,400 sociologists have signed an open letter protesting police brutality in Ferguson, USA. The letter includes practical measures to address the killing of Michael Brown and mistreatment of protesters in Ferguson. Coordinated by Sociologists for Justice, the letter shows that systemic racism needs to be addressed as well as wider socio-economic and political issues to ensure effective change is enacted.

The book The New Jim Crow outlines how the criminal justice system in America is affected by systemic racism. Additionally, decades of sociological research shows that police officers’ decision-making is affected by racial stereotypes and that better training can address this bias (more links below). Effective change in community policing begins by understanding the effects of the victimisation of people of colour and by addressing the institutional practices that lead to excessive policing of people of colour. Below are the suggestions outlined in the open letter, but I urge you to read the letter in full as it summarises sociological research on race bias in policing. You can also add your name to the open letter, as I have done.

Social Justice for Michael Brown and Ferguson
We are troubled by the killing of Michael Brown. We are troubled by the excessive show of force and militarised response to protesters who rightfully seek justice and demand a change in the treatment of people of colour by law enforcement. – Sociologists for Justice.

Continue reading Social Justice in Ferguson

The K-Index: Gender Morality and Social Media Use by Scientists

A new, already highly controversial, article by Professor of Chemistry, Neil Hall, proposes a “satiric” measure that maps the popularity of scientists on Twitter versus their impact factor (the number of publications in prestigious academic journals). He calls this the “K-Index,” named after a woman celebrity, Kim Kardashian. Why Kardashian? This index is meant to show that social media is as shallow as Hall deems this woman celebrity. Published in the renowned peer-reviewed journal Genome Biology, and unsurprisingly given his premise, Hall finds that scientists with a high impact factor score have a low value on the K-Index. This is mean to be a good thing, according to Hall, who sees scientific communication as being too important to be left to social media.

My post is inspired by Dr Buddhini Samarasinge who critiqued Hall’s conclusions. She discusses how and why scientists use social media, as well as age dynamics. Scientists who have a high publication record have had longer careers, established under a different, and better funded system. They have published more by virtue of the longevity of their careers and the opportunities that come with tenure (long-term and secure academic employment). They are often older and, as I will show, more reticent to use social media. The fact that they have a low K-factor should be a surprise to no one. Early career academics are more likely to be using social media because it is part of their everyday lives. They do not neglect publishing in peer reviewed journals; they do both, but, being more likely to still be studying, or being employed in the early stages, they will not have racked up as many publications. Buddhini argues that scientific publishing and social media do not have to be discreet activities. One does not invalidate the other. Instead they are complimentary to the public communication of science.

It is clear that Hall’s K-Index attempts to demean the outreach work of scientists by pitting academic publishing against social media. I want to focus on the hidden narrative of gender and science morality in Hall’s article.

Science should never be an old boy's club. Diversity matters
Science should never be an old boy’s club. Diversity matters. Photo adapted from Flickr

Continue reading The K-Index: Gender Morality and Social Media Use by Scientists

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