New Resource: Equity and Diversity for Events

Diversity encompasses issues of equity, inclusion, accessibility and intersectionality (the interconnection between gender and racial inequality alongisde other social disadvantages). I’ve created a resource to ensure academic and science events support diversity. Below is a brief version.

Continue reading New Resource: Equity and Diversity for Events

Racial Preferences in Dating

Racial Preferences in Dating

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.

Here’s part of the transcript.

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.

Hannah: I’ve heard the argument that having an ethnic preference is like having a preference for blondes or brunettes. Is that really the same thing?

Zuleyka: Not really, because there is a lot of variability within and across racial groups. So you can find a lot of different traits across ethnic groups. But since people will say, particularly on their online profiles, when they’re using dating apps, they will say things like: “No Asians.” Or, “No Black people,” things like that.

Hannah: We are going to be talking that in more detail in just a little while.

Zuleyka: Great! I think that things show that people learn to think about sexuality and what attracts them in particular ways that are very much exclusionary to people of colour.

Hannah: And so, do you think we’re socially conditioned to find certain ethnicities more attractive?

Zuleyka: Yes. It comes across in a lot of research particularly to your listeners who would be people of colour would be told things like, “Oh you’re pretty for a Black girl,” or things like that, which show that people are thought about being attractive or unattractive the closer they are to European ideals of beauty. It’s through various forms of culture, from paintings through to film – we’re surrounded by these ideas that a certain type of look is more attractive than others.

Hannah: This preference for whiteness in dating, do you think sometimes we find that hard to accept?

Zuleyka: I think so. I think it’s because in Australia, we don’t really have a language to think about race. We don’t really talk about race, unless we’re talking about racism. In other countries, like the United States, people have more open conversations. Whereas here, I think that we’re scared to talk about race and racism because people are afraid to be thought of as racist. It’s not like people will be consciously discriminating against groups, even when they say things like, “No Asians,” or whatever it is – [Hannah interrupts].

Hannah: – Wait, how is that not consciously discriminating?

Zuleyka: [Laughs] Well if you speak to people who make those statements, they will tell you that they think they’re not being racist because in Australia we think of racism as something that is really overt. Like screaming at somebody an insult, or not giving somebody a job. Overt forms of racism is what we recognise as racism, but the everyday functions of race – like whom we’re attracted to – we are afraid to think about what that might mean about our racial identities and how we relate to other people.

Read more on my blog:


Commenting policy

Before commenting on this post, please read my article, and the scientific sources on my blog.

I moderate comments to maintain a safe space first and foremost for women of colour of various backgrounds, and also to support the voices of other minority groups who are marginalised. I welcome comments but please note that I do not allow abuse. People commenting should discuss sociology; be polite; stay on topic; and be aware of their own bias. My commenting policy is in my About section of G+ and also here:

Please note I often lock my posts overnight or close off comments after a few days when I’m unable to moderate. This keeps my threads free from abuse.

#sociology #socialscience #equity #racism #antiracism #dating #research #academia #relationships

Racism in Research and Academia

Racism in Research and Academia

Racism is not an interpersonal phenomenon. It is not simply about something one person said to another; it is more than a slur about skin colour. Racism operates through institutions and policies, that are reinforced in everyday words and actions. Racism is not comprehending that things you say and do – as well as the things you fail to say and do – contribute to the alienation of people of colour. Well-meaning White people contribute towards racism – through their silence.

Whether intentional or not, racism has material consequences on the life chances of racial minorities.

In my latest blog post, I discuss some examples of racism at work in research contexts. I examine what it means to be an “ally.” Below, I focus on ways to proactively respond to racial discrimination in the workplace and online.

How to help

Here are some ways to actively address racism day-to-day. To start with, be honest with yourself: could you be contributing to racism, unconsciously or not? Try answering some of the following questions and suggestions to come to terms with your bias and to make a positive contribution to change.

How many people of colour have you actively supervised and mentored? Do you know what minority students go through daily? Racism impedes education in many ways.

Allyship is sacrificing White privilege, like giving up speaking spots, grants and other career opportunities so that people of colour can shine. Allyship is not a crown White people can give themselves. It requires centring people of colour, making concerted efforts for positive change, and not passively upholding the status quo. What career sacrifices have you made to end racism, which are meaningful to people of colour?

Get trained… and keep on training

Do you know your biases and their impact on racism in your organisation? When was the last time you had training on racism and intersectionality that involved a plan of follow-up concrete actions to lead change?

Review your policies using a critical race framework. Statements against bullying are not enough. To affect structural changes that will eliminate discrimination, your organisation needs quotas, clear goals and deadlines, and public accountability.

Start a journal club at your institution. Read academic and policy papers by people of colour. Discuss their research excellence and use their science in your everyday work.

Add more people of colour authors and journalists to your regular general reading and news feeds!

Raise representation

The next time you go to a meeting, check the representation in the room: it’s not okay to leave out Indigenous and other people of colour from meetings and committees.

Organising a conference? Just as it’s not ok to leave out “women” think about racial balance. White women can’t speak for “minorities” (don’t forget women of colour are women too and White women can’t speak to our experiences).

Walk around your offices and campus. Do you see only White faces on walls, on your marketing materials and on your other media? Speak to your Vice Chancellor or Director on the importance of intersectionality in representation.

Learn more on my blog:


Commenting policy

Before commenting on this post, please read my article, and the scientific sources referenced.

I moderate comments to maintain a safe space first and foremost for women of colour of various backgrounds, and also to support the voices of other minority groups who are marginalised. I welcome comments but please note that I do not allow abuse. People commenting should discuss sociology; be polite; stay on topic; and be aware of their own bias. My commenting policy is in my About section of G+ and also here:

Please note I often lock my posts overnight or close off comments after a few days when I’m unable to moderate. This keeps my threads free from abuse.

#sociology #socialscience #equity #diversity #inclusion #antiracism #intersectionality #research #academia

Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact

Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a strong contribution to make in leading change in sociology, however, their knowledges are kept on the periphery of our discipline. Associate Professor Kathleen Butler is working to transform sociology by “Indigenising” sociology. She is an Aboriginal woman belonging to the Bundjalung and Worimi peoples of coastal New South Wales, and a sociologist who hosted the “Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact” workshop. The workshop explored ways to address colonial practices in sociology, as well as how to draw on Indigenous expertise to decolonise research, methods and theories in sociology.

Indigenising sociology

Using the Aboriginal method of a “talking circle” (or yarning circle), where any person can contribute to unstructured dialogue, Professor Butler began two-day discussions considering how Indigenous-led practices can enhance Australian sociology.

The first day of the workshop was centred on a thoughtful presentation by former social worker and researcher Karen Menzies on how intergenerational trauma of forced removal of Aboriginal children continues to impact the health and life outcomes of Indigenous people.

The second day of the workshop began with Associate Professor Butler reflecting on her evolving research on sociological teaching and resources. She has analysed the topics covered in higher education sociology courses around Australia, and finds that there is almost no focus on Indigenous scholarship, and that there is little attention to race in central sociology teaching. She argued this is one of the ways in which we see how sociology actively participates in an exclusively Western framing of social issues.

We discussed that sociology as a discipline actively perpetuates colonialism in the citing conventions, theories and methods we continue to pass on to students.

Investing in future change

Another question we discussed at length was: how do we account for the fact that the majority of people who are trained as sociologists are not Indigenous? We discussed how Aboriginal sociologists are on the fringes of our discipline, either underemployed or precariously employed as casual staff. We noted a major investment in the training, mentorship, sponsorship, promotion and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sociologists needs to be prioritised in sociology.

Decolonising sociology

We discussed what a decolonised sociological imagination would look like, with critiques of foundational Western sociological texts at the centre. Australian sociology has rebuilt itself before – using a White feminist framework in the 1970s and 1980s – we can do this again using Indigenous knowledges and intersectionality. Associate Professor Butler argued that the work of Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson (a Geonpul woman) is our starting point for decolonising sociology, especially in Australia.

We also discussed issues of ethics and intersectionality (the interconnections between gender and racial inequality and other forms of social marginalisation).

Read more on my post, including a video interview with Associate Professor Butler delving into the outcomes of the workshop and questions that remain for our discipline.

#sociology #socialscience #indigenous #aboriginal #research #academia #inequality #race #racism #australia #university #socialjustice

Scholarship Copyright

Scholarship Copyright

Today I found out that one of my publications, a peer-reviewed conference paper which is available free online, was published without my consent on a journal that I’ve never submitted to. The parent publisher is one of the major science publishers, but the journal itself I’ve never heard of; it does not have an editorial team listed; nor direct contact information for the editors.

What makes matters worse is that the journal is charging $48 for access for a paper that is freely available on the original conference website! The university that I’m affiliated with doesn’t have a subscription to this journal so I can’t check what the published piece looks like. I can’t check if my work has been edited in any way.

I’ve written to the original editor of the conference proceedings to see if there was some arrangement with the publishers that the authors were not made aware of. (The issue includes other papers from the conference, but not all of them.) I’ll also chase this up with a copyright agency tomorrow.

Predatory journals are cropping up everywhere. They undermine science by preying on junior researchers and others who don’t know better. Now it appears that they may be stealing content also!

What Can We Do to Protect Our Work?

Here’s some general advice:

* Use Google Scholar: This was how I realised that the journal had poached my content. It works by pulling web content. You can manually add references but can’t add links. You need to upload your papers to one of the services below for Google Scholar to be able to add a link to your work. Here’s some good tips on how to improve your Google Scholar profile:

* Sign up with a copyright agency: Australia’s Copyright Agency offers a free service where they will help you fight copyright infringements. They have helped a friend of mine get royalties for books and teaching materials that republished my friend’s research without payment. Australians can get help here: 

* Join a Researcher Network: I belong to both ResearchGate and I use the former very little, but most of my papers are up there. It is a free membership-based system to share papers and answer academic questions from other researchers. is widely used, and I have my papers on there too (I joined that before ResearchGate). A few years a go there were concerns about their terms and conditions ( I enjoy it as an alternative way to keep up with what researchers are publishing. Both services help your Google Scholar profile, and most importantly help you keep control of your public publishing profile.

Has something like this happened to you? Do you have other tips to help researchers protect their work?

Image: Z. Zevallos.  #scicomm   #science   #sociology   #socialscience   #stem   #research   #googlescholar   #copyright  

Sociology of Malaysian-Australians

Sociology of Malaysian-Australians

Australia is home to 5.3 million migrants, meaning that one quarter of Australians were born overseas, and a further 20% of Australians are children of migrants – making half our nation first or second-generation migrants! Malaysia-born migrants are our 9th largest migrant group (with the UK, New Zealand and China being our biggest).

Malaysians are also one of our oldest-settled migrant groups, first arriving in the Northern coast in the 18th Century. Sociologist Peta Stephenson has a wonderful study of Indigenous Australian Muslim “reverts” (converts) who have reclaimed this heritage by converting to Islam. Today, however, in Victoria, most Malaysia-born Australians are either Buddhist (28%), No Religion (16%) or Catholic (13%).

While most other non-English speaking groups tend to settle in the Western and outer suburbs of Melbourne, Malaysian-Australians are largely living in the inner city, one of the most affluent areas in our state. Generally speaking, Malay are one of our most upwardly mobile migrant groups, with second-generation migrants averaging greater educational and professional success in comparison to Anglo-Australians.

The photos below are from the Malaysian Street Festival, which was held over the weekend. The Festival showcased the rich cultural diversity of Melbourne’s Malaysian communities. The focus was on food, music and family activities (what I’ve previously termed “emblems of identity” or surface-level culture).

If you’d like to see a short video of the Festival, head over to my Facebook page: I’m working on a proper edited video that will come out sometime in the near future.

Photo Credit

Photos by Zuleyka Zevallos.


* Australian Bureau of Statistics: First and Second-generation migrants in Australia:

* Short history of Malaysia-born in Australia: 

* Australian Bureau of Statistics: Migrants and Malay population:

* Religion amongst Malaysian-Australians: (free PDF)

* Peta Stephenson’s research on Indigenous reverts: (free PDF)

* Socio-economic outcomes of second-generation migrants is part of my ongoing research. Also see Khoo et al. (free PDF but warning it’s a large file!)

#sociology   #socialscience   #malaysia   #malay   #australia   #migration   #research  

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  

Media Hype & Public Knowledge of Science

Media Hype & 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? Matthew Timothy Bradley tackled this on the Science on Google+ Community, by going to an analysis of the original source. I’m republishing my comments and expanding my argument to make two points that are a common theme in my writing: 1) Media hyperbole on science needs careful critique by scientists. 2) Scientific literacy requires our sustained engagement. I include some of interesting figures that speak 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 have a conversation about how to move forward in dispelling the hype and myths surrounding science. 

Astronomical Misrepresentation of Science

Various major news publications reported on The National Science Foundation (NSF) study in February. The media focused on the idea that a large group of young people think that astrology is “scientific.” Matthew points to an excellent blog post by Richard Landers that re-examines the NSF data with respect to the questions they asked (

On the original thread, the always brilliant Johnathan Chung notes differences in the responses across different age groups. He also notes that the public’s confusion may be related to changes in language. Most people are now used to thinking of astrology as “horoscopes” but if they are unfamiliar with astronomy (the science) they may misinterpret the word astrology to mean the scientific study. So: while they may understand that horoscopes are just a bit of fun, and they know that there is a formal science field that studies the universe, they may be confusing the words.

Johnathan notes that the media ran with shock headlines and did not adhere to the caveats in the original study. 

I noted the data in Lander’s post are illuminating but still contain gaps. 

At the heart of the problem is that most people are semantically confused about the difference between astronomy (a science) and astrology (not a science). Yes the words sound similar in English, which may explain why some people are confused.

It may follow then that if the researchers had asked people a question about astrophysics that there may not have been the same level of confusion, since this word has the concept of physics embedded within, which is probably more clearly identified as a specialised area of science. Yet given the level of science fiction speculation I read about certain areas of astrophysics (e.g. black holes), I’d be curious what the findings might be for this discipline.

What I would like to see in a further study, is to dig deeper into the qualitative distinctions and what they mean for scientific literacy. If you take the qualitative answers from the poll in Landers’ blog post, to some people, astrology means:

Astrology is the study of how the positions of the planets affect people born at certain times of the year… The study the heavens for finding answers to life questions. (My emphasis)

These qualitative responses suggest that to some people, the “correct” meaning of astrology is still mistaken as a form of science. 

Landers’ blog post provides a useful point of comparison to a study completed by the European Commission. A higher proportion of people think that astrology is scientific (41%) when they are specifically asked how scientific is astrology?, versus a lower proportion of people (13%) who think that horoscopes are scientific when asked specifically about this. 

I see that these findings still suggest a troubling trend: that people don’t understand what astronomy is. Why is this? It shouldn’t be the case, as this is a major field of scientific study. There is already plenty of evidence that the public doesn’t really understand the basics of science (I wrote about this here: So despite the qualitative distinctions, there is a public education problem here that needs to be addressed.

Rajini Rao brought out other findings from the NSF study, noting that younger people were more likely to see astrology as science. Only 42% of people aged 18-24 thought that astrology was unscientific. A lower proportion of older people aged 35-44% today say the same (51%), where as in 2010, 64% of older people thought that astrology was not scientific. This trend is even more worrisome – older people are relatively less confused about astrology, but the misinterpretation is growing.

Rajini invited us to look at the broader report, which shows other trends that influence the public’s understanding of science (  The images below and the rest of my discussion draw on this report.

Science Literacy

Poor knowledge of astrology is growing amongst older people relative to previous years. Is this because, as people get older, they forget their science education? 

The study also identified well educated people with “factual knowledge” of science were less likely to confuse astrology for a science.

There is indeed more to this study than what was reported by the media. The most interesting patterns are somewhat contradictory to the pursuit of enhanced science outreach. For example, 80% of Americans surveyed are interested in new scientific discoveries, but then again, amongst those following science “closely” most are paying close attention to the weather, and only 16% of people follow other science news this closely.

This is something for us to think about for our Science on Google+ Community – what we see as being the most popular posts are not always scientific. Some of it is fun, which we all love, but some of it is erroneous science factoids or they simply lack any scientific content or explanation. This represents a superficial level of science interest that all scientists from all fields need to better understand and respond to.

The NSF study shows that a larger proportion of people get their science news from the internet today (42%) relative to previous years. This makes it all the more important for us to correct #ScienceMediaHype  such as the original reporting on this astrology finding, and all the more reason for us to contribute to   #DebunkingJunkScience . 

The broader study also finds that while most people have a high opinion of scientists, only half of the people surveyed say that they have a good or strong understanding of what we do.

The public is more likely to have a clearer idea of what applied fields do, specifically engineering and computer programming. Space exploration ranks low as a topic of scientific interest, which would explain the poor knowledge of astronomy. 

All of this shows something that we’re all aware of in on Science on Google+, but which the sciences are unevenly addressing collectively: public education on science needs more practical support and active engagement.

Making Progress

The NSF data show that public trust in science is relatively better than in other institutions, but still, this is outweighed by the proportion of people who distrust science. Around 2/5 of Americans trust scientists and the medical community, but half trust the military. Conversely, a higher proportion of people distrusted other institutions more than they distrusted science, but organised labour was distrusted the least.

It’s possible to lift public understanding and trust in science when we look at the NSF’s international data. Overall, more Americans think that the harmful results of research outweigh its benefits, and this discontent has grown slightly since the last two surveys were conducted in 2008 and 2010. Scandinavian nations and Canada have a higher proportion of people who think science has done more harm than good. Then again Canada also has the highest proportion of people who have confidence in the good produced by science, along with nations like Taiwan, South Korea, Czech Republic, Austria and Mexico, while the Philippines has the highest confidence in science.

Historical experience, public framing of debates and understanding of the practical and tangible benefits of institutions all influence how people understand their benefits. I’ve previously shown that a lack of understanding of science, such as its advantages and risks, affect the level of trust the public has in science. Lack of trust in science is also associated with personal beliefs, values and attitudes (

There is some conflation of belief in faith versus belief in science. Around half of Americans think that there’s too much belief in science, which makes them similar to most European nations. Religion alone does not account for lack of trust, however, as education level and other socio-economic variables are also influential.

Perception of science funding has fluctuated over the years. This trend is influenced by economic and political pressures at particular points in time. Around a decade a go, more Americans believed that the government was not spending enough money on research. Close to 80% of Americans think that there’s not enough funding of education (presumably at the primary and secondary levels), but less than 40% think that there’s not enough funding of scientific research.

Tomorrow, I return to the issue research funding and trust in science. In a nutshell though, in some cases, people mistrust science because they don’t understand how science research is funded. People think all the money comes from lucrative private companies such as “big pharma.” The reality is that most research is funded by Government, and this funding is being decreased.

While most people think that scientists are devoted to solving important problems and that our work is not boring, there is misconception about how we carry out our work. More people think that scientists work alone, that our work is dangerous (this could mean different things to different people) and that we’re peculiar people. Misconceptions about what it means to be a scientist are likely to affect how people understand – and more importantly misunderstand – what we do, how and why we do it.

I started this post reflecting on the misinterpretation about astrology and astronomy. Clearly there are problems with how people understand quantitative survey questions, so we need mixed methods to get to a deeper understanding of what all of this means. As I mentioned, people think science is dangerous and that the benefits do not always justify the costs. Why do people think this? Where do they get their ideas? If we take the astronomy example, clearly the media are not helping. They serve only to confuse the public on many science matters, offering only superficial slivers of information on rich, complex studies.

And now for the perennial question: How do we do better science outreach? Clearly we have many dedicated scientists doing quality public engagement, but we need more. But how do we dispel some of these myths about science funding, the pros and cons of research, and what it means to be a scientist? Is it enough for more of us to engage, or does the nature of our outreach need to change?

#sociology   #socialscience   #science   #research   #stem  

Failures in Science

I’ve been thinking about how we often paper over the flaws in science because they don’t fit into 7,000 to 10,000 word journal articles. Failure and mistakes in science don’t invalidate the scientific process. Not talking about the things that go wrong can be damaging for early career researchers.  

The beautiful aspect of this quote by Columbia biologist Stuart Firestein is his celebration of the messiness of scientific discovery.

“Much of science is failure, but it is a productive failure. This is a crucial distinction in how we think about failure. More importantly is that not all wrong science is bad science. As with the exaggerated expectations of scientific progress, expectations about the validity of scientific results have simply become overblown. Scientific “facts” are all provisional, all needing revision or sometimes even outright upending. But this is not bad; indeed it is critical to continued progress. Granted it’s difficult, because you can’t just believe everything you read. But let’s grow up and recognize that undeniable fact of life…

So what’s the worry? That we will become irrationally impatient with science, with it’s wrong turns and occasional blind alleys, with its temporary results that need constant revision. And we will lose our trust and belief in science as the single best way to understand the physical universe. . . . From a historical perspective the path to discovery may seem clear, but the reality is that there are twists and turns and reversals and failures and cul de sacs all along the path to any discovery. Facts are not immutable and discoveries are provisional. This is the messy process of science. We should worry that our unrealistic expectations will destroy this amazing mess.”

Quote via Brainpickings:


Earworms: How and Why Music Gets Stuck in Your Head

Have you ever had a song playing in  your mind that you just can’t tune out? The social science term for this is “involuntary musical imagery” (IMI) otherwise known as an “earworm.” In this post, I’ll discuss research about IMI, focusing on data from a study by Victoria Williamson and colleagues tracing the “earworm” phenomenon. I end by discussing some gaps in the research, and I reflect on my experiences with earworms.

Much of our thinking happens without our conscious attention. Involuntary thoughts are always running in the back of our brains. These unconscious thoughts happen spontaneously, but they reflect our prior experiences. So why do earworms exist? It turns out that they serve both a functional and a socio-psychological purpose.

Continue reading Earworms: How and Why Music Gets Stuck in Your Head