Science Media Hype: Women, Testosterone and Navigation


As usual, science hyperbole would like us to believe that men are “hardwired” to perform better than women at technical tasks. In this article by Science Alert, the heading tells us women navigate better when given testosterone: “Women can navigate better when given testosterone, study finds” The article itself keeps up this facade. Reading the study, however, we find that nothing of the sort is true.

Fifty-three women were recruited on the basis of being on the oral contraceptive pill and not having significant experience in gaming. Why did the latter matter? Because this experiment uses computer games to simulate navigation. The study does not actually test navigation in real life conditions. That’s usually okay – experiments try to construct experiences in a controlled environment. But when those conditions are created to exclude women with certain skill sets that immediately tells us that what is being measured is not biological processes, but rather experience – a social experience.

Continue reading Science Media Hype: Women, Testosterone and Navigation

Tomorrow I’ll be co-hosting an important panel discussion on the science and myths of Ebola. By now you would’ve likely read hundreds of scary headlines about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, with lots of hand-wringing about why “Africa” isn’t being quarantined already. Perhaps you saw Donald Trump say that American medical staff should not have been let back into the USA to get treatment? Did you hear about the “top secret” cure that greedy scientists/ policy-makers aren’t sharing? Maybe you saw reputable media like The New York Times dutifully creating panic with headlines about Americans visiting hospitals thinking they had Ebola (but actually just had the flu)? Or the right-wing arguments that Latin American migrants are crossing over to the USA and bringing the disease? And what about the pigs – can they make us sick? They did in the Hollywood movie Contagion! Is “the Government” holding back science about aerosol transmission of Ebola? So much to fear, but what can we believe?

The fact is… most of what the media is reporting is incorrect.

Ebola is not airborne. It is transmitted by close contact with blood and bodily fluids and secretions (not by coughing or merely by touch). This is why Ebola is spreading in developing nations with inadequate healthcare.

My co-host, molecular biologist Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, and I will be talking with virology expert Professor Vincent Racaniello and Infectious Disease Epidemiologist Dr Tara C. Smith. They’ll talk about what Ebola is, how it’s transmitted, how the current epidemic might be contained, and we’ll also talk about some of of the media-driven misconceptions about the virus. We’ll discuss why an outbreak in developed nations is unlikely and we’ll cover the socio-economic factors sustaining the epidemic in poorer nations.

Head to our Science on Google+ event page to read more. I answered a question about whether Ebola might spread through the upcoming Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca (highly unlikely) and why the United Nations says travel bans are not necessary. You can also despair over the various conspiracy theories being espoused, which our Science Moderators like biochemist Professor Rajini Rao are patiently dispelling. 

We’ll broadcast on Monday 7.30AM Australian EST time (that’s Sunday 2.30pm USA Pacific or 10.30PM UK). You can watch our video later at your leisure on our Science on Google+ YouTube Channel, Science Hangouts.

Learn More

Can’t wait until tomorrow and want to read a little ahead? We republished an excellent introduction about Ebola by biologist Maren Hunsberger. Tara has also written a couple of easy to understand explanations on why Ebola is not airborne and an historical perspective on Ebola responses. Watch Vincent lead a discussion about why the epidemic has spread and how it might be curtailed.

See you tomorrow for a sensible chat about the science and social policy responses to Ebola!

Scientists should not simply stick to doing science. Perhaps we need to extend the scientific method to include a requirement for communication. Young scientists should be taught the value and necessity of communicating their findings to the general public. Scientists should not shy away from controversy, because some topics should not be controversial to begin with. The scientific evidence for the efficacy of vaccines, the process of evolution, the existence of anthropogenic climate change is accepted in the scientific community. Yet, within the public sphere, goaded by a sensationalizing mainstream media and politicians seeking re-election, these settled facts are made to appear tentative. Science is based on evidence, and if that evidence tells us something new we need to incorporate that into our policies. We cannot ignore it simply because it is unpopular or inconvenient.

– Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, molecular biologist and science communicator, argues the idea that “Scientists Should Stick to Science” needs to be retired. This is an much-needed and punchy piece on the importance of public science. Read the whole thing on

Also check out all of Buddhini’s public science outreach on Google+. See other examples of Buddhini’s public science writing at Scientific American, which hosts her Hallmarks of Cancer blog posts, a series designed for a lay audience seeking to understand the common features and complexities of various cancers.

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

Happy International Women’s Day! I’ll do a couple of posts on this over the next day to commemorate this glorious day for both my time zone in Australia and the rest of you in other parts of the world. I want to start with the challenges that lie ahead before celebrating the achievements of women social scientists I admire. Our STEM Women community has been publishing a series of posts celebrating women in sciences, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). We started with a look at the number of Nobel prize laureates. 

We found that in its 113 year history, only 17 women scientists have been recognised amongst 692 Noble Prize winners (though this number counts Marie Curie twice for winning in two different fields). That means that less than 3% of Nobel winners are women. This is not due to women’s lack of scientific contribution, but due to the history and culture of the sciences. No woman has ever won the special Maths prize. While some social scientists have been recognised via the Nobel Peace Prize, only one woman social scientist has won a prize for science: Elinor Ostrom who won in 2009 for the special prize in Economics.

We looked at the way in which women have been used as the symbol of science – two women appear on the back of the Nobel medal – the goddess of natural phenomena (Natura) and the goddess of knowledge (Scientia). So while women can be muses for scientific excellence, our research and innovation remain on the margins of science’s highest organisation. 

We had a phenomenal backlash when we shared this to our other science community, Science on Google+ (three of us who run STEM Women are also Moderators for SoG+). Various sexist arguments followed, ranging from: “Women aren’t as smart as men” to “This probably isn’t sexism, it’s something else (but somehow it’s women’s fault still).” None of these people presented evidence, but rather they relied on biased personal anecdotes.This thread was incredibly counter-productive; rather than engaging with the science presented, people wanted to argue that they don’t think that this is an example in sexism.

I’ve previously written why personal observations that refuse gender inequality don’t count as science, and how this is connected to the sociology of beliefs, attitudes, power and culture. For the record, a plethora of studies refute these arguments. Empirical data shows various historical, institutional and cultural reasons why women’s careers and achievements are not recognised in the same way as men. 

The second image I’ve attached is a quote from Elizabeth Blackburn, who won a Nobel prize in 2009. She has a timely reminder that ties into why we still need International Women’s Day:

This idea that ‘Science needs women’ is really right on target… The ability to solve complex problems is greatly enriched by having different viewpoints.

Read more of our STEM Women posts commemorating this special day on our Google+ page. I’ll be back with more posts on the women who inspired me and more on diversity in social science.

Science Rules Google+!


Science on Google+ is a Community that I help to moderate. With close to 230,000 members, our Community is the largest science community on Google+ as well as one of the top 10 biggest communities on Google+. Social Times also named us as one of the fastest growing communities on that social network, noting that Google+ has a more active membership than LinkedIn, Twitter and Tumblr. The fastest growth ha sbeen amongst people interested in science.

Our Moderation team are all qualified scientists encompassing the major branches of the sciences: Applied, Earth, Life, Physical and Social.

Our aim is to elevate the quality of science discussion on social media, so that we’re going beyond surface level science news stories. We encourage our members to write about peer reviewed science in an engaging way to reach a broader audience. We regularly work to debunk junk science and to dispel myths and hype perpetuated by the media. We also have sections to discuss cross-disciplinary issues such as policy and practice, and a dedicated space for the public to ask questions of scientists.

I curate the Social Sciences stream. If you’re interested in reading, writing or chatting about science, join us! 

Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
The internet is filled with many science blogs and websites holding themselves up as experts on all sorts of research topics. It’s frustrating to see the high volume of articles where non-experts feel qualified to dismiss social science research. The damage is worse when it’s journalists and scientists without social science training, because the public doesn’t always know that these people aren’t qualified to write about social science. I will demonstrate this through a case study of the sociology of diabetes.

With increased media attention on diabetes, the public has come to expect certain behaviours from people who have this condition. While some people understand that there are some differences between the two broad types of Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2), there are many misconceptions about what causes diabetes and how this condition should be treated. With these misconceptions comes judgements about the people who get diabetes, and why this may be the case.

I am not an expert on the biology of diabetes. I can however speak to the sociological aspects of this disease. As an applied researcher, I have worked on projects in the sociology of health, such as examining the influence of organisational practices on health outcomes. I’ve also researched socio-economic disadvantage amongst minority and vulnerable groups and the impact this has on social integration, help-seeking behaviour and wellbeing. Social disadvantage will be the focus of my analysis here. I use my discussion on the socio-economics of diabetes to explore the problems that arise when non-experts wade into social science issues using individual explanations (such as personal experience and opinion) rather than scientific evidence about societal processes. I call this “arm chair” social science because it does not adhere to the social theories and methods for analysing social issues.

My post begins with the social science research on diabetes, centred on the research of Hilary Seligman. Her team’s work was refuted by a science blogger who is not a social scientist, and who subsequently posted this critique to Science on Google+, a large multidisciplinary Community that I help moderate. Below I discuss Seligman’s longitudinal research on how poverty affects the experience and management of diabetes. Seligman uses the concept of “food insecurity” to situate her research. I draw on other studies that lend further support to this concept. I discuss the influence of social location on the management of diabetes. That is, I will examine the socio-economics of where people live as a key factor in diabetes care. I end with a discussion of the exchange on the Science on Google+ Community and the problems of viewing diabetes from an individual perspective.

Exhaustion of food budgets is a driver of health inequality - The Other Sociologist
“Exhaustion of food budgets might be an important driver of health inequities” – Hilary Seligman and colleagues

Continue reading Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

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

New Study Shows Brain Benefits Of Bilingualism

Being bilingual opens up new worlds to speakers. It also appears to delay the onset of dementia…

In the Hyderabad region, a language called Telugu is spoken by the majority Hindu group, and another called Dakkhini by the minority Muslim population. Hindi and English are also commonly spoken in formal contexts, including at school. Most people who grow up in the region, then, are bilingual, and routinely exposed to at least three languages.

The patients who contributed data to the study, then, are surrounded by multiple languages in everyday life, not primarily as a result of moving from one location to another. This turns out to be an important factor, as the authors explain:

In contrast to previous studies, the bilingual group was drawn from the same environment as the monolingual one and the results were therefore free from the confounding effects of immigration. The bilingual effect on age at dementia onset was shown independently of other potential confounding factors, such as education, sex, occupation, cardiovascular risk factors, and urban vs rural dwelling, of subjects with dementia.

In other words, thanks in large part to the study’s cultural context, these researchers made great progress zeroing in on bilingualism as the specific reason for the delay in dementia symptoms.

What exactly is it about the ability to speak in two languages that seems to provide this protective effect? Alladi and co-authors explain:

The constant need in a bilingual person to selectively activate one language and suppress the other is thought to lead to a better development of executive functions and attentional tasks with cognitive advantages being best documented in attentional control, inhibition, and conflict resolution.

Source: NPR.

Read the study in Neurology (behind a paywall). Or check out these open source links:

  • Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease, Neurology 2010. 
  • Language Control in Different Contexts: The Behavioral Ecology of Bilingual Speakers, Frontiers in Psychology
  • A Longitudinal Study of Memory Advantages in Bilinguals, PLOS ONE.

Links via Nicodin Bogdan on Science in Google+.

New Study Shows Brain Benefits Of Bilingualism

Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People


By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Sociology and anthropology have long used the experiences of “third sex” cultures, such as the Native American Two Spirit people, to teach students about the social construction of sex and gender. In many cultures around the world, people are allowed to live their lives beyond conventional binaries; they need not adhere to the biological sex they were born into. These people are usually revered and there are special circumstances where individuals are allowed to shift their gender position. These groups, including the Two Spirit people, are used as examples in the sociology of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersexual (LGBTQI) issues. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this practice, demonstrating that social scientists are applying Western concepts to misappropriate the Two Spirit phenomena.

My post gives a broad overview of the social science concepts of gender and sexuality. I then discuss the spirituality, gender and sexuality of Two Spirit people as well as the history and culture that informs their social position. Let me put my analysis in context: I am not Native American nor am I a transgender person. I identify as a *cis-woman of colour (*that is, my biological and gender identity align). As a sociologist who has researched, published on and taught gender and sexuality courses, I seek to explore how Western social scientists, queer theorists and other social activists have misappropriated the Two Spirit experience to highlight social causes.

I propose that social science needs to move forward from our dominant understandings of the Two Spirit experience. My aim is to start a conversation about how we might expand sociological understandings of gender and sexuality using this case study. How do we best communicate the social construction of gender and sexuality to students and to the public? I argue academics and activists need to be mindful that, even with the best of intentions, misappropriation of cultural traditions of minority groups is dangerous. This perpetuates historical practices that have silenced Indigenous experiences. There are better ways to appreciate and form solidarity with Other cultures. This begins by listening to the way minorities speak about their own experiences, rather than projecting our seemingly-progressive perspective onto Others.

I begin by giving a background on what inspired this post as an example of public sociology. Public sociology describes how we produce sociology for mass audiences outside academia. My focus here is on how we use sociology in the classroom and in social media. It is vital to the longevity of our discipline that sociologists explain our key concepts to general audiences. At the same time, I see it important that we publicly own up to, and invite a public discussion about, the changing dynamics of power which influence social theories. We also need to take responsibility for the way we teach and publicly discuss social science ideas. This means being more critical about the ways in which social science ideas are produced and disseminated, especially via social media.

We-Wah, a Zuni Berdache, from New Mexico, who was born biologically male but lived as a Two Spirit woman. via Chicago Whispers
We-Wah, a Zuni Berdache, from New Mexico, who was born biologically male but lived as a Two Spirit woman. via Chicago Whispers

Continue reading Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People