Sociology of the National Arboretum

Playground at the National Arboretum Canberra

One of the themes of my visual sociology is the representation of science. Conservation is as much about social practices as it is about earth science, biology and other natural sciences. Today’s post is about the sociology of the National Arboretum, which sits on Ngunawal country. Ngunawal people are the traditional custodians of this part of Acton, west of the city in Canberra. Less than a seven minute drive central business district, this is one of the world’s largest arboretums for rare and endangered trees. I am no arborist. I cannot even claim to be a fan of gardening. I was interested in the Arboretum first in an attempt to capture a visual sociology of Canberra, and second to see how people interact with this place as a science centre. The focus of my post today is on the social dynamics of the Arboretum, especially on community aspects of conservation and the trees that drew the greatest interest amongst the crowds I saw: the Bonsai and Penjing Collection .
National Arboretum (18)

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Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Any time there is an article about vaccine initiatives, a segment of the public begin to shout about government conspiracies and their perception of nefarious science. What is behind the anti-vaxxer movement? I start by discussing the scientific evidence about the fraud that inspired the anti-vaxxer movement before providing a broad sketch of the public who don’t believe in vaccination.

The science demonstrating that there is no link between autism and vaccines is peer-reviewed and well-established. The original paper that made the assertion that such a link existed was retracted by the original publisher, The Lancet, due to fraud by Andrew Wakefield and his team.

People who are convinced that vaccines cause autism have never read the original article that made this outlandish claim, let alone understand the science and its motives. For example, the fact that the study used a sample of only 12 boys; that the methods and conclusions were falsified; and most importantly, that Wakefield had a financial interest in making his fraudulent claims. He was funded by lawyers who were engaged in a lawsuit against vaccine companies. The retraction can be clearly seen on the original paper. The original retraction states:

“no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.”

It is rather ironical that some people imagine there is some financial or political incentive amongst scientists to support vaccines. This is simply not true.

Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement
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How Informed Science Can Counter the “Nasty Effect”

How Informed Science Can Counter the Nasty EffectIn September 2013, Popular Science announced that they were closing down their comments section. This has lead to many public debates, including discussions on Science on Google+, a large community that I help manage. I wrote the following post in response to our community discussions at the time. I discuss the role of public science moderation in context of one scientific study that Popular Science used to support its decision to close their comments section. The research shows that people who think they know about science are easily swayed by negative internet discussions, but these people more likely to be poorly informed about science in the first place. For this reason, popular science publications and scientists need to step up their public engagement, not shy away from it due to the so-called “nasty effect” of negative comments made through social media. I also reflect on my own moderation experiences with the hopes of encouraging sociologists and other scientists to contribute to public science education and engagement.

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Sociology of Gender Bias in Science

A new study by Dr Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues has analysed the public’s comments in response to a prominent study on gender bias in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The researchers find that men are more likely to post negative comments in response to scientific findings about sexism in STEM careers. To provide a flipside illustration, I share some examples of what it is like to be a woman moderator of a large, international science community on Google+. This case study will illustrate the recurring arguments used to invalidate the science on inequality in STEM. These arguments are focused on biological (mis)understandings of gender; stereotypes of what motivates men and women; and a desire to police the boundaries of science. Denying that sexism exists is a common tactic to invalidating the science on gender bias in science, and attacking the social sciences is concurrently used to discredit findings on inequality, as well as support the idea that inequality does not exist in STEM.

Sociology of Gender Bias in Science
Sociology of Gender Bias in Science. Photos: Texas A&M University-Commerce, CC 2.0

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Motherhood Penalty in Academia

In late 2014, two sociologists were featured in the New York Times (NYT) talking about the “cultural bias against mothers” in the paid work force. Professor Michelle Budig’s research finds that high income men with kids enjoy the biggest career benefits while low-income women suffer as a result of having children. In part, this is because employers think that marriage and children makes men more stable, while women with children are stigmatised as being less reliable (employers see mothers as “flaky”). This stereotype goes back to the traditional male breadwinner model that arise during the Industrial Revolution, which became solidified in post-WWII period during the 1950s. People presume the model we know today has always existed but that’s not the case. Marketing and economic relations have made it seem as if married men are ideal workers, while women are supposedly made for care-giving. This is not the case, when we look to institutional barriers and employer biases.

Motherhood penalty
Motherhood penalty

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Science Fellowships and Institutional Gender Bias in STEM

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.

Science Fellowships and Institutional Bias
Science Fellowships and Institutional Bias in STEM

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Letting Women Shine: Undoing Gender Inequality in Education

Australia’s Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne recently defended Budget changes that will make education highly unaffordable for most Australians. To add insult to injury, he used a sexist argument. On ABC Australia’s 730 Report Pyne was asked about the collective concerns of Australian Vice Chancellors, who fear the proposed increased university fees will create further inequity, especially for women and economically disadvantaged groups. Pyne argued that women go into teaching and nursing and that these courses won’t cost as much as the courses that men take.The problem here is that Pyne fails to recognise that women actually study a variety of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Moreover, given his portfolio, it is startling to hear the Education Minister speak so flippantly about women’s higher education debt given that countless studies show women are severely disadvantaged within women-dominated fields, and beyond. There’s a lot that the Minister might learn by looking at the research on gender disparity. Taking a leaf out of Japan’s economic policies, Mr Pyne would see exactly why women are at the heart of their economic reform.
Undoing Gender Inequality
Undoing Gender Inequality

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

Note: This blog post was first published on Google+ on the 31st of July

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

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Sociology of Government-led Climate Change Denial

Photo via Flickr
Photo via Flickr

The Abbott Government in Australia has previously stated it does not believe in climate change and it has significantly withdrawn funding for this line of research in its latest Budget (along with funding for most non-medical scientific research). A recent change on the Department of Environment’s website has removed a reference to the link between extreme weather conditions and climate change. The Department says this change reflects the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is incorrect. In order to provide some context for my post, it’s best to understand the Abbott Government’s historical and current position on climate change. I specifically focus on the public discourse by Abbott and his Ministers. They discuss climate change science as both something that is open to interpretation and something that can be fought with selective use of science.

The IPCC describes climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.

Climate change action is an interdisciplinary effort, requiring the knowledge and contribution of scientists, community planners and health workers, and other experts from many fields. It requires research as well as social policy intervention at the local community, state, federal and international levels.

I wrote part of this post on my Google+ and I encountered much push-back from a vocal minority of individuals vehemently opposed to the science of climate change.* As such, I wanted to expand on my original argument, and put climate change denial in sociological context. Research shows that political interests shape the extent to which climate change science is rejected, particularly when individuals have a direct or vested interest in an economy of fossil fuels, or where they have an ideological opposition to renewable energy and social change more broadly.  My focus is on the sociological consequences of extreme weather events, specifically on community planning and community resilience (the knowledge, resources and planning necessary to deal with extreme events). Continue reading Sociology of Government-led Climate Change Denial

Everyday Sexism in Academia

Science: You’re doing it wrong. When scientists use a provocative picture of a woman hoping to make people pay for article access, the marketing gimmick is sexism.

Last week, I co-hosted a panel discussion by STEM Women on Everyday Sexism in Academia, along with Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe a Molecular Biologist from the UK. Our guests were Professor Rajini Rao PhD  in Biochemistry who runs her own lab at Johns Hopkins University USA, and Dr Tommy Leung, Evolutionary Biologist with the University of New England, Australia. The video covers five scenarios that arise in early career academic life: sexist comments that undermine women’s confidence; sexism in publishing; “tone policing” how women speak; a mentor who inappropriately asks a junior researcher on a date; and the way in which women scientists are spoken about in stereotypically gendered ways. For example, women are described as mothers and wives first, and scientists second, while men are just “scientists.” In this post I cover the highlights of our discussion. First, I provide an overview of the sociological definitions of sexism, and how everyday experiences of sexism feed into broader patterns of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.


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