SciComm Cycle of the March for Science

Woman of colour reads her phone in front of a laptop

Over the next couple of days, in the lead up to the March for Science, happening globally on 22 April 2017, I’ll be republishing a few of my articles and analyses of the March here on my blog.

On 13 April 2017, an article in Science Magazine featured the academic research planned about the March for Science, and interviews with one of the march co-chairs. The journalist reported that George Mason University was seeking email addresses of supporters for a planned study.

George Mason University requests email addresses of march followers: Source screengrab via Science Magazine

Scientists around the world who have been holding the march organisers accountable criticised the ethics of such a proposed study. This eventually led to the organisers requesting a correction from the journalist.

How did this major error happen?

Two days later, on 16 April, the March for Science was forced to issue a public apology after appropriating African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in a now-deleted tweet (below). This was heavily critiqued, especially by Black researchers, who pointed out the hypocrisy of using AAVE when Black scientists had been marginalised by the march, and received abuse for speaking out on inequalities within the march. Black scientists were also ignored when they encouraged the organisers to work with established social justice groups, including Black Lives Matter. Cultural appropriation of AAVE is doubly offensive in given these patterns of exclusion.

These are just two recent examples in a long line of problems. The organisers have established a damaging cycle of communication failures and weak apologies since the March for Science was first promoted.


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Analyzing the March for Science Diversity Discourse

Analyzing the March for Science Diversity Discourse

This article was first published on DiverseScholar, on 27 March 2017.

Given the high profile of the Women’s March against the Trump Administration on January 21, 2017, the March for Science (MfS) seeks to rally against the science policy changes, funding cuts, gag orders, and the administrative overhaul of science organisations by the Trump Government.

The March for Science is scheduled to occur globally on April 22 in over 400 cities. The aims and functions of the march have been drastically altered in the first two months of its existence, especially as the organisers began to receive critique from the scientific community regarding diversity issues. By setting up the march as being “not political” and by reproducing various problems of gender inequality, racism and other forms of exclusion, the march organisers have inadvertently created an anti-diversity discourse, which has been subsequently adopted by a vocal majority of the MfS supporter base.

In sociology, the concept of discourse describes how language comes to convey and justify dominant ways of thinking, talking, and behaving. Discourses are built around the social identities, values, interests, and power of dominant groups. This means that the stories we tell about “why things are the way they are,” reinforce the status quo, and thus justify the reasoning, policies, and practices of groups that already have institutional control.

The idea that White men are the taken-for-granted norm of what it means to be a scientist is learned early in school, and then reinforced throughout education, career progression, prestigious prizes, and the publication and funding systems. Institutional mechanisms in science serve to reinforce a discourse that naturalises White men’s dominance in science.

My article on DiverseScholar shows how the MfS organisers have come to reproduce the existing discourse of science, by normalising the interests of scientists who are White and from majority backgrounds. I present an analysis on public reactions to the third (of four) MfS diversity statements that reflect this position.

I analysed 354 comments and over 3,300 reactions to the MfS diversity statement. There were two broad response types to the March for Science diversity statement on the public Facebook page: comments were either discouraging or encouraging of the MfS diversity statement.

The discouraging comments fell into four sub-groups: people who felt that diversity was either politicising or dividing the practice of science; and those who felt that diversity was depreciating or distracting from the goals of the march more specifically.

The encouraging comments included individuals who felt uniquely positioned to be informing others about why diversity is important to the march, and supporters who thought that diversity is enhancing science more generally.

Discourses reflect the history, culture, identity, and politics of those in power. To make the MfS truly inclusive, the organisers need to think more strategically about how to manage misconceptions about science. They will also need to be more proactive in promoting a new discourse about the march.

Read more on DiverseScholar.

Analyzing the March for Science Diversity Discourse

The March for Science Can’t Figure Out How to Handle Diversity

The March for Science Can’t Figure Out How to Handle Diversity

This article was first published on Latino Rebels on 14 March 2017.

Inspired by the impact of the Women’s March, March for Science (MfS) emerged from a series of social media conversations. The ScienceMarchDC Twitter account was set up on January 24, and a Facebook page three days later. Their follower base ballooned from a couple of hundred people to thousands. At the time of writing, the Twitter account has 337,000 followers, the public Facebook page has more than 393,000 likes, and the private Facebook community has over 840,000 members. There are currently 360 satellite marches being organized in various American states and in many cities around the world.

The MfS organizers go to great pains to separate science from politics, and science from scientists, as if practice and policies are independent from practitioners. For example co-chair and biology postdoctoral fellow Dr Jonathan Berman says: “Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest.” Another co-chair, science writer Dr Caroline Weinberg, recently told The Chronicle: “This isn’t about scientists. It’s about science.” These sentiments strangely echo other highly publicized opposition to the march, and are being replicated in some of the local marches. The idea that a protest can be “not political” and that science can be separated from scientists are both political ideas. These notions privilege the status quo in science, by centring the politics, identities and values of White scientists, especially White cisgender, able-bodied men, who are less affected by changes to the aforementioned social policies.

The topic of diversity has dominated online conversations between many scientists across different nations who are interested in making MfS inclusive.

Even as the movement gained swift momentum, the leadership and mission were unclear in one key area: diversity.

Discussions over the march are important not just due to the planned demonstration. The debates matter because they reflect broader issues of diversity in science.

Read more on Latino Rebels.

March for Science Can_t Figure Out How to Handle Diversity

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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