Category Archives: Science and Medicine

The Economist Twist


Photo by: Howard Gees aka. Cyberslayer  Found on: Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by: Howard Gees aka. Cyberslayer
Found on: Flickr Creative Commons



If you operate in a world of “market forces” well, then you should probably leave the social research to the social scientists.  An August 23rd commentary in the Science and Technology section of the Economist magazine anonymously summarized an elegantly designed longitudinal quasi-experimental study in less than 500 words.  Their summary concluded with two very basic possibilities (because as we know the range of human possibility is exactly two!) to explain the correlation between criminality and socio-economic status:  either 1) the environment traps people in a culture of crime or 2) there is a genetic predisposition to being both poor and criminal.  That is, the criminal gene prefers to hang around in the bottom 20% of income earners.  Apparently, the “journalists” at The Economist are trying to revive the long dead nature vs. nurture debate as Sociology Lens addresses here and here. (more…)

A look at the ‘Religion versus Science’ debate through a sociological lens



Recent, high-profile debates between representatives of religion and science show this rivalry is as hot as ever. Yet, despite Richard Dawkins’ fantasies, science will never eliminate religion. A Foucauldian analysis tells us why. (more…)

Fly me to the Moon: Aviation: past, present, and future

By Yamaguchi Yoshiaki from Japan [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This year marks one century of commercial flying. On New Year’s Day in 1914, a large crowd gathered in St.Petersburg, Florida, as an airboat named ‘Benoist’ (after its creator, Thomas Benoist), took to the sky for a 23-minute flight over the Tampa Bay, carrying a single passenger (Abram Pheil, who won his $400 ticket in an auction). This maiden flight soon became a regular route, thus marking aviation’s birth as a viable industry. In the following decades, transnational routes, jet engines and global airlines became fixtures of modern life.

What a difference a century makes. Today, 52 aircraft take off every minute, and an incredible half a million people are in the air above us at any one time. Flying now facilitates family visits, holidays, business and academic conferences, and freight trade; it’s made the world smaller, and the global economy bigger. (more…)

From the defining issue of our era to “green crap” – the transformation of climate change discourse in the UK.



As the saying goes ‘the jury’s in’; human activity is causing global temperatures to rise unnaturally and catastrophically quickly. The IPCC’s international panel of more than 800 scientists compiled over 9,200 peer-reviewed research papers to reach this verdict.  As a result, we are said to be initiating a mass extinction event analogous to one that annihilated the dinosaurs. Yet, climate change, once a totemic issue for politicians attempting to appear progressive, is becoming one of their marginal concerns.  For example, David Cameron, when he was working to detoxify the Conservative Party, went dog-sleighing in the Artic to signify his green credentials and commitment to address global warming. In the new era of perpetual austerity he has deprioritised the environment; Downing Street appointed a climate sceptic as Enviroment Secretary and reportedly recently referred to environmental levies as ‘green crap’.

Politicians in precarious states of power are notoriously sensitive to a construct known as ‘public opinion’. Public opinion is an analogue, shape-shifting beast only temporarily captured by various combinations of: opinion polls, newspaper columns, phone-ins, Tweets, blogs, emails, petitions, TV vox-pops, and whatever people in power imagine it is. Climate change’s deprioritisation reflects the reality politicians are not under pressure from public opinion to address it. There is probably a variety of complex psychological, sociological, economic, and political reasons that could tell us how and why how we’re arrived at point. I am going to suggest some reasons for this shift by applying Foucault to my PhD research data. (more…)

A sociological understanding of online health behaviours



The 2006 Online Health Search, a US survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, showed that “prescription or over-the-counter drugs” was the fifth most widely searched health topic on the Web.  The most recent study, conducted by the Pew Project in September 2012, found that 72% of Internet users they surveyed say they looked online for health information within the past year. As well as providing knowledge, the Web is also a retail opportunity which allows the buying of medicinal products online. Even if obtaining medicine was not the original intention when visiting the Web, it provides the setting for advertising – including direct marketing such as pop ups. These may enable opportunist impulse buying whereby people do not realise that they are indulging in anything untoward. The issue is further complicated where the medicine is regulated and specified as prescription-only. Although it is not illegal to purchase prescription only medicine rather than obtaining it from a health care professional, using a web supplier exposes the consumer to a plethora of criminal behaviour and health risks. The Web offers no guarantee on the quality and effectiveness of medicines supplied with no legal recourse available, especially if the product was obtained from an unregulated site. SPAM emails that bypass the healthcare system by advertising prescription-only medicines further risks people’s health by encouraging self-diagnosis and self-medication. These also carry the risk of credit card fraud and PC viruses which could be associated with larger criminal associations and organisations.

Beck (1992) has purported that the increased propensity to conceptualise problems in terms of risk has been accompanied by shifts in both the role of the expert and the form and communication of their expert product. While the paternalism of the expert remains an important ‘definer’ (Beck 1992:29) of risks, significantly in terms of where they can be discovered and how they are best avoided, this role has supposedly undergone momentous changes. Beck alleges that expertise has both been ‘demonopolised’ (Beck, 1992:29) and ‘democratised’ (Beck, 1992:191). (more…)

Prisoners and Chronic Health Conditions: A Look at the Research

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Chronic conditions are health conditions that have lasted or are expected to last twelve or more months and result in functional limitations and/or the need for continuous medical care (Hwang et al. 2001). In a recent study using data from the 2005 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, Paez, Zhao, and Hwang (2009) found that 43.8 percent of non-institutionalized civilians in the U.S. live with one or more chronic conditions. Among adults, it was found that hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes are the most common chronic diseases. The data further indicated that the likelihood of having a chronic condition increases with age. Non-Hispanics were found to be more likely to report a chronic condition than Hispanics, whites were found to be more likely to report a chronic condition than other racial groups, and females were found to be more likely to report a chronic condition than males. The associations between having a chronic disease and ethnicity, race, and sex were found by Paez, Zhou, and Hwang to exist even after controlling for age. A comparison of the 2005 data to 1996 data suggests that the prevalence of multiple chronic conditions is on the rise in the U.S. (more…)

The Personal is Political: Investigating the Environmental Breast Cancer Movement

Angelina Jolie recently made a huge decision, choosing a double mastectomy to prevent what she and her doctors saw as an inevitability—breast cancer. She then bravely came forward with the decision, writing an op-ed detailing how she made the choice, trying to take away the stigma and fear many women experience. She describes not only the testing that she underwent, but also points to the inequities of breast cancer—that it happens in mainly low- and mid-income countries, and that even in wealthy countries, many women cannot afford the genetic testing or preventive care that she had. She also fights the notion that her post-operative body is now less feminine. I am grateful for Jolie’s willingness to speak up about her choice; I have a family history of breast cancer, and have personally known women who, even after diagnosis, struggle with the mastectomy choice, fearing that they will be less feminine, less attractive after surgery. Jolie’s op-ed is demonstrative of how the breast cancer movement specifically, and the women’s movement more generally, has affected our culture. Rather than viewing the disease (or in this case, its prevention) as a private issue, Jolie uses her experience to influence change. She makes the personal political.

Jolie’s decision and the public discussion she has reinvigorated provides us a chance to talk about the many facets of breast cancer. For all the discussion of the BRCA mutations and the increased cancer risk they produce, these genetic factors are only related to about 5-10% of breast cancer cases. And while the genetic influences are important, there are some breast cancer activists who want to change the focus from these individual level predictors, to other less-researched causes. I’m particularly interested in the environmental arguments, which tend to have less traction in public discourse. (more…)

Harvard University Students Take a Stand Against Controverisal Dissertation

Source: Wikimedia

Source: Wikimedia

This week, Harvard University students are taking a stand against a controversial 2009 dissertation, “IQ and Immigration Policy,” which argues that Hispanics have lower IQs and develops contentious suggestions for U.S. immigration reform based on this assumption.  Jason Richwine, the author of the dissertation and currently a research contributor for The Heritage Foundation, ultimately recommends that U.S. immigration policy should be based on intelligence, excluding individuals with lower IQ scores and including individuals with higher scores. Though Richwine claims that he does not endorse ethnicity-based immigration reform, his use of IQs disaggregated by race and ethnicity raises questions about the intent of his work. (more…)

Racism is on (in?) my mind…




Last Wednesday, Cheryl posted an interesting analysis of the nature vs. nurture debate that has plagued the social and biological sciences since their emergence. More and more research, from both disciplinary areas, is accumulating to overturn this simplistic dichotomy. Rather than thinking of ourselves as purely determined by our body chemistry and structure OR by our social environment, it is useful to think of ourselves as what Donna Haraway terms “material-semiotic” entities—that is, as unique combinations of natural and cultural elements. This way of theorizing the relationship between nature and culture—or rather, the mutual and continuing construction of nature and culture—is given to us by critical science studies scholars. By thinking, as Haraway does, in terms of “naturecultures,” we escape the nature/nurture divide, merging the two inseparably. What we call “nature” and “culture”/“nurture” are actually mutually constituted. (more…)

Nature AND Nurture: Undermining Inequalities with Sociology and Biology



In the most recent issue of Sociology Compass, Lisa Wade contributed an article, “The New Science of Sex Difference,” about the relationship between biology and social identities and inequalities. The debate about socialization usually boils down to two seemingly opposed positions: nature versus nurture. Historically, biologists, and other fans of the life sciences, contended that natural forces in the body, like hormones, genes, and brains, determine the development of an individual. On the other hand, sociologists refute the claim that human behavior and identity can be reduced to biological phenomena; instead, our social environment, and how we are nurtured within that environment, constrain and enable our actions, life outcomes, and sense of self.

Yet, Wade cautions against this false dichotomy. Many biologists and sociologists now recognize the importance of social structures and experiences on the actual fabric of the body. That is, the issue should not be nature versus nature, but instead both nature and nurture. Wade points to numerous scientific and sociological studies that begin to bridge the gap between two previously polarized sides: these scholars show how our hormones, our brains, and even our genes are structured, and at times restructured, by our social experiences and encounters. (more…)