VW devil logo, Spatz_2001, Flickr CCC
Spatz_2011, Flickr CC

Investigations into the Volkswagen emissions scandal, wherein the iconic German car maker had installed software in their diesel models to cheat American emissions tests, are ongoing, and the U.S. government is still considering the fines it will levy. But the software, according to VW America CEO Michael Horn in a congressional hearing, was no indication of a company-wide conspiracy. Instead, it was, Horn said, snuck in the design by a couple of rogue engineers. But surely some management or higher-ups had to have known, right?

An article by Paul Kedrosky in the New Yorker uses work by Columbia sociologist Diane Vaughan to delve into how cultures and patterns could actually explain the engineering genesis of Volkswagen’s “defeat device,” without any one person choosing to cheat. The effect of the defeat device was substantial; when tested, a car emitted forty times less nitrogen oxide than during regular use. But with Vaghan’s research, it appears possible that it was not the product of an elaborate scheme—just the result of accumulated fudging. more...

CSPAN screenshot via Washington Post.
CSPAN screenshot via Washington Post.

Alongside the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the media and presidential candidates have been making a lot of small talk about weather. Though there’s nothing new about the issue “climate change,” and the preceding term “global warming,” not everybody is on board. Republican candidates including Donald Trump, Chris Christie, and Ben Carson continue to deny climate change, even as the evidence mounts. Often, these candidates state they don’t place much stock in “science.”

An article on Huffington Post discusses this dynamic with help from environmental sociologists Riley Dunlap from OSU and Aaron McCright of MSU. They describe how, particularly among conservative voter bases, people are more likely to seek out information that they agree with while, ignoring what challenges their preexisting ideas. In addition, high-profile skeptics such as political figures can generate an “echo chamber.” In essence, people hear their beliefs reinforced within their social networks; groups can normalize and strengthen particular beliefs or ideologies by simply listening to each other instead of finding new information. As the article describes, even in the face of increasing scientific evidence of climate change, some will remain cold to the idea.

Climate Change has reached scientific consensus, so why and how do people still deny it? Photo via Takver, Flickr CC.

Even with nearly a hundred percent consensus within the scientific community, the notion that humans are not causing climate change is still widespread amongst the public. A new study in Nature Climate Change by sociologist Justin Farrell of Yale University aimed to find out how climate doubt is manufactured, and was covered in The Washington Post.

Farrell, the sole author of the study, is quoted at length about his findings. Unsurprisingly, his motivation for research was grounded in a genuine curiosity as to how there is such an extraordinary gap between scientific and public consensus:

“I’ve personally been interested in understanding how a social movement can spread such uncertainty and doubt in the general public on an issue that has achieved near scientific consensus.”

What he found is that the organizations that promote these contrarian views are connected in a network. Those organizations that are central to the network, received funding from larger corporate interests, in this case either ExxonMobil or the Koch Brothers. Farrell isn’t anti-corporate funding, but he is pro-transparency.

“Of course, the solution is not to forbid corporate funding of this or that issue, but to start by providing better access to who is funding who, so that folks are not kept in the dark, making it hard to know who to trust, if anybody.”

“I hope people read these findings in the light of the bigger picture, and not just ExxonMobil or Koch, but more broadly these two entities are simply a very strong indicator of the larger types of financial interests that are behind the movement,” he said.

In addition to Farrell, the article quotes Robert Brulle, professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, who served as a reviewer for the study. Brulle had interesting advice for how climate change activists can shift the narrative and persuade public opinion:

“When you look at comparative strategies, the climate science community or the climate advocacy community does not have as much of a media-centered focus as does the conservative movement,” Brulle said. “I think that that’s what this paper starts to push on. You have to move more toward a media-centered influence—the influencers’ strategy—rather than trying to convert individual by individual.”

Read the full article by Chelsea Harvey here, and learn more about sociological studies of how echo chambers work to limit the amount of climate change science that enters political debates with this article in the Fall 2015 issue of Contexts, the public outreach journal of the American Sociological Society.

Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP for the Tico Times.
The “epidemic mindset” could be caused by the uncertainty of a global world. Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP.

Though there is still much work to be done to curb cases of Ebola across Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, good news came this week as the World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola-free. Yet fear of the disease remains around the world as Americans and Europeans call for travel restrictions to limit further exposure. Why all the fear for a disease with so few cases gone global?

The New York Times  interviewed sociologist Claudine Burton-Jeangros on the issue, who points out that Ebola fears fit into larger narratives about our place in the world and modern life.

…the more we master the world through science and technology the more frightened we are of those things we can’t control or understand. ”We live in very secure societies and like to think we know what will happen tomorrow. There is no place in our rational and scientific world for the unknown. Objectively, the risks created by Ebola in Europe are very small,” said Ms. Burton-Jeangros, ”but there is an uncertainty that creates fear.”

Since Ebola is only spread when bodily fluids are exchanged, the chances of an outbreak in the U.S. or Europe are very small. We’re not immune from fear, however, and the uncertainty of a global world creates new social supports for epidemics of anxiety. For more on the “epidemic mindset,” check out our roundup of research.


Thompson writes even “The Principia could have been subtitled Why Everything You Know About Gravity Is Wrong.”

Okay, so that’s a little misleading. But, as Clive Thompson writes in the September issue of Wired magazine, that’s precisely the point. “Wander into the pop science section of any bookstore and you’ll be told—over and over again—a disturbing fact: Everything you know is wrong. About everything. Seriously, everything!” From Talent is Overrated to The Social Animal, Thompson has noticed that telling people they’re wrong about some seemingly familiar truth is increasingly popular: “it’ll take a renegade outsider—like, say, a ‘rogue economist’—to pierce these veils of ignorance,” “revealing a ‘secret’ long ‘hidden’ from you.”

Thompson offers three ideas for why it is we might be drawn to the “Everything You Know Is Wrong!” trope (since it’s fairly obvious why writers and media outlets—The Society Pages’ authors are no exception—adopt it). First, and most fundamentally, he says that the world is confusing and we may be drawn to those who promise to illuminate it. Fair enough. Second, perhaps “it’s a side effect of what David Shenk… called ‘data smog.’ When you live with an ever-expanding surplus of research… it may paradoxically make you increasingly unmoored from what you actually believe—so you’ll swallow anything.”

Or, third, “Perhaps our willingness to have our basic beliefs overturned is a sign of intellectual health. This mindset is, after all, key to the scientific method.” Maybe we truly, deeply learned the lesson of all those science classes, becoming true lovers of skepticism willing to embrace uncertainty, theory, testing, and a “delight in a genuinely counterintuitive argument.”

Thompson ends on a cautionary note:

Now, I’m not suggesting that all of these “secret side” articles hold water… some are awfully lazy… But the readers—they’re out there searching and questing, and that’s good.

Or to put it another way, Everything You Know About Everything You Know Being Wrong Is Wrong.

Unless, of course, I’m wrong.

Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) has gone on record against the Gardasil vaccine preventing cervical and possibly throat cancer, calling it “dangerous” during and after the CNN-Tea Party Republican Debate in mid-September.  Medical experts quickly objected (two bioethicists even offered up $10,000 if Bachmann could produce scientific evidence that the vaccine had, as Bachmann claimed, caused mental retardation in one patient), and Bachmann backpedaled, admitting that she is neither a doctor nor a scientist.  Yet, as a recent New York Times article notes, the effects of Bachmann’s disparaging remarks against the vaccine will likely outlive this election cycle.

[T]he harm to public health may have already been done. When politicians or celebrities raise alarms about vaccines, even false alarms, vaccination rates drop.

“These things always set you back about three years, which is exactly what we can’t afford,” said Dr. Rodney E. Willoughby, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a member of the committee on infectious diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy favors use of the vaccine, as do other medical groups and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although the vaccine has been proven to prevent cervical cancer and has been declared safe by the Institute of Medicine (a government advisory group), and despite backing from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine has been slow to catch on, lagging behind vaccines licensed at the same time, such as one to combat meningitis.

“This vaccine has been portrayed as ‘the sex vaccine,’ ” said Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a member of the infectious disease committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Talking about sexuality for pediatricians and other providers is often difficult.”

Recent research published by Siegwart Lindenberg, Janeke F. Joly, and Diederik A. Stapel, social scientists in the Netherlands, has confirmed that “star status” can really boost a cause (Social Psychology Quarterly, March 2011). Unfortunately, in this case, Bachmann’s public status lends credibility to her scientific missteps and will likely, the New York Times says, set back HPV vaccination efforts by years.

A recent report released by Senator Tom Coburn accuses the National Science Foundation of wasting taxpayer money on questionable science projects.  Minnesota Public Radio (MRP) News offers some comfort to scientists, though.

Lawmakers and political groups like to point to government spending that seems wasteful — especially in tough economic times. And one popular target has been scientific studies that either sound silly or involve foreign countries or have to do with sex.

MRP News reviews several examples of research that, taken out of context, were deemed as inappropriate uses of government funds.

“They tried to say that about $9.4 million tax dollars was spent to study men’s penis size,” says Jeffrey Parsons of Hunter College in New York, referring to a study that was recently criticized by a group called the Traditional Values Coalition.

Parsons and his colleagues did publish a study on men’s penis size and its link to the risk of sexually transmitted disease — but Parsons says no tax dollars were used to collect the data.

While little if anything actually comes of claims like this, they do make some scientists nervous and influence their decisions.

People started to be very careful when they wrote grant proposals, Parsons recalls. “A lot of code words started to get used. We would talk about ‘highly vulnerable youth’ as a euphemism for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered youth.”

Yet, scientists can take comfort in remembering past studies that were ridiculed.  Robert Kraut’s research on why bowlers smile was once given a Golden Fleece Award for wasting tax dollars from then-Senator William Proxmire, but it’s now considered ground-breaking research on how people communicate.

Kraut thinks scientists will always have to deal with this kind of thing. “Much of the policy debate in Washington, it’s all about appearances,” he says. “And it’s easy in sound bites to ridicule without presenting a full story.”


Duck DNA N°2

Last fall, 27-year-old Ohad Ben-Yaakov was injured in an accident at his part-time job, and he died after two weeks in a coma. Ben-Yaakov wasn’t married, nor was he in a relationship. No woman was pregnant with his child. Nevertheless, his devastated parents believe it’s not too late for them to become the grandparents of his offspring. And because they live in Israel, the world capital of in-vitro fertilization and a country that regularly pushes the envelope on reproductive technologies, they might get their wish.

No, this isn’t science fiction.  It’s reality in Israeli, and  Tablet recently explored an Israeli court’s consideration of whether parents have the right to use their dead son’s frozen sperm to create a grandchild.

It’s not surprising that Israel, a society that is at once rooted in ancient faith and deeply invested in cutting-edge technology, has pioneered futuristic forms of procreation. The biblical emphasis on fruitfulness, when compounded by the legacy of the Holocaust and the demographic issues shaping the Middle East, have made Israeli society and public policy exceptionally pro-natalist. The country is aggressive in pushing the boundaries of reproductive technology.

Some scholars worry about how these boundaries are being pushed, though.

“It used to be, God forbid you were infertile, it was sad and terrible and tragic, but you came to terms with it,” says Susan Martha Kahn, a Harvard anthropologist and author of Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. “Now you can never come to terms with it. There’s no resolution. Some of these women go through round after round, 12, 15 rounds of IVF, and it doesn’t work. That is the eclipse of an entire young life spent trying to get pregnant.

Vardit Ravitsky, a professor in the Bioethics Programs at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Medicine, adds:

“Where we are with reproductive technologies is a result of the fact that we have refused to accept infertility as a fact . . . Today, the idea that I have a right to have a genetic child is much more accepted than in the past. To extend that one generation to genetic grandchildren maybe is not that farfetched.”

As the author of the article thoughtfully asks, when should a tragedy be accepted rather than combated with technology? Who gets to decide?  For more questions and discussion, see the full article.




Pills 2
No one wants to be sad. This can generally be agreed on. However, as it becomes more and more common for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications to be prescribed, the question becomes what is a socially acceptable level of sadness for a well-functioning member of society to experience? There remains a blurry, but important line between what is considered ‘normal’ grieving and what is classified as a mental disorder or depression.  NPR’s Alix Spiegal recently explored a shift in this line due to changes in the criteria used by the American Psychiatric Association to diagnose depression.

Traditionally, the manual has steered doctors away from diagnosing major depression in people who have just lost a loved one in what’s called “bereavement exclusion.” The idea was that feelings of intense pain were normal, so they shouldn’t be labeled as a mental disorder.
But the new DSM changes this. Buried in the pages is a small but potentially potent alteration that has implications not only for people like Theresa, but ultimately for the way that we think about and understand the emotion of pain.
The DSM committee removed the bereavement exclusion — a small, almost footnote at the bottom of the section that describes the symptoms of major depression — from the manual.

Dr. Kenneth Kendler, a member of the committee behind the change, explains that grief and depression share the same symptoms – lack of sleep, loss of appetite, loss of energy. The key distinction between grief and depression is the amount of time the person experiences the symptoms.

In fact, in the new manual, if symptoms like these persist for more than two weeks, the bereaved person will be considered to have a mental disorder: major depression. And treatment, either therapy or medication, is recommended.

While Kendler believes that this change will only affect a small number, and for the better, Holly Prigerson a research at Harvard University believes otherwise.

“What we found,” Prigerson says, “is that when you follow people — for example, between zero and six months post-loss — their depression symptom levels actually increase over time and peak at about six months post-loss.”
Because grief and depression look so much alike, Prigerson says, she worries that people who are suffering from normal grief will be told that they are sick when they are not, and encouraged to treat their symptoms when they don’t need to.
That is potentially a problem, Prigerson says, because we don’t know whether the pain of normal grief actually helps people to process their loss.

Other experts expand Prigerson’s argument by voicing concern that society is continuing down a path to having an over-diagnosed and over-medicated population where to be sad is to be sick.

Dr. Allen Frances, the famous psychiatrist and a former editor of the DSM, says that more and more, psychiatry is medicalizing our experiences. That is, it is turning emotions that are perfectly normal into something pathological.
“Over the course of time, we’ve become looser in applying the term ‘mental disorder’ to the expectable aches and pains and sufferings of everyday life,” Frances says. “And always, we think about a medication treatment for each and every problem.”
From Frances’ perspective, if you can’t feel intense emotional pain in the wake of the death of your child without it being categorized as a mental disorder, then when in the course of human experience are you allowed to feel intense emotional pain for more than two weeks?

True/Slant recently parodied how reporting on the oil spill might look quite different “if sociologists wrote the news instead”:

Absent from the dialogue surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which began on April 20, 2010 following an explosion that killed eleven workers, are the roles of class, race and especially gender. Due to the environmental devastation wrought by the catastrophe, which is likely to fall heaviest on the working poor, it is understandable that attention is largely focused on efforts to plug the oil well undertaken by British Petroleum, a corporation founded in imperial Britain to exploit the oil resources of people of color.

Read the rest.