science/technology

We seem to have been struggling with science for the past few…well…decades. The CDC just updated what we know about COVID-19 in the air, misinformation about trendy “wellness products” abounds, and then there’s the whole climate crisis.

This is an interesting pattern because many public science advocates put a lot of work into convincing us that knowing more science is the route to a more fulfilling life. Icons like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, as well as modern secular movements, talk about the sense of profound wonder that comes along with learning about the world. Even GI Joe PSAs told us that knowing was half the battle.

The problem is that we can be too quick to think that knowing more will automatically make us better at addressing social problems. That claim is based on two assumptions: one, that learning things feels good and motivates us to action, and two, that knowing more about a topic makes people more likely to appreciate and respect that topic. Both can be true, but they are not always true.

The first is a little hasty. Sure, learning can feel good, but research on teaching and learning shows that it doesn’t always feel good, and I think we often risk losing students’ interest because they assume that if a topic is a struggle, they are not meant to be studying it.

The second is often wrong, because having more information does not always empower us to make better choices. Research shows us that knowing more about a topic can fuel all kinds of other biases, and partisan identification is increasingly linked with with attitudes toward science.

To see this in action, I took a look at some survey data collected by the Pew Research Center in 2014. The survey had seven questions checking attitudes about science – like whether people kept up with science or felt positively about it – and six questions checking basic knowledge about things like lasers and red blood cells. I totaled up these items into separate scales so that each person has a score for how much they knew and how positively or negatively they thought about science in general. These scales are standardized, so people with average scores are closer to zero. Plotting out these scores shows us a really interesting null finding documented by other research – there isn’t a strong relationship between knowing more and feeling better about science.

The purple lines mark average scores in each scale, and the relationship between science knowledge and science attitudes is fairly flat.

Here, both people who are a full standard deviation above the mean and multiple standard deviations below the mean on their knowledge score still hold pretty average attitudes about science. We might expect an upward sloping line, where more knowledge associates with more positive attitudes, but we don’t see that. Instead, attitudes about science, whether positive or negative, get more diffuse among people who get fewer answers correct. The higher the knowledge, the more tightly attitudes cluster around average.

This is an important point that bears repeating for people who want to change public policy or national debate on any science-based issue. It is helpful to inform people about these serious issues, but shifting their attitudes is not simply a matter of adding more information. To really change minds, we have to do the work to put that information into conversation with other meaning systems, emotions, and moral assumptions.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein. Written by a teenage Mary Shelley on a dare, this classic example of science fiction and horror explores the ethics of scientific discovery. In the story, Victor Frankenstein brings a corpse (or, many pieces of corpses sewn together) to life. Instead of continuing to study his creation, he runs away leaving it alone and defenseless. At first, the creature attempts to befriend the people he meets, but they are so offended by this specimen that they chase him away. Lonely, the creature vows to take revenge on his creator by killing Victor’s loved ones. Eventually, both the scientist and the experiment are left alone with their misery, floating off on icebergs.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Frankenstein was based on real science at the time—Galvanism—when scholars and showmen were animating dead bodies with small electric shocks. Shelley saw some of these demonstrations and, after a few rainy night’s in Byron’s castle, penned the novel. Against this bleak backdrop, Shelley asks us to consider who is responsible for the devastation in her story? Is it the creature, a mere experiment, who caused such destruction? Is it the scientist who never took responsibility for his own work? Or, could it be the people, those who shunned the scientific anomaly because they didn’t like what they saw? What happens when other people make a monster out of your work?

We are still wrestling with these questions today as we debate gender and genetics. A recent article from Amy Harmon in The New York Times reports on communities willfully misinterpreting recent research in social science and genetics to support white supremacist views. At the same time, the department of Health and Human Services is considering establishing a formal definition of gender grounded in “scientific evidence” that could curtail civil rights protections for transgender and nonbinary people—despite the fact that biological research doesn’t support this binary view.

The scariest part of these stories isn’t just that science is taken in bad faith, it is also the confusion about who is responsible for correcting these problems. From Harmon’s article:

Many geneticists at the top of their field say they do not have the ability to communicate to a general audience on such a complicated and fraught topic. Some suggest journalists might take up the task. Several declined to speak on the record for this article.

Social science research shows that trust in scientific evidence isn’t just a matter of knowing the facts or getting them right. Trust in science requires cultural work to achieve and maintain, and political views, prior beliefs, and personal identities can all shape what kinds of evidence people accept and reject. While the media plays a big role in this work, experts also have to consider who gets to control the narrative about their findings.

The bicentennial of Frankenstein asks us to consider, this hallow’s eve, the responsibility we carry as researchers, as interpreters of research, and as those who lead people to research. It is our guidepost and our warning call. This is why we (a science educator and a sociologist) both think science education and public engagement from experts is so important. If practitioners back away from the public sphere, or if they don’t intervene when people misinterpret their work, there is a risk of letting other social and political forces make them into Victor Frankensteins. What do you think? Do experts just need to stick to the science and leave their results to everyone else? Or, do scientists need to start worrying more about their PR?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Frankenstein’s Laboratory at The Bakken Museum)

Sofia Lindgren Galloway is a STEM Educator at The Bakken Museum and a theatre artist in Minneapolis. With The Bakken Museum, Sofia performs educational plays and teaches classes about Mary Shelley, Science Fiction, and the history of electricity, among other topics.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

Originally Posted at TSP Discoveries

In a scene familiar to today’s teachers, several students in the classroom are glued to their screens: one is posting to social media, one is playing a computer game, and another is hacking their way past the school’s firewall with skills they perfected from years on the Internet. Are these students wasting class time or honing the skills that will make them a future tech millionaire?

Photo Credit: Ben+Sam, Flickr CC

Recent research in American Journal of Sociology from Matthew Rafalow finds that teachers answer that question differently based on the social class and race makeup of the school. Schools that serve primarily white, more privileged students see “digital play” such as video games, social media, and website or video production as building digital competencies that are central to success, while schools that serve larger Latino or Asian populations view digital play as irrelevant or a distraction from learning.

Based on observations of three technology-rich Bay Area middle schools, Rafalow examined whether the skills students develop through digital play are considered cultural capital — skills, habits, and dispositions that that can be traded for success in school and work. Although digital play can lead to skills like finding information online, communicating with others, and producing digital media, classed and raced stereotypes about educational needs and future work prospects affect whether teachers recognize those skills in their students. In other words, Rafalow examined whether teachers reward, ignore, or punish students for digital play in the classroom.

Rafalow found three distinct approaches across the schools. At the first school — a public middle school that largely serves middle-class Asian students — teachers viewed digital play as threatening to their traditional educational practices because it distracted students from “real” learning. Further, teachers believed students comfortable with digital skills could hack standardized tests that had been given electronically.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education, Flickr CC

At the second school — a public middle school that largely serves working-class Latino students — teachers discounted any skills that students brought into the classroom through their years of digital play. Instead, teachers thought introducing their students to website design and programming was a more important part of preparing them for 21st century working-class jobs.

In contrast, at the third school — a private, largely white middle school — teachers praised skills students developed through digital play as crucial to job success and built a curriculum that further encouraged expression and experimentation online.

The ways teachers in this study approached digital play provide a clear example of how raced and classed expectations for students’ futures determine the range of appropriate classroom behavior.

Jean Marie Maier is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. She completed the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education MA program at the University of California, Berkeley, and looks forward to continuing research on the intersections of education, gender, and sport. Jean Marie has also worked as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Gumi, South Korea and as a research intern at the American Association of University Women. She holds a BA in Political Science from Davidson College.

People talk. Their interactions become habits, habits become routines, and routines become rules. Sociologists call this emergent behavior, and sometimes it happens so slowly we don’t even notice it until we look back and think “where did that come from?”  Emergent behavior can be quirky and fun (think of Taco Friday at the office or “on Wednesdays we wear pink“), but sometimes it can also be far more serious or more troubling.

The challenge is that new technology makes these interactions happen much faster, on a much larger scale, and with less editing—often with odd results. Check out this TED talk—The Nightmare Videos of Children’s YouTube— for a good illustration of the dark side of emergent behavior when algorithms accelerate and exploit social interactions online.

 Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Despite the fact that women played a key role in the development of modern technology, the digital domain is a disproportionately male space. Recent stories about the politics of GamerGate, “tech bros” in Silicon Valley, and resistance to diversity routinely surface despite efforts of companies such as Google to clean up their act by firing reactionary male employees.

The big tech story of the past year is unquestionably cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. So it’s a good time to look at how cryptos replicate the gender politics of digital spaces and where they might complicate them.

Women’s Representation

Crypto holders are not evenly divided between men and women. One recent survey shows that 71% of Bitcoin holders are male. The first challenge for women is simply their representation within the crypto space.

There are various efforts on the part of individual women to address the imbalance. For example, Stacy Herbert, co-host of The Keiser Report, has recently been discussing the possibility of a women’s crypto conference noting, “I know so so many really smart women in the space but you go to these events and it’s panels of all the same guys again and again.” Technology commentator Alexia Tsotsis recently tweeted, “Women, consider crypto. Otherwise the men are going to get all the wealth, again.”

Clearly, the macho nature of the crypto community can feel exclusionary to women. Recently Bloomberg reported on a Bitcoin conference in Miami that invited attendees to an after-hours networking event held in a strip club. As one female attendee noted, “There was a message being sent to women, that, ‘OK, this isn’t really your place … this is where the boys roll.’”

The image of women as presented by altcoins (cryptocurrencies other than Bitcoin) is also telling. One can buy into TittieCoin or BigBoobsCoin, which need no further explanation. There is also an altcoin designed to resist this tendency, Women Coin: “Women coin will become the ultimate business coin for women. We all know that this altcoin market is mainly operated by men, just like the entire world. We want to stop this.”

Cryptomasculinities

The male dominance of cryptos suggests it is a space that celebrates normative masculinity. Certain celebrity endorsements of crypto projects have added to this mood, such as heavyweight boxer Floyd Mayweather, actor Steven Seagal and rapper Ghostface Killah. Crypto evangelist John McAfee routinely posts comments and pictures concerning guns, hookers and drugs. Reactionary responses to feminism can also be found: for example, patriarchal revivalist website Return of Kings published an article claiming, “Bitcoin proves that that ‘glass ceiling’ keeping women down is a myth.” Homophobia also occurs: when leading Bitcoin advocate Andreas Antonopoulos announced he was making a donation to the LGBTQ-focused Lambda Legal he received an array of homophobic comments.

However, it would be wrong to assume the masculinity promoted in the crypto space is monolithic. In particular, it is possible to identify a division between Bitcoin and altcoin holders. Consider the following image:

This image was tweeted with the caption “Bitcoin and Ethereum community can’t be anymore different.” On the left we have a MAGA hat-wearing, gun-toting Bitcoin holder; on the right the supposedly effeminate Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of the blockchain platform Ethereum. The longer you spend reading user-generated content in the crypto space, the more you get the sense that Bitcoin is “for men” while altcoins are framed as for snowflakes and SJWs.

There is an exception to this Bitcoin/altcoin gendered distinction: privacy coins such as Monero and Zcash appear to be deemed acceptably manly. Perhaps it is a coincidence that such altcoins are favored by Julian Assange, who has his own checkered history with gender politics ranging from his famed “masculinity test” through to the recent quips about feminists reported by The Intercept.

In conclusion, it is not surprising that the crypto space appears to be predominantly male and even outright resistant to fair representations of women. Certainly, it is not too dramatic to state that Bitcoin has a hyper-masculine culture, but Bitcoin does not represent the whole crypto space, and as both altcoins and other blockchain-based services become more diverse it is likely that so too will its representations of gender.

Joseph Gelfer is a researcher of men and masculinities. His books include Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and The Problem of Patriarchy and Masculinities in a Global Era. He is currently developing a new model for understanding masculinity, The Five Stages of Masculinity.

Screenshot used with permission

As I was scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago, I noticed a new trend: Several friends posted pictures (via an app) of what they would look like as “the opposite sex.” Some of them were quite funny—my female-identified friends sported mustaches, while my male-identified friends revealed long flowing locks. But my sociologist-brain was curious: What makes this app so appealing? How does it decide what the “opposite sex” looks like? Assuming it grabs the users’ gender from their profiles, what would it do with users who listed their genders as non-binary, trans, or genderqueer? Would it assign them male or female? Would it crash? And, on a basic level, why are my friends partaking in this “game?”

Gender is deeply meaningful for our social world and for our identities—knowing someone’s gender gives us “cues” about how to categorize and connect with that person. Further, gender is an important way our social world is organizedfor better or worse. Those who use the app engage with a part of their own identities and the world around them that is extremely significant and meaningful.

Gender is also performative. We “do” gender through the way we dress, talk, and take up space. In the same way, we read gender on people’s bodies and in how they interact with us. The app “changes people’s gender” by changing their gender performance; it alters their hair, face shape, eyes, and eyebrows. The app is thus a outlet to “play” with gender performance. In other words, it’s a way of doing digital drag. Drag is a term that is often used to refer to male-bodied people dressing in a feminine way (“drag queens”) or female-bodied people dressing in a masculine way (“drag kings”), but all people who do drag do not necessarily fit in this definition. Drag is ultimately about assuming and performing a gender. Drag is increasingly coming into the mainstream, as the popular reality TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race has been running for almost a decade now. As more people are exposed to the idea of playing with gender, we might see more of them trying it out in semi-public spaces like Facebook.

While playing with gender may be more common, it’s not all fun and games. The Facebook app in particular assumes a gender binary with clear distinctions between men and women, and this leaves many people out. While data on individuals outside of the gender binary is limited, a 2016 report from The Williams Institute estimated that 0.6% of the U.S. adult population — 1.4 million people — identify as transgender. Further, a Minnesota study of high schoolers found about 3% of the student population identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, and researchers in California estimate that 6% of adolescents are highly gender nonconforming and 20% are androgynous (equally masculine and feminine) in their gender performances.

The problem is that the stakes for challenging the gender binary are still quite high. Research shows people who do not fit neatly into the gender binary can face serious negative consequences, like discrimination and violence (including at least 28 killings of transgender individuals in 2017 and 4 already in 2018).  And transgender individuals who are perceived as gender nonconforming by others tend to face more discrimination and negative health outcomes.

So, let’s all play with gender. Gender is messy and weird and mucking it up can be super fun. Let’s make a digital drag app that lets us play with gender in whatever way we please. But if we stick within the binary of male/female or man/woman, there are real consequences for those who live outside of the gender binary.

Recommended Readings:

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

Sexism in American society has been on the decline. Obstacles to female-bodied people excelling in previously male-only occupations and hobbies have lessened. And women have thrived in these spaces, sometimes even overtaking men both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Another kind of bias, though, has gotten worse: the preference for masculinity over femininity. Today we like our men manly, just like we used to, but we like our women just a little bit manly, too. This is true especially when women expect to compete with men in masculine arenas.

A recent study by a team of psychologists, led by Sarah Banchefsky, collected photographs of 40 male and 40 female scientists employed in STEM departments of US universities. 50 respondents were told they were participating in a study of “first impressions” and were asked to rate each person according to how masculine or feminine they appeared. They were not told their occupation. They were then asked to guess as to the likelihood that each person was a scientist, then the likelihood that each was an early childhood educator.

Overall, women were rated as more feminine than men and less likely to be scientists. Within the group of women, however, perceived femininity was also negatively correlated with the estimated likelihood of being a scientist and positively correlated with the likelihood of being an educator. In other words, both having a female body and appearing feminine was imagined to make a woman less inclined to or suited to science. The same results were not found for men.

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Banchefsky and her colleagues conclude that “subtle variations in gendered appearance alter perceptions that a given woman is a scientist” and this has important implications for their careers:

First, naturally feminine-appearing young women and those who choose to emphasize their femininity may not be encouraged or given opportunities to become scientists as a result of adults’ beliefs that feminine women are not well-suited to the occupation.

Second, feminine-appearing women who are already scientists may not be taken as seriously as more masculine-appearing ones. They may have to overperform relative to their male and masculine female peers to be recognized as equally competent. Femininity may, then, cost them job opportunities, promotions, awards, grants, and valuable collaboration.Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Knowledge production is a collective endeavor. Individuals get named as authors of studies and on the covers of books and journal articles. But little knowledge is produced in such a vacuum that it can actually be attributed to only those whose names are associated with the final product. Bruce Holsinger, a literary scholar at the University of Virginia, came up with an interesting way of calling attention to some of women’s invisible labor in this process–typing their husbands’ manuscripts.

Holsinger noted a collection of notes written by husbands to their wives thanking them for typing the entirety of their manuscripts (dissertations, books, articles, etc.), but not actually explicitly naming them in the acknowledgement. It started with five tweets and a hashtag: #ThanksForTyping.

Typing a manuscript is a tremendous task – particularly when revisions require re-typing everything (typewriters, not computers). And, though they are thanked here, it’s a paltry bit of gratitude when you compare it with the task for which they are being acknowledged. They’re anonymous, their labor is invisible, but they are responsible for the transmitting men’s scholarship into words.

Needless to say, the hashtag prompted a search that uncovered some of the worst offenders. The acknowledgements all share a few things in common: they are directed at wives, do not name them (though often name and thank others alongside), and they are thanked for this enormous task (and sometimes a collection of others along with it). Here are a few of the worst offenders:


Indeed, typing was one of those tasks for which women were granted access to and in which women were offered formal training. Though, some of these are notes of gratitude to wives who have received education far beyond typing. And many of the acknowledgements above hint that more than mere transcription was often offered – these unnamed women were also offering ideas, playing critical roles in one of the most challenging elements of scientific inquiry and discovery – presenting just what has been discovered and why it matters.

One user on twitter suggested examining it in Google’s ngram tool to see how often “thanks to my wife who,” “thanks to my wife for” and the equivalents adding “husband” have appeared in books. The use of each phrase doesn’t mean the women were not named, but it follows what appears to be a standard practice in many of the examples above – the norm of thanking your wife for typing your work, but not naming her in the process.

Of course, these are only examples of anonymous women contributing to knowledge production through typing. Women’s contributions toward all manner of social, cultural, political, and economic life have been systemically erased, under-credited, or made anonymous.  Each year Mother Jones shares a list of things invented by women for which men received credit (here’s last year’s list).

Knowledge requires work to be produced. Books don’t fall out of people’s heads ready-formed. And the organization of new ideas into written form is treated as a perfunctory task in many of the acknowledgements above–menial labor that people with “more important” things to do ought to avoid if they can. The anonymous notes of gratitude perform a kind of “work” for these authors beyond expressing thanks for an arduous task–these notes also help frame that work as less important than it often is.Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.