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January 29, 2007

Why Do I Need to Frame My Research for the Public?

Let's say you're a scientist. You spend a lot of time thinking of questions you'd like to answer and then devising experiments that will help you home in on an explanation. You figure that once you have some interesting results, you'd like to get the word out to the rest of the world, so people can add your discovery to their stock of knowledge of how things work.

It doesn't always work that way, however. As reported in Of Gay Sheep, Modern Science and the Perils of Bad Publicity last week in the New York Times, you may find that you don't always get to drive the announcement of your research results, and current news technology, which includes blogs and email, means that a story can balloon into a frenzy almost before you've savored your first cup of coffee and read your morning cartoons.

In this case, the pairing of sensationalistic accusations on the part of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) with an article in the Sunday Times in London, which reported inaccuracies about the research, combined with the speed of information in the blogosphere to create a firestorm of outrage and confusion regarding the research of Dr. Charles Roselli at the Oregon Health and Science University. Roselli is looking for physiological factors to explain why some rams "seek sex exclusively with other rams instead of ewes."

One of the primary objections that carried this story into the media eye was the suggestion that studying gay sheep could lead to more information about gay people. This, in particular, caught my attention:

Dr. Roselli said that merely mentioning possible human implications of basic research was wildly different from intending to carry the work over to humans.

Mentioning human implications, he said, is “in the nature of the way we write our grants” and talk to reporters. Scientists who do basic research find themselves in a bind, he said, adding, “We have been forced to draw connections in a way that we can justify our research.”

This is an excellent example of the fine balance that researchers need to strike: On the one hand, we want to make our work relevant and interesting, in order to get funded and to get the word out. On the other hand, we don't want to distort the implications of our work or suggest that it has broader applications that it, in fact, does have, lest our words come back to bite us.

As a final point, another goal we have here at FairerScience.org is to increase journalists' science and research literacy to avoid the kind of mistake made by the Sunday Times. This means that journalists need a place to go in order to learn more about research rather than relying, for example, on PETA's spin on things. One of the ways that researchers can help with this is to be proactive about providing explanations and information about research in our fields.

January 25, 2007


We often deal with serious issues at FairerScience, but every once and a while we have to make an exception and blog on something that will make you smile. Check out the picture of the University of Tennessee men's basket ball coach Bruce Pearl at the Tennessee women's basketball game against Duke. Pearl is bare-chested with a big "V" painted on his chest (for Lady Vols; the team name—no we are not going to talk about the names of college women's sports teams here; this is a happy post).

Sports Illustrated's take on it was pretty good too:

"Although Duke won the game 84-80 we think the real winner was Pearl, who may have looked a tad foolish, but endeared himself to the Tennessee student body with the display. I mean, we can't picture Coach K or Jim Calhoun doing the same for their school's respective women's teams (or any of the school's women's teams for that matter)."

January 22, 2007

What is stereotype threat and why do researchers care?

I recently polled a group of my friends, who are generally well-educated, politically-aware types, to find out if my sense that "stereotype threat" is a fairly well-known and well-understood concept in at least my circle. I was, therefore, surprised to discover that 54 of the 66 people who responded reported never having heard of stereotype threat. Six people had heard the term but couldn't define it, and only three described themselves as being familiar with the concept.

Since stereotype threat is one of my favorite psychological concepts relating to group performance on challenging tasks, these results give me a good excuse to write a blog post about it.

A lot of people think stereotype threat is when someone who is part of a group is in a situation where she or he perceives that her or his behavior will support stereotypes of that group and thus deliberately behaves in a different way. For example, in order to be taken seriously, a woman might choose to wear less makeup to a business meeting than she would normally wear to work. This is an interesting social phenomenon, but it is not stereotype threat.

So what is stereotype threat?

Stereotype threat is the fear that one's behavior will support an existing group stereotype, and the result of that fear is that the subject will unconsciously underperform as a result of the threat. That is to say, if I am in a group that is stereotyped to be less good at something, for example, being a woman in mathematics, if that stereotype is triggered just before I take a challenging math test, I will perform less well than I would if that stereotype were not activated.

This understanding of stereotype was first articulated and documented by Claude Steel at Stanford University, and there's a lot of interesting work being done on the topic, including the research I discussed in Exposure to Scientific Theories Could Be Hazardous to Women's Math Skills.

We're not talking about intentional underperformance, but a subconscious self-handicapping that happens when people in any given group are put in the position of fearing that they may be living down to external expectations about their behavior. Fascinatingly, this fear appears to cause people to just the thing they most likely desperately want to avoid.

The performance-depressing effect has been demonstrated among female students in math and black students in many fields (most of that article is behind a paywall), among others.

This is relevant to the work of FairerScience.org, and perhaps yours, too, because so much of what we study is group differences in fields where strong social stereotypes exist. When we find a difference in boys' and girls' performances on math tests, is it a real difference, or is it a result of activated stereotypes among the test-takers? We can't know, but it is important to keep in mind that the entire equation is complicated.

Interesting work is being done by researchers exploring how to counteract stereotype threat. For example, Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention (behind a paywall) reports the results of a study using self affirmations of personal adequacy or "self-integrity" to reduce stereotype threat and as the title suggests, increased minority student achievement and reduced the gaps.

By using what we know and continue to learn about stereotype threat and its impact, we can target interventions to counteract its effects. But first we have to know about it.

January 18, 2007

I so wish I had said this

But Shakespeare's Sister said it first.

Implicit, then, in feminism is not only the belief, but the expectation, that men are not infantile—nor stupid, useless, inept, emotionally retarded, or any other negative stereotype feminists have been accused of promoting—but instead our equals just as much as we are theirs, capable not only of understanding feminism (and feminists), but of actively and rigorously engaging challenges to their socialization, too. Feminists, of course, have the terrible reputation, but it isn't we who consider all men babies, dopes, dogs, and potential rapists. The holders of those views, I think you'll find, are the women and men who root for the patriarchy—which itself, after all, takes a rather unpleasantly dim view of most people.

Thank you Shakespeare's Sister .

I think that is the best explanation I've seen about what feminism is and is not.

January 14, 2007

Moms Rising

Ok I know this isn't directly related to FairerScience, it certainly is something that all of us who care about fairness and families should know about it. And besides not making women chose between science careers and families is one really good way to increase the number of women in the sciences.

Moms Rising just started last May but it has been attracting a lot of attention including a article in, of all places, CNNMoney.

Moms Rising advocates and coordinates grassroots campaigns for maternity/paternity leave, child care, job flexibility, and more after-school programs.

Their poster, which shows Rosie the Riveter holding a baby, asks:
"Why are there so few women in leadership and so many in poverty?" and proposes the following common sense ways to protect mothers and families:

M Maternity/Paternity Leave
O Open Flexible Work
T TV We Chose & Other After-School Programs
H Healthcare for All Kids
E Excellent Childcare
R Realistic and Fair Wages

That certainly makes sense to me.

PS. I now understand why CNN put this under it's money section. Did you know women who aren't mothers made 90 cents to a man's dollar in 1998? Mothers made 73 cents to the man's dollar and single mothers only about 60 cents.

January 11, 2007

Thinking broadly about computer science applications

The San Francisco Bay Guardian Online reported this week on the interdisciplinary computer science graduate program at Mills College.

From the ICS program web page:

Mills offers unique graduate programs for people with bachelor's degrees in other fields who wish to transition into computer science or interdisciplinary work. We believe that knowledge of another discipline and computer science is a powerful combination, allowing our graduates to enrich themselves and the world.

Mills College is a women's college, but its graduate programs are co-ed, and the SFBG article discusses some of the gender dynamics in the ICS program. The ICS program is an excellent example of a way to encourage groups of people who are traditionally underrepresented in technical fields, including (but not limited to) women. But lest anyone get the idea that it's a "soft" program trying to give an easy nod to "political correctness" or tokenism, one of the primary thrusts of this program is to bring a broader understanding of the world in which technical applications can be applied:

The interdisciplinary part of the Mills College ICS program's name means students combine computer science with another area of study to produce their master's theses. "It gives you a really broad brush," says Wetherby, the former casino worker. When a student comes to Spertus with a thesis idea, she always asks how it uses what the student has learned about computer science. But she also asks why the thesis is something that she, a narrowly trained computer scientist, couldn't do. She finds the interdisciplinary approach helps students make more of a contribution and also realize they can do things that Spertus, who has a PhD from MIT, can't.

It's good for the individuals; it's good for the field. Let's see more programs like this! Know of one? Let us know!

January 07, 2007

Teaching Science and Engineering Courses in Ways that Work for Female (and Male) Students

I'm currently working on a paper that describes research based tips for improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching at the college level. Since this is FairerScience we are, of course, focusing on things that will "reduce the gaps while all gain". The following is a list of tips I've come up with. Other ideas will be most welcome, especially if they come with references to research that supports them. The first respondents (with references) will get some of my home made, fabulous chocolate chip cookies. So here is what we have so far:

I. Integrate applications into your teaching of fundamental concepts. However check to see if the applications are familiar to and of interest to your students.

II. Periodically stop talking and pause. Wait at least three seconds after asking a question before calling on someone to answer.

III. Praise but carefully. Praise students as individuals not as representatives of their sex or race. Praise only when it is deserved and watch your language. What you see as a complement can be seen as an insult by others.

IV. Encourage student collaboration. If you teach programming, use pair programming assignments. If you use small groups, cluster women students in groups so the numbers of women and men in a group are approximately equal.

V. Check your classroom climate. Decide what you want your classroom to be like in terms of such areas as student/professor and student/student respect, student participation and student comfort level. Write down your expectations and check periodically to see what the climate actually is.

VI. Provide research experiences for undergraduates (REU).

VII. Work with others to provide undergraduates with more opportunities to transfer into engineering.

January 02, 2007

Read Justine

Recently I wrote about She's Such a Geek: Women Write About, Science Technology and Other Nerdy Stuff and the discouragement women geeks face.

Justine Cassell added a different take on ways girls are disempowered as users of technology.. Her analysis, that the real reason behind the fear of girls using social networking sites is that girls’ use of technology threatens the established social order, is well worth reading.

She comments that the stories about the dangers to boys by technology focus on boys' "power and the damage they can cause to society. The stories about girls focus on their weakness and the damage that society can cause to them" and while as she says "Both kinds of stories are equally noxious; however, the ultimate result may be empowerment of boys with respect to technology, and disempowerment of girls - discouraging them from using technology."

You know I think she hit on something here