#GirlsWithToys: Using social media to deal with casual sexism

Equity in STEM has been a long time in coming. While we’ve made progress, casual comments like the one made by Prof. Shrinivas Kulkarni from CalTech continue.

During an interview with NPR, Prof. Kulkarni, a professor of astronomy and planetary science, said that, “Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys.”

Doubtless, Kulkarni didn’t mean anything by the comment, but Twitter wanted to make sure we recognise the significant role that women play in science, technology, engineering and maths. And so, the hashtag #GirlsWithToys began with female scientists across multiple disciplines posting about their work.

Social media and science have a burgeoning relationship. Channels like Twitter and Facebook are great spaces for encouraging debate and engagement from different audiences. In the case of #GirlsWithToys, the opportunity to use a hashtag to focus attention on  gender equity in science has resulted in a humorous and effective campaign.

Social media and sexism in science

#GirlsWithToys is not an isolated incident. Twitter exploded a few weeks ago in relation to a sexist peer review in which a paper on gender differences in the PhD to postdoc transition was rejected after some unseemly comments by an anonymous reviewer. After one of the authors of the rejected paper tweeted excerpts of the review, the case got so much attention that the journal issued an apology and offered to re-enter the paper into the review process.

Highlights from #GirlsWithToys

Science art: Peter Hennessey

After spending some time in development, it’s exciting to be able to talk about the Peter Hennessey art exhibition Making it real, which is currently being shown at the UQ Art Museum.

Peter Hennessey is an artist whose passion lies in creating artwork out of abstract concepts. The exhibition reflects on the past decade of Peter’s work with some of his most significant sculptures, such as My Humvee (Inversion therapy) 2008, as well as new work from a residency at the UQ Centre for Hypersonics.

My Humvee (Inversion therapy)
My Humvee (Inversion therapy)

The HyShot Group within the UQ Centre for Hypersonics investigates hypersonic aerodynamics and has been working on producing an engine with some remarkable features. The engine, called a “Scramjet”, breathes oxygen, has no moving parts and is designed to operate at around eight times the speed of sound.

I interviewed Peter about his residency to discover why he got involved. He said that residency was about making art that does more than just illustrate the research in simple terms.

Peter said, “There is an unexpected dimension of wonder to this residency…The ideas and realities that the researchers deal with are amazing, almost unimaginable.”

Peter worked with Professor Michael Smart, Head of the HyShot Group and Professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering, to gain a deeper understanding of the Group’s research.

“A lot of creative energy goes into good science,” Smart said,“and I felt that having an artist interacting with our students and academics would be a great way to communicate this beyond the walls of our laboratories and offices”.

With a history of tackling complex subjects such as the science of space exploration, Peter was in the perfect position to turn this highly technical subject into a tangible experience. The exhibition gives visitors a rare insight into the world of hypersonics research and is well worth a visit.





The full interview is coming out soon in the May edition of Australasian Science magazine! Until then, stay tuned to It must be Wednesday via Facebook and Twitter for regular science communication updates. 

Highlighting the need for conservation: the power of Douglas Adams

In early March, the 13th Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture was presented by the New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman, who spoke on the enduring and timeless nature of Adams’ work.

In his opening address, Gaiman said, “I would classify Douglas as a genius because he saw things differently and he was capable of communicating the way he saw things and once you saw things the way he saw them, it was almost impossible to see them the way you used to see them again.”

Best known for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams was an author, comic radio dramatist, amateur musician and conservation enthusiast. He became a founder patron of Save the Rhino International (SRI) in 1994 and was a dedicated spokesperson for SRI right up until his death at the age of 49 in 2001. Since 2003, the SRI has held the annual Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture to highlight Adams’ work and help raise money for rhino conservation projects.

The legacy of Douglas Adams is the ability to not only entrance generations with out-of-this-world stories, but also highlight the need for wildlife conservation. Something we need in a time where wildlife crime is “pervasive across the world and ultimately undermines the functioning of ecosystems that we (the human species) depend on for life”.

During the lecture, Gaiman noted that, “In Last Chance to See, [Douglas Adams] deployed both his power as a celebrity and an author to describe things happening to this planet and more specifically to some of the life forms we are in the process of rendering extinct. He got involved.”

The proceeds of the event were shared between the two charities closest to Adams’ heart – Save the Rhino, of which he was a founder patron, and the Environmental Investigation Agency.

On ‘scienceyness’ and public trust

At the beginning of February, Scott Adams posted on his blog Dilbert about “Science’s Biggest Fail“. The issue, said Adams, is that science has lost its credibility in the public because uncertainty over when science is ‘done’.

Scott Adams, “Science isn’t about being right every time, or even most of the time. It is about being more right over time and fixing what it got wrong. So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?”

In response, Ben Thomas (a blogger for Scientific American, TechRepublic, HuffPost, Nature, Discover, Forbes, etc) wrote on Medium about “A Disease of Scienceyness“. The real issue, said Thomas, is not that scientists do not accurately convey when research is ‘done’. Rather the issue is the uncritical sharing of ‘sciencey’ stories on social media, which causes confusion over genuine science and hyped up breakthroughs.

Ben Thomas, “Twenty years ago, we could’ve just blamed pop-science journalists and left it at that. And while overblown science headlines are still a major aspect of the problem, many of your friends and relatives — and most likely, even you — are now implicated in this onslaught of misinformation. The worst part is, the vast majority of these people genuinely believe they’re performing a public service by resharing inaccurate “science” stories. But in truth, these people are doing a disservice not only to the people who read their feeds, but also to the very same hard-working scientists they believe they’re helping.”

While each article made some interesting points, Adams and Thomas exaggerated the issues of public trust in science and the sharing of science through social media.

Public Trust in Science

Adams feels as though he has been “kicked in the balls” by science through overblown health and diet promises. He says that consequently he is suffering from a lack of trust in science.

Public trust in science has been addressed through a variety of avenues. For instance, in March 2002 the Royal Society (UK) held a conference around the topic “Do we trust today’s scientists?”. Here’s the report they issued to reflect the issues raised in the event.

During the event, author and critic, Fay Weldon, gave an interesting overview of the relationship between science and it’s various publics. She first addressed the principle cause of distrust for lay publics: uncertainty.

She said, “The public isn’t ignorant or stupid. It does, however, like certainties, which is its bad luck because there aren’t any. It must learn to face the facts of matter, and to live with fluctuating acceptable risk, rather than safe or not safe. Then it will be prepared to trust where trust is due, and be the better for it.”

There is a growing movement towards conveying more information on the general uncertainty of science. In a recent speech given by Sir Paul Nurse, at a Parliamentary Links Day held by the Society of Biology twelve years after the first event, he noted that scientific knowledge evolves.

“Early on in a scientific study knowledge is often tentative, and it is only after repeated testing that it becomes increasingly secure.  It is this process that makes science reliable, but it takes time.  This can lead to problems when scientists are called upon to give advice on issues when the science is not yet complete.  We see this every day in the newspapers – whether a medical procedure is safe or what foods are good or bad, what is happening to the climate.  The public and policy makers want clear and simple answers but sometimes that is not possible.”

Sharing science in social media

The primary issue with Thomas’ article is the lack of responsibility for engagement given to the scientific community. By putting the onus on journalists and lay readers to judge the validity of a science story, he neglects to discuss the probable source of these posts – research institutions and journals.

Hype in science is not isolated to social media. Rather the hype you see in newspapers and television, blogs and Twitter, generally comes from the ground source – hype in press releases and announcements made by researchers and research institutions. As Brigitte Nerlich, Professor of Science, Language and Society at the University of Nottingham, wrote in her blog that “in an age of severe competition for funding and a race to gain ‘impact’… hyping research in various ways (in funding proposals, press releases, websites, interviews with journalists etc.) is almost inevitable”.

A recent study that matched hyperbolic claims in the press with claims in press releases found a strong correlation between the material originally presented to journalists and the resulting stories. The study also looked at the source of hyperbolic content and found indications that most hype starts in the journal articles and statements made by scientists. The responsibility for correct content, argued the researchers, should lie with both the original scientists and the press officers who support their search for publicity.

In an accompanying editorial, Ben Goldacre, Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and author of the book Bad Science, said that “Academic press releases should be treated as a part of the scientific publication… [we need to] produce an information trail, and accountability among peers and the public… this might change academic behaviour, and create an environment where researchers finally act to prevent patients and the public being routinely misled.”

These articles won’t be the last time we debate encouraging trust in science or whether the social sharing of science is beneficial. For a short article that also takes into account some additional perspectives, you can have a read this Nature article “A criticism of ‘science ‘fandoms’ prompts online reflection“.

Science art: The Wellcome Image Awards

Did you know that the Wellcome Trust, a London-based charity dedicated to supporting the “brightest minds” in science, the humanities and social sciences, runs an annual competition called the Wellcome Image Awards? No? That’s alright, neither did I.

The Wellcome Image Awards showcases the best in science imaging and techniques. With the winners due to be announced within the next few hours, let’s take a look at some of finalists.

Science, fantasy and everything in between – A Terry Pratchett world

As timing would have it, I had just finished the Science of Discworld II when I heard that Terry Pratchett had passed away. Pratchett gave us the fantasy series Discworld, a science fantasy world based on quantum theory in Long Earth and Good Omens, a memorable novel written in collaboration with Neil Gaiman.

If that weren’t enough to keep generations entertained, Pratchett (along with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen) wrote the Science of Discworld series – a quartet of books that alternate between Discworld stories and scientific exposition. I have never experienced a book that both confounded and captured me. Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen explain the science of Roundworld (or Earth) in a way that makes you step aside and, perhaps for the first time, think “that makes sense!”.

With Pratchett gone, we are left with a library of books for consolation, which naturally means that he was quite correct when he wrote, “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away” (Reaper Man, Terry Pratchett).


Leapin’ Lesbian Lizards are here to stay

Photograph by Alistair J. Cullum (Acullum at en.wikipedia) Email acullum@creighton.edu
Photograph by Alistair J. Cullum (Acullum at en.wikipedia)

Ever hear about lesbian lizards from Mexico? Well, they may not actually be lesbians, but there’s a reason for the name.

The New Mexican whiptail is a species of lizard with an unusual way of reproducing.

Parthenogenesis is a mode of reproduction in which the embryos do not require fertlisation. This process has been studied extensively among the New Mexican whiptail genus which includes 15 species of lizard that reproduce exclusively through parthenogenesis.

The whiptail population is entirely female. Despite reproducing asexually, the whiptail still engages in mating behaviour with other females of its species – which has given rise to the nickname “lesbian lizards'”. The theory is that this behaviour stimulates ovulation.

Today, knowledge around these leapin’ lesbian lizards is well established, but in the late 1970’s when Professor David Crews first put forward his theory on their asexual mode of reproduction, the issue was quite different – quite controversial, in fact. Unsurprisingly, the concept of seemingly lesbian lizards was pretty catchy too, and so Time magazine (the first publication to coin to term) published under the header “Leapin’ Lesbian Lizards”.





IFLScience – a case of (positive) hype around science

Elise Andrew at an event for I Fucking Love Science
Elise Andrew at an event for I Fucking Love Science

If you haven’t heard of I Fucking Love Science (or IFLS for any sensitive readers out there) then let me give you a quick run down. Established sometime in March 2012 by Elise Andrew, IFLS has accumulated over 18 million Facebook followers and over 120 000 followers on Twitter, which is pretty incredible given the readership for a national paper like the Australian is sitting at 3,264,000 people. To put this in perspective – 18 million individual followers is nine times the current population of Brisbane, Australia.

So, why is it so successful?

The (rather crude but true) three word maxim presents a reason – the three word maxim is (that all stories must contain at least one of) sex, death or money. IFLS stories fall roughly into these categories with a little creative editing for the internet audience with categories that I’ll call cute, gross and concerning.

Some examples are…this “cute” sleepy whale waking up, some “gross” action when baby spiders ‘exploded’ from their mother when she encountered another spider, and a “concerning”video of Jimmy Kimmel asking people from LA whether they know what a GMO is….

What does IFLS tell us about the appetite for science stories online? There’s an actively interested audience. Most popular stories seem to revolve around videos, citizen science (science you can do at home) and shareable content.

Seal-Otter IFLScience
Seal-Otter IFLScience

How does it meet the criteria for hype? The titles aren’t exactly what you find in a scientific journal. They are simplified and internet friendly (so – attention grabbing), and usually accompanied by visuals.

Does hype means it’s bad? Hype can be good. IFLS was reportedly established as a way for the creator to collect interesting science stories that she found online. While she’s been wildly successful, this doesn’t take away from the point that IFLS’s main aim is to entertain and inform. It’s like your friendly neighbour reporter just armed with more interesting stories about science rather than developments at the local train station.

If you’re looking for a model for Public Engagement with Science online, IFLS is a good place to start (it’s not to say it’s all good – sometimes the titles are a little misleading as a result of simplification).

It’s important to remember that she’s not claiming to be a science expert, rather she’s a science communicator who is showing off cute, gross and concerning things about science for anyone with an interest (and internet access). If this is the place that most people get their daily dose of science and tech stories, then I can think of worse things.

Selling through science (aka commercial hype)

So, we’ve looked at hype from a variety of sources (including scientists, journals and media), but what about those huge proponents of big promises – the commercial sector?

The nutritional supplement industry in the USA, which made $11.5 billion in sales in 2012, is a easy example to make. In May 2014, the American Federal Trade Commission (the FTC) charged Green Coffee Bean sellers for deceiving customers with weight loss claims. We’ve all heard this type of this before – miraculous beans (or pills or powders) that can cause weight loss with little extra effort made.

In the process of charging the Green Coffee Bean sellers, the FTC brought popular talk show host Dr. Oz in for questioning. Dr. Oz (or, “America’s Doctor”) is cardiothoracic surgeon, author, and television personality. He uses his talk show to talk medicine and health to his audience.

Dr. Oz and the nutritional supplement industry use science to sell their products. In the case of Green Coffee Beans, Dr. Oz used his reputation to present the product as a miracle cure, though he later acknowledged that beans didn’t have enough evidence to pass scientific muster. In fact, there is some concern that nutritional supplements on market right now could pose health risks.

Here’s a recap of the events as they unfolded from This Week Tonight.




Shark tales: on cage diving

A viral photo of a Great White Shark lunging for bait during a cage diving experience undertaken by a young American teacher has raised some eyebrows. The concern is that baiting a shark, so closely to the cage, could be harmful.

Shark diving is a growing industry in South Africa, tourists pay between $100 to $150 to jump in the cage and get close to the sharks – mostly Great Whites. Experts (mostly biologists and the occasional speculative journalist) are torn over whether more frequent cage diving with sharks (with bait) will habituate the animals.

At least, through this picture, the questions around cage diving can be explored and, given the industry seems intent on staying, we can start discussions on standards for cage diving operators.


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