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Humanities Radio Covid Conspiracies


COVID-19 has been a breeding ground for conspiracy theories since it began in spring 2020. Each day, newsfeeds are filled with information about the virus and media consumers are left to separate fact from fiction. Jim Tabery, associate professor of philosophy, discusses some of these conspiracy theories, why people believe them, how they get started and more.

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Humanities Radio The Impact of COVID on Asia


Kim Korinek, professor of sociology and director of the Asia Center housed in the College of Humanities, discusses how Asian nations have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of anti-Chinese rhetoric in the U.S. and the role of the Asia Center in building knowledge about the region.  

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Humanities Radio Cybersecurity And The 2020 Election

EPISODE 3 - Cybersecurity And The 2020 Election

Sean Lawson, associate professor of communication and author of “Cybersecurity Discourse in the United States,” discusses potential cybersecurity threats to the 2020 presidential election, who is behind them, how they are being addressed and what citizens can do about them (spoiler alert: get out and VOTE).

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Humanities Radio Shaping Modern Presidential Politics


Eric Hinderaker, distinguished professor of history, discusses how history – specifically the creation of the electoral college and the consequential elections of 1800 and 1824 – has shaped modern presidential politics.

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Humanities Radio The Origins of Thanksgiving

EPISODE 5 - The Origins of Thanksgiving

Greg Smoak, associate professor of history and director of the American West Center, discusses the origins of Thanksgiving and how the holiday has changed since the initial feast in 1621.

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The Origins of Black History Month


Each February, the United States celebrates Black History month to celebrate the achievements of African Americans and honor their central role in history. Eric Herschthal, assistant professor of history explains its origin, its essential purpose and why Black history is American history.

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Season 3, Episode 7 - Afrofuturism

Crystal Rudds, assistant professor of English, explores the genre and cultural movement of Afrofuturism – an intellectual philosophy that brings together an investment in the African diasporic past with the possibilities of technology.

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Women's History Month

Season 3, Episode 8 - Dr. Sophia Kleegma‪n‬

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Robin Jensen, professor of communication, discusses her research on Sophia Kleegman. Relatively unknown, Kleegman was the first woman appointed to the New York University College of Medicine faculty of obstetrics and gynecology in 1929 and was a pioneer in fertility medicine. Her patient-centric approach and controversial views helped change the way the medical community approached reproductive health.

Jana Cunningham: Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities and today in celebration of Women's History Month, I'm speaking with Robin Jensen, professor of communication about her research on Dr. Sophia Kleegman. Dr. Kleegman was the first woman appointed to the New York University College of Medicine faculty of obstetrics and gynecology in 1929 and was a pioneer in fertility medicine. Professor Jensen is here to discuss more about Dr. Kleegman and the history of reproductive health.
Jana Cunningham: Before we start discussing Dr. Kleegman and your latest project, let's back up a little bit to the very beginning of reproductive health, which as I understand, has some deep roots in experimental and unethical treatment of enslaved women. Can you talk a little bit more about those early years and how reproductive medicine started?
Robin Jensen: Yes. The beginning of my interest in Dr. Sophia Kleegman was that I have been long studying the science and medicine behind fertility medicine and I traced that ultimately far back. But one of the earlier pieces of history there that's pertinent to this story is that in the mid 1800s, before the Civil War and heading into the Civil War, we had a doctor namedand many of you may have read about him recentlyDr. J Marion Sims. You probably read about him because there have been a number of statues that have recently been taken down. I think at least two in the South, of Dr. Sims, because he's long been known as "the father of gynecology,"but it turns out that a lot of his medicine and his experimental studies were done on African-American women who were slaves in his care.
Robin Jensen: He did multiple experimental surgeries on slave women under his care without anesthesia to solve one very specific health problem at the time, that was quite common, it's a fistula which often happens when there's prolonged labor that a woman has. And then it causes her to haveessentially different parts of her reproductive system are opened up and it causes leaking and horrible pain and bacteria growth. This was very common among slave women at the time who were giving birth under horrific circumstances. They didn't have access to medical care. If the labor was prolonged, usually there was nothing that people could do and so this was a big reason that people developed fistula at the time.
Robin Jensen: He wanted to try and figure out how to close up the fistula, and what he did was he just did over 40 surgeries, un-anesthetized with three slave women in particular. And he just kept doing these surgeries until eventually he did manage to close up the openings and the fissures, but under horrible pain. And of coursethe women didn't have any kind of agency in terms of consenting to the treatment and he really didn't attend to their pain in a way that you might find appropriate for that kind of situation. But what ended up happening is because he did develop these kinds of treatments, he published his experimental data in renowned scientific journals and he developed a name for himself. He made a name for himself. He made a name for US medicine and gynecology via his work in this area.
Robin Jensen: Then he went on to test some of these procedures and others on immigrant women, largely from Ireland, who didn't have the funds to pay for treatment. So again, he did these kinds of treatments, no anesthesia, horribly painful and then kept publishing about this and other reproductive health experiments. Ultimately all of this translated to wealthy upper-class white women, but it was grounded in these kinds of awful circumstances. And this trajectory of medicine, where you objectify the person that you are trying to treat, and treat them as someone that you're not as concerned about their wellbeing, you're more concerned about solving a medical problem or finding out scientific information, is something that was projected into the 20th century with reproductive medicine, gynecology, and ultimately fertility studies.
Robin Jensen: So, I was interested in how did this get thwarted? Because we know we're in a much better place now. It's certainly not perfect, but gynecology and fertility science is certainly in a better place in terms of how it treats its patients than it was back then.
Jana Cunningham: Sohow and when does Dr. Kleegman come into this picture?
Robin Jensen: Her story is really interesting in that she immigrated from Russia, well actually her family immigrated from Russia and thenshe was born in the United States, but all of her older siblings came over from Russia. Her older sister, Annaalso became a doctor and two of her other sisters worked in factories to help fund their medical education. They had four brothers who died in Russia from various bad circumstances, medical circumstances,so they were all inspired to develop this medical education for members of their own family. So they came over, two sisters worked, two sisters went to medical school. It's a really interesting story that I could go more into, but I'll try and stay on task here.
Robin Jensen: Sophia ultimately went to medical school at a point when more women were becoming gynecologists and gynecological surgeons, but there wasn't really a huge field of fertility studies. And when she was doing her residency in both Chicago and in the East Coast, she noticed that lots of the treatments for women who were having trouble with fertility or other reproductive problems, was that they had some kind of surgery and they just removed a bunch of stuff. And that's of course, really colloquial, that there were very specific things that were removed, ovary cysts, lesions, lots of other things. And some of those things that was appropriate, but more often than not, especially in the cases of infertility, they had not tested the male partner to see if they had any role in the reproductive problems happening.
Robin Jensen: So you had a lot of women who were having these really invasive surgeries, and it turned out that their male partners were the ones who had the reproductive problem. Soit really didn't matter how much surgery they did, how effective they were, that wasn't even the problem in the first place. She would leave the surgical room in the evening, and there'd be these huge bins of reproductive parts that had been removed from women. And there was just this sense that women were, rather than risk making men feel bad or inadequate for testing them for these kinds of things, it's better they felt, to just open up a woman and take out something that might be problematic, or maybe it wasn't problematic, but we'll give it a go.
Robin Jensen: So you have this really horrible pattern of medical intervention that didn't really do anything. So she dedicated herself to developing essentially what she calls a conservative surgery practice for infertility medicine. Where surgery isn't necessarily the first thing that you turn to and you want to do a whole bunch of testing on all partners involved before you cut someone open and deem to try and do something that's really invasive.
Jana Cunningham: Did you get a sense of what the medical community's reaction to this was? Because if she was the first person that suggested, "Well, maybe this problem has something to do with the male partner," what was the medical community's reaction? Because that kind of seems like a bold thing to come up with at the time.
Robin Jensen: Right. I think one of the things that makes her so interesting is that she really managed to blend in with practitioners who were doing something very different than what she was proposing, and had a great skill for not forcing people to face things that they didn't want to face. She really managed to be someone that was upheld by the community, even as she was telling them,"You've been doing this wrong and it's horrific," she didn't say it in that way. She really became, for me, a great model of communication in that, whether she was writing scientific articles or she was speaking with her professional organization and colleagues, or she was speaking with the public, because she also wrote a lot of magazine articles and was kind of a public doctor.
Robin Jensen: She really had a talent for saying, "Look, this is how we've been doing things and I think we can make that better. And actually this is pretty wrong," but somehow she managed to communicate that message without turning people off and without making them feel like they needed to save face. That's part of the reason that she was able to change the practice because she didn't just come in and say, "This is awful. You're doing it wrong. We need to start something entirely new." She really worked to create a bridge from what people had been doing to where they could go.
Robin Jensen: And she built upon... There's a long tradition in US medicine specifically, of women doctors who argued in favor of conservative surgery in particular. Sometimes they did that for really what we would think of as maybe misogynistic or maternalistic reasons. So Elizabeth Blackwell, she was the first woman in the US to get a medical degree and she really was able to establish herself as what some have called, and even she called, a lady doctor in that she said, "Look, I'm a really great doctor and other women need to be doctors because we have a better sensibility about how to be sensitive to patients because we are women."
Robin Jensen: She really grounded her credibility in the sense that she had a different sensibility as a woman, and therefore that's why it was important for her to be a doctor. She said, "We don't want to go in and necessarily carve people up if we don't have to." But her reasoning the whole time was very gendered in that she said, "Women are different than men. And also women's bodies, you have to be really sensitive with their bodies because they're more fragile, especially if they're white women," so there was really a racist kind of element to it.
Robin Jensen: So Kleegman comes out of that trajectory, but she doesn't employ the gendered stereotypes, and she doesn't employ the racist stereotypes, and opens things up for a more thoughtful surgical intervention. She wasn't against surgeries in the way that Blackwell was. She said, "Sometimes it's justified. If you have something, let's say you have a diseased ovary or something like that, then the only way to take care of it is to do a surgical intervention." If you have a partner where they don't have any sperm and you're operating on the wife, you're never going to solve this problem. She really had a pretty... She said, "Look, there's a problem and no one's addressing it. Let's move forward with this." But she did it in a way that brought people together rather than made them fracture into silos.
Jana Cunningham: So, Dr. Kleegman, we talked aboutit was pretty controversial for her to come up with this idea that infertility may be on the male side, but she also had a number of other controversial views for the time. Can you talk more about those views and how they contributed to this patient centric, holistic approach?
Robin Jensen: Yes. She was very woman centered, I guess, is what you might say, as was her sister Anna, who was also a doctor and also interested in women and reproductive health, so they were kind of an interesting team. But when she came over from Russia, she was very supportive of movements, such as the contraceptive movement. She supported ultimately abortion, which at the time was really controversial, remains controversial. She was talented, as I said, at bringing people together, even as she presented them with ideas that many of them inherently disagreed with. And she always did this from the belief that individual people, be they women or men, should have the agency and the ability to make their own choices.
Robin Jensen: She wasn't arguing about the inherent ethicalness or morality of certain things. She was saying, "Look, people need to make their decisions and we need to give women the decisions to build their families or not, as they see fit. And if we don't do that, we're just going to have many more problems." So the infertility piece fit along with the sense that women should have the contraception they need, if they want it. If they desire to have any kind of intervention, including an abortion, she felt like they should have the autonomy to do that.
Robin Jensen: And then all of the advocacy for infertility was to say, "Look, in the same way that I'm fighting for people to start families if they want them, we should be supportive of people if they're on the other side of things and they want to limit their family, or they don't want to have a family." She really spanned all of those areas and every single one of them was controversial in a different way. She was able to use her kind of deliberative sensibility to manage that and bring people together to solve problems, even when they disagreed.
Jana Cunningham: Another controversial idea she had that I wanted to talk about briefly was, she had advocated and implemented sex education into the curriculum at New York University Medical Center where she was on faculty. And that, from what I understand, was the first time that sex education was even introduced into any sort of curriculum. How did that change the course of treatment for women and couples?
Robin Jensen: Yes, it definitely did. And it's still, if you go on to her alumni page for her medical school and where she was an instructor, they're still talking about how she was the one who instituted sex education for medical students, which today doesn't sound so wild, but back then was considered pretty daring. And part of that came with the idea, she was one of the early practitioners of believing that there was a psychosocial element to issues of contraception. She has all these stories about people who come into her care and say, "Look, we're having trouble, it looks like we're in fertile," and it turns out they thought they were having sex and they really weren't, or just basic things where you have people not having the sex education they need.
Robin Jensen: And then of course that also happens for medical students like it happens with anyone else, so her argument was we have to talk about basic sex education, even though it would be shocking to some folks that people might not have that, but a lot of people didn't and still don't. So we need to talk about basic sex education, and also what might be called medical couples therapy or something like that. Or just medical information where you're saying, "This is the basics of what sex is and how contraception happens, and how conception happens," so that when people are trying to make decisions about families or about not having families or whatever it may be, they're actually working with information that is accurate.
Robin Jensen: Also there is an element, there was research that was starting to come out at the time. Some of it overlapped with some Freudian psychoanalysis stuff, which that was not entirely factual there. But what came out of that movement was the idea that there is a psychological element in some cases to certain aspects of reproduction and you want to look at every possibility so that you're not saying, "Okay well, it looks like you're not actually having sex, and that might be why you are having trouble with infertility," as opposed to, "Let's have a surgery and open someone up and see what's wrong with their organs," when really that's something you would want to do long after you've come up with all of these kinds of basics.
Robin Jensen: It all kind of fell together in terms of her saying, "Look, in order for women to have the ability to advocate for themselves and what they need, we need to make sure that our medical students know these thingsso that they can pass them on and have an open conversation." Because when we're talking in terms of not straightforward language and we're using hyperbole about sex, and we're not being straightforward even in a medical consultation, communication is really at the heart of making sure that that everything's going okay, or identifying a problem. So that element of the medical education became central for her, and then that proliferated in other medical schools after that.
Jana Cunningham: Because I mean, it seems like something that would be completely common sense in medical school. I mean the very basics, and I guess in the twenties or the thirties, when Dr. Kleegman was on faculty, it was kind of a new concept, interestingly enough.
Robin Jensen: Right. And in the US, medical education even is a relatively new idea. I mean, we're a young nation in the first place, but it was only at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s when we started to institutionalize education, medical education and what that meant. Up until that point, it was a little like, "Well, I followed along another doctor and saw what they did and then I started doing it too, and I became a doctor." Really in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, we were still establishing what it meant to be a doctor, what your credentials were, what you needed to learn before that could happen. She stepped in and said, "Hey, let's make sure we've got the basics of sex education on the table here before moving forward."
Jana Cunningham: Before we end, let's talk a little bit about your project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. You're focusing on Dr. Kleegman, so can you tell us a little bit about what you're doing for this project?
Robin Jensen: Yes. This is a project where I started out really looking at the history of infertility and fertility medicine, and noticing that there were some central figures in that history that we don't know much about. And Kleegman was one of those who really rose to the top for me, in that she played a major role in changing fertility medicine. Of course it's still not perfect, but she was a pivotal role in saying, "Look, we're doing things that really make no sense. Let's change course and make sure we're solving the problems that we want to be solving." I went to Harvard University and they have the Schlesinger Library there and they have her papers and it turns out that there actually isn't that much there on Kleegman because her family threw out a lot of her papers when they were going through her office after she passed away.
Jana Cunningham: Oh no.
Robin Jensen: So part of this is, to all of you out there who are taking care of papers as a family, maybe hold on to them to make sure that they're not something that others could use in terms of research or things like that. Anyway, her families threw out a lot of her papers, but there was a lot there and Dr. Kleegman did publish a lot. She was engaged in a lot of advocacy efforts and she wrote letters upon letters and correspondence upon correspondence, so there is sort of a rhetorical path or traces of her rhetorical history that exists. And I just thought, let's figure out how she intervened in fertility science to make it into a more humane, ethical medical trajectory. And certainly it wasn't like she came in and said,"Done, done, done, everything changed. I am the savior." And that's part of why she was successful. It's also part of why we don't know much about her.
Robin Jensen: There just really isn't a lot of information on her because she played within the dictates of what was expected as much as possible, and then changed things within those dictates. I'm really interested in figuring out all the different ways that she communicated to make that change without blowing the whole thing up. There's also this really interesting story about her family who came over as immigrants from Russia and her sister who was also a doctor. And a whole story about the sister who ended up being a specialist on women's menopause and making the argument that women after menopause could still be sexually active, and that that was really healthy for them. As you can imagine, that was also a pretty controversial line of study.
Robin Jensen: The two of them together were just doing really interesting things and they made a real significant impact on how we look at reproductive health, fertility, things that are really prevalent right now. And certainly they're not perfect. We have a number of problems that still exist so I don't mean to make this into a story of the Kleegman sisters came in and they changed everything, and now we're better. No, we still have medical racism happening, we still have women who are being treated poorly. We still have really high mortality rates among African-American women and infant mortality rates, and all of these problems that we still need to deal with and continue to deal with. But I think we can take lessons from Kleegman, Sophia in particular, about how to make changes in ways that are productive and keep things moving forward so that people can receive better care and receive the kind of care that they need. 
Jana Cunningham: She seems like she has done so much for women in the medical community. I was so shocked that I couldn't find more information about her online. I thought I would find tons of stuff so I'm glad that you're doing this project. It's really interesting.
Robin Jensen: Well, and I think from what I have found, she was also just a real character too. I think that's always interesting. Just in her life she had a ton of energy and she lived about 40 lives in the span of how most of us live one. So it makes for just really, really compelling historical research on a lot of levels. I think it's inspiring in so many ways that people can come from basically, she had nothing at the beginning of her life and she worked together with her family to really change a social structure that she wasn't even a part of when she started, and just unbelievable.
Robin Jensen: At that time it was hard to even become a doctor as a woman, let alone an immigrant woman and all of these other kinds of things. So she really spoke a lot about class differences and how in fertility medicine, in particular, we tend to experiment on people who can't pay for it and then charge people who can, and that makes for really unfortunate reproductive outcomes. So she's a great person to look back to understand how we might move forward. 
Jana Cunningham: That was Robin Jensen, professor of communication. For more information about the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit

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Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the end of Polygamy

Season 3, Episode 9 - Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy

Colleen McDannell, professor of history and the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious studies, discusses her book “Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy.” Her book offers a history of modern Latter-day Saint women and the often-neglected stories of their experiences from the late 19th century to the present day.

Jana Cunningham: Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities. And today, in continuation of our celebration of Women's History Month, I'm speaking with Colleen McDannell, professor of history and the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies, about her book, “Sister Saints, Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy.” Her book offers a history of modern Mormon women and the often neglected stories of their experiences from polygamy to present day.

Jana Cunningham: What prompted you to write “Sister Saints?”

Colleen McDannell: Well, as you mentioned, I'm a professor of religious studies here at the university. And within that broad field, I study American religions and I've written a whole bunch of books on American religious history, books that focus on Catholics, books that focus on photography. I even wrote a book about Heaven. And the book that I wrote before “Sister Saints” focused on a Catholic woman and looked at Catholic reform. And since I had been living in Utah for 30 years, I thought it was about time that I looked at my own neighbors and take my expertise in American religious history and try to make sense of Mormon women.

Jana Cunningham: What are some of the stereotypes about Latter-day Saint women that your book challenges?

Colleen McDannell: Well, I think there are two major stereotypes that I try to overturn in my book and the first of those stereotypes is that Mormon women are conservative. And I try to show in my book how in the 19th century, Mormon women followed progressive causes and not simply liberal causes, but actually radical causes. And their most radical cause of the day was women's rights and women's right to vote. And so, in the book, I show how Latter-day Saint women, especially through connections with the Relief Society, participated in the international movement to give women the right to vote.

Colleen McDannell: And the second stereotype that I try to challenge in the book is that Mormonism is a male-dominated religion. And throughout the book, I try to show how women have their own agency and their own activities. And especially up until the 1970s in the Relief Society, women raised their own money, they made decisions about how they would spend that money, they were even involved in politics, and they ran their own very influential magazine. And so these were various activities that try to show that at least up until the end of the 20th century, women were very involved in public activities, as well as doing things in the home.

Jana Cunningham: So, I'm really interested in learning more about these progressive movements and what their lives were like throughout these different movements in history. But first, I want to talk about what was life like for the women just as polygamy ended because that's kind of where we're starting, correct?

Colleen McDannell: Right. So, the second chapter of my book looks a little bit at polygamy and the stresses that polygamy placed on Mormon women. And one of the interesting resources that I used were a series of interviews done of the children of polygamists. And when you read the stories of the children, you get a very different perspective on polygamy. Women who became polygamists, most of them were quite enthusiastic about living a polygamous lifestyle because they were committed to LDS principles and polygamy was a part of the religion. So when they converted to the religion, they also converted to a new way of having a family.

Colleen McDannell: The children, on the other hand, they hadn't converted. They hadn't had a religious experience. And so, they saw polygamy in a very different light than their mothers and fathers did. And for the most part, they were not terribly enthusiastic about polygamy. Many of them were one of many children. It wouldn't be unusual to have 20 brothers and sisters. And the men who were supposed to care for these families oftentimes had a rough job of it, even though they wanted to take care of their families, just financially, it was difficult.

Colleen McDannell: What happened when polygamy ended was there was no clear instructions given about how families should exist. Some men actually decided to continue polygamy and they took their wives either to Canada or to Mexico. And sometimes, they even left wives in Utah and took their favorite wives or the ones that they got along with. They took those to places like Mexico. And sometimes it was the youngest wife, not just because she might've been the prettiest one, but also because she would have been the one to care for the men as they aged. And that meant that other wives were left in Utah caring for their children. And so the children found this life to be a difficult one.

Jana Cunningham: So from the end of polygamy until now, Mormon women, their lives and experiences have gone through a spectrum of changes. So what were kind of the significant movements that you were talking about earlier or moments in history that changed these roles and experiences?

Colleen McDannell: Well, if we go back to the women's rights movement at the turn of the century, as you know, since last year, we celebrated the 100th year of women having the federal right to vote in 2020. They got the vote in 1920. After women got to vote, it was a big question about how would they behave? Would they be a force in politics, with all of these women now voting?

Colleen McDannell: And what happened was the women voted just like the men did. Some voted for Democrats, and some voted for Republicans, and some didn't vote at all. And some voted the way their husband wanted them to vote. And some of them had their own ideas about how politics should be performed. And so actually, what you see is great diversity in the 1920s, once women get to vote. They didn't vote as a block. And so what that meant was that politicians, male politicians, could basically just ignore the women because they weren't a force in politics because they were very diffuse.

Colleen McDannell: So beginning around that time, the 1920s, right after World War I, there was a conservative movement across the nation in politics. A lot of it was a response towards the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and so there was a great fear that something like this, like socialism, might come to the United States. So historians call this the antiradical movement. And many Latter-day Saint male leaders became involved in this more conservative outlook towards society. Whereas the women in the Relief Society continued their more progressive orientation because they had been hanging out with basically progressive non-Mormon women because they were a part of the suffrage movement.

Colleen McDannell: So by the time you get then into the 1930s, the male leaders begin to slowly restrict the public activities of the Relief Society. And perhaps the most important thing was that during the depression era, the church decided to take over the welfare system from the women and to focus it on the priesthood and to have all of the welfare activities organized by men. So, although women still produced much of the labor, they did the canning, they made the clothes, they distributed food to needy people. It was the male church leaders who decided how the church welfare system would be set up and this made a big change. It took one of the very important elements of women's leadership away from the Relief Society, and it began to really the shift of power from the women to the men.

Jana Cunningham: And can you talk a little bit about some of the women we'll meet in this book or who readers will meet in this book and their contribution to the church?

Colleen McDannell: Well, I think what I'd like to do is just talk about one woman. And I want to talk about her because she is one of the unsung heroes in the book. She's not the famous woman like Emmeline Wells, but she is really famous in her own right and she also points to a really important change that has occurred in the church. And her name is Ayanda Sidzatane and she is from South Africa. And I was very lucky, thanks to support from the University of Utah, to be able to travel to South Africa and to live there for a while and interview LDS women about their lives and their history. And Ayanda was one of these really special women that I met there. Like many black, South African women, her family had experienced apartheid, which is a form of really severe racial segregatio, and because of that, she had had a very difficult time growing up.

Colleen McDannell: Her father deserted the family. Her mother had to support many children. Her sisters oftentimes married quite young and then had families of their own without the support of men. But she had converted and had found, within the LDS community a really supportive organization. She went on a mission to Botswana. She had American missionary companions and she came back to Johannesburg. She worked at the missionary training center. She eventually married a foreign missionary and she became a really strong leader within her church. And I want to point her out as a major figure because she indicates a shift in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the 1960s and '70s into the present.

Colleen McDannell: So as you know, there was a change in the policy towards the priesthood in the late 1970s, where men of African descent could become a priest within the church and that expanded the missionary activities. And so, when missionary activities began to expand, you get diverse responses to the LDS message. And those diverse responses begin to weaken the sharp polarization between the conservatives and the liberals that you had in Utah, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. And so this international church is a very different kind of church, and women's positions in it are very different than they were in Utah.

Jana Cunningham: That was Colleen McDannell, professor of history and the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies. “Sister Saints” can be found on Amazon. For more information about the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit

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Humor and Science

Season 3, Episode 10 - Humor and Science

In celebration of National Humor Month, Sara Yeo, associate professor of communication, discusses her research about using humor to communicate science -why scientists use humor, how they use it and how it affects people’s attitudes. 

Jana Cunningham:
Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities, and today in celebration of National Humor Month, I'm speaking with Sara Yeo, associate professor of communication about her research using humor to communicate science. In 2019, Professor Yeo was awarded a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how humor affects people's attitudes towards science, specifically on social media.

Jana Cunningham:
So, let's start from the beginning. Why did you decide to focus your research in this area on using humor to communicate science?

Sara Yeo:
Yeah, so that's a great question, and I started focusing on humor because I had noticed on Twitter that there were a lot of hashtags that scientists use. There are a lot of scientists on Twitter, and there was this particular one, the hashtag #OverlyHonestMethods that scientists use to just talk about the realities of doing science, right, the everyday things that might come up. So, a really good example that I like is, my samples were crushed because the UPS Sky didn't read the fragile labels, right.

Sara Yeo:
And they would tag tweets like this with “OverlyHonestMethods. And so, I started thinking based on the research and political communication on satire and sarcasm, some of that research shows that this type of humor can undermine our trust in political actors, it can undermine our trust in political institutions. And so, I was really curious about how this might work for science, right, especially as it relates to satire and sarcasm. And so, I decided I was going to study humor and that's how I got to writing that grant and fortunately it was awarded by the NSF.

Jana Cunningham:
So through your research, have you found that it's important to use humor when communicating science?

Sara Yeo:
So through my research, I have found that humor can be a really good way to communicate about science because in some cases, it, the sort of experience of that humor encourages people to engage with more scientific information by something that presumably we want. And so, by all accounts so far anyway, using humor has been shown to be a positive thing for science communication, and it's long been recommended for practitioners of science communication, but now we have empirical evidence that this is a positive thing.

Jana Cunningham:
And so why is it, I mean, is that why it's recommended because it creates more engagement with science?

Sara Yeo:
So, I think a lot of the recommendations came prior to having some of this empirical evidence. I think intuitively we think that humor is a good thing, right? It sort of can break down barriers, it can make people more personable, it can humanize some scientists. And so, we sort of intuitively think of it as a good way to communicate, and you can see this, right? There's some of this work in advertising literature, for example, when you look at the likeability of a communicator and people's intentions to purchase something after, right. Using humor in advertising and commercials, this is something that has been researched, and so if we extend that logic to communicating science, right, then intuitively we think, well, yes, if people like our communicator more, right, maybe then it helps them engage with that or it encourages them to engage with science content further down the line.

Jana Cunningham:
How have scientists responded to this recommendation in this way of communicating? Are they hesitant to use humor or are they on board or are the scientists who are on Twitter more likely to use humor? How have, what is their reaction to this recommendation?

Sara Yeo:
Yes, those are really great questions. And actually one that we're setting out to answer right now, what we're currently working on is a survey of scientists and their sort of perceptions around using humor as a means of communicating their research, as a means of communicating their science. So not only how scientists think about, whether they think it is appropriate, for example, to use humor, but also whether they think it might be effective, whether they think others might see this as an appropriate way, right. And so, these are actually questions that we're hoping to answer. And so, in the process of creating that survey that will help us answer that.

Jana Cunningham:
And so, how have you found that scientists are using humor to communicate science? Could you maybe give us, I know it's probably hard to give us some examples because I imagine some are using some visuals to use humor, but can you maybe give us some examples or how scientists are using humor?

Sara Yeo:
Yeah. So, those overly honest methods are an example. If you look at the hashtag #OverlyHonestMethods on Twitter, you'll find some very humorous tweets. If you also look up the hashtag #fieldworkfail, there are some very humorous ones there too, but in my sort of going through and looking on Twitter, what we found is that a lot of the science humor uses puns or some sort of word place. So a really good example that I think is easy for us to visualize is a little cell, any type of cell, with a cell phone taking a selfie.

Jana Cunningham:
So, we talked about, we've kind of hit this a little bit earlier on how it kind of affects people's attitudes towards science, but can you dive into that a little bit more and talk about how this has impacted followers on Twitter and just the community in general and Twitter, how has it affected the way they perceive science and their attitudes?

Sara Yeo:
Yeah. So as I mentioned, I think there are competing hypotheses on how humor might affect how we engage with science and we haven't had a chance to explore all of these yet. And so, one hypothesis is that if you expect a joke to keep you in kind of a lighthearted or a good mood, you may not marshal cognitive resources to processing maybe the scientific information that underlies that joke, because maybe it doesn't kind of coincide with what you already believe, right, your predispositions, or maybe some of the values that you hold. So that's kind of one hypothesis.

Sara Yeo:
A competing hypothesis is that the cognitive resources that you kind of put into action to getting the joke, right, might then also sort of spill over into understanding that scientific information contained within that joke. And so, these are kind of competing hypotheses about how people might process that information, which affects their attitudes, can downstream of that. In our research, we've measured sort of intentions to behave and the particular ways, since I should be social media, a lot of these intentions have to do with, like you've mentioned gaining more followers or engaging with more content online, liking it, retweeting it, these kinds of things.

Jana Cunningham:
So we kind of talked about how humor affects people's attitudes, and we kind of touched on this, but have you measured yet or do you know, does it make the message seem less reliable, more reliable, more accessible? Have you gauged that yet?

Sara Yeo:
Yeah. So this is a really, really great question because you can see how humor might have the potential of trivializing information in some way. And so, in some of my other work on humor, we've looked at actually whether a scientist who is also a standup comedian, and there are videos of these scientists on YouTube, and it's certainly a trend that is increasing, that scientists are doing standup comedy in some way, talking about their research, telling their stories. And what we see is that people perceive the scientists as more likeable when they use humor, but also they, it doesn't undermine their credibility, it doesn't undermine expertise that the audience perceives. And so, they still see this person as a reliable source of scientific information, which is great news, right? If you were a scientist looking to communicate your work and you enjoy humor or you're enjoying improv comedy of some sort and all of these humor in some way. And on a daily basis, it's kind of one of those communication strategies and tactics that are very ubiquitous and we sort of do it very naturally.

Sara Yeo:
So all of these, so far, all of the research that I've conducted has found pretty positive effects of using humor. That said, there are some issues for which humor doesn't necessarily encourage greater sort of intentions to engage with content. And I think my sort of hypothesis, the working hypothesis on this is that it depends on the issue, right? Not all issues in science are the same consider for example, how we think about astrophysics, right? And space exploration versus climate change. People have very different views on that. And kind of these issues are also on the public's agenda to different extents, right? Or consider artificial intelligence versus climate change or global warming. And so, we started to do experiments using different issues instead of just kind of wordplay puns, like that selfie example that I used earlier. But we started to do experiments on using topics that we are discussing ,right, in media about science right now-

Sara Yeo:
Things like AI, things like climate change and for some issues. So in particular, the climate change issue, people found the joke funny, the visual that we presented them with, they got it's funny, but it sort of didn't encourage them to engage with more content, right, in the future, it sort of didn't have that same positive effect, it didn't have a negative effect, but it didn't have that same positive effect. And so, and my hypothesis is that it's because climate change and global warming are so different, right. Our sort of a politicized issues –they're in a different space on the public's agenda at this point from other issues. And so, I think that matters as well.

Jana Cunningham:
Absolutely. So what's next with your research? I mean, you've had this huge NSF grant and now what are you going on to next?

Sara Yeo:
Well, like every other, like many researchers at the U, I'm still working on writing more grants to fund by research, and some of it is on humor, and the ones on humor are starting to move into kind of the differences and how people perceive those who use humor, right, who we are, and our identities as people are going to change how people perceive how funny we are. And so, in a collaboration that hopefully will get funded, we're starting to look at kind of creating videos on how science shows the hosts of science shows, who they are, right. Might increase representation in science, but also how they use humor and how people perceive them, how this sort of intersection of who they are, right, their race, their gender, as well as how they used humor and people's perceptions of those things. So that's one thing that I'm working on right now.

Sara Yeo:
I also have a follow-up study with a science writer who works for NASA and some of my collaborators around the country and we're looking and she, the science writer at NASA is also an improv. She's a stand-up comic. And so, she does science jokes. And so, we're recording a couple of videos with her and some of her colleagues and testing kind of people's perceptions. And again, it has to do with race. She is Indian American. And so, we're looking at sort of the differences, right, in gender and race and when scientists are also sort of stand-up comics, right? Thinking about, again, credibility, likeability, how funny people think they are. So kind of, those are the things in the works at the moment with the humor project.

Sara Yeo:
I more broadly have studied emotions, so I've looked at emotions of disgust for example, I'm starting to look at emotions of hope as well, right, something that we kind of overlook when it comes to scientific issues. I think science can give us a lot of hope for the future. And this in particular, this project is a collaboration with another project on campus, the Utah FORGE Project. And they look at enhanced geothermal systems. They have a field station in Southern Utah. But, so we're using that geothermal energy and EGS as a context for this kind of examination of what is known as emotional flow, right? This idea that technologies like this renewable energy technologies, which has these can give people hope, but it can also be kind of fearful in some ways. And so, do those kind of the emotions that people go through influence what they think about the technologies, how they support them, right, their attitudes toward them and so on.

Jana Cunningham:
That was Sarah Yeo, associate professor of communication. For more information about the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit

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Last Updated: 4/6/21