Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation. You can find the first round-up post here from April 24th, the second on May 1st, the third here from May 8th, and last week’s on May 15th.
I’m enjoying this posting format so far, so I’ll continue for a few more weeks before making a decision whether it’ll stick around. This week, I stumbled across a lot of heartwarming videos and some cool, creative content.
Here is my round-up list for the week ending on May 22nd:
I stumbled across Arjun Menon’s work through a post on Peta Pixel, however I really encourage you to check out his Instagram page. Once you get past his recent project of filming figurines, you’ll also find many incredible photos from his portfolio. But his figurine photos are super creative and inspiring!
The “Dad, how do I?” YouTube channel has blown-up recently, and I stumbled across a “Mom, how do I?” companion channel that was likely inspired by the Dad channel. The apparent story behind the Dad channel is the host, Rob, wanted to create videos to impart his wisdom now that his kids have grown. Rob’s father walked out on his family when he was in his early teens, so these videos also serve to help kids who were like him who don’t have someone they can turn to for how-to help. Like broxh_ above, the Dad and Mom channels show us that there are wonderful people out there who are spreading kindness in small, meaningful ways.
💭 Reflection – On Experimentation and the Unknown | Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol
This was an interesting observation that I stumbled across while reading Varol’s new book. While there are pedagogical reasons why we do experiments with known outcomes, I think sometimes we forget that the point of experiments is to test hypotheses because we don’t know the outcome with certainty. This pairs nicely with a quote Varol includes a few pages later from Richard Feynman: “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.” We tend to demand fixed answers from our experts and media, when instead we should be reminded repeatedly and often that our understanding of the universe is based on probabilities and not binary truth-conditions.
Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation. You can find the first round-up post here from April 24th, and the second here from May 1st.
I was pretty happy with last week’s roundup, but I felt like sharing some less heavy, though no less important, links this week.
Here is my round-up list for the week ending on May 8th:
This was such a cool story to read and is worth signal-boosting. An important lesson I’ve learned in my time reviewing community-based research ethics applications is that we should be sensitive to how stories get told. As a general rule, our default should be that communities of people are the authors of their own stories. That’s not to say that outsiders should never tell stories outside of their experience, but instead we should actively promote stories told by members of a community and we should be mindful of how characters get portrayed. Characters will often get saddled with stereotypes and short-hand signifiers in the pursuit of easily conveying information to an audience, which has the dangerous possibility of spreading misinformation or perpetuating harms to the community. Therefore, I’m happy to share this story about a game that is created by the deaf community and tells their story for others to learn from.
As I drafted today’s message, I was also reminded of Loud as a Whisperfrom Star Trek: The Next Generation’s second season. One of the guest stars was a deaf actor who also brought the story penned by his wife to the producers.
Until this vlogbrothers episode from John Green, I hadn’t heard about the weird world of Singamajigs. I share this not because of the weird toy, but because it’s a heartwarming story of how the vlogbrothers community of Nerd Fighters came together for John’s brother’s birthday to find a rare version of a Singamajig that sings Smash Mouth’s song, All Star. Not only did they manage to find one, but the community also sent in some fun projects that they attempted as gifts to Hank Green. With all the bleak news circulating around, this was a welcomed bit of frivolity and celebration.
This video is super-super short, but packs a punch. It’s an important reminder that just because something is different from how we do things, it doesn’t mean it’s weird or wrong. That’s the beauty of different cultures – they provide us with new and exciting ways of seeing the world around us. It’s also a good reminder to check our own biases and received habits, because they are often just as arbitrary.
I apologize for the late post this week. I had a few ideas kicking around in my head, but given the updates, I felt this ramble-post was a better attempt to capture some of the zeitgeist, rather than my usual attempt to feign some sort of authority on whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish on this site. Maybe I’ll rant another time about the scummy people who are profiteering through the COVID-19 scare.
Most of the information circulating concerns how an individual can help protect themselves from contracting the virus. Obviously this information is spread around not to protect any one individual, but because it’s the government’s attempt to flatten the curve and ease the economic and public health downsides to the current behaviours of people, from clogging up emergency rooms with sniffles to wholesale runs on items in the grocery store.
I’m not entirely sure what I should write about this week. It’s pretty hard to form a coherent thought when the majority of my bandwidth is occupied with keeping up with the shifting narrative around what’s going on. Thanks to technology, information (or misinformation) spreads quickly, and we are seeing multiple updates per day as a result. At my place of employment, they took the unprecedented step of shutting down face-to-face curriculum delivery. Unlike the faculty strike from Fall 2017, the College is working to keep the educational process running. While it may be that in the School of Engineering it can be impossible to replicate lab or shop time, the majority of faculty are working hard to translate their delivery to an online format.
So far, our employer has done a good job, in my opinion, with taking prudent steps to a.) keep people meaningfully occupied in their work so that no one has to lose their salary, and b.) do its part to stop the spread of the virus. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be better, but given the circumstances they’ve done a good job.
I’ve been thinking about the purpose of social isolation as a pandemic response. As I said above, the point is less about protecting oneself and is instead about protecting hospitals from being overwhelmed. If we’ve learned anything from countries around the world that are going through the worst right now, it’s that it becomes impossible to protect our vulnerable when there is a shortage of hospital beds. Hospitals are having to triage patients to focus on saving those who can be saved, who have the highest chances of recovering.
It is because of this that I’ve been thinking about the concept of a “brother’s keeper.” It’s not necessarily enough that governments or citizens remain mindful about the well-being of our vulnerable populations. Oftentimes while we are focusing on immediate dangers before us, we tend to not anticipate higher-order consequences of our policies or decisions.
Closing schools is great in theory – children are rabid spreaders of contagions, whether they are actually symptomatic or not, which means they infect their parents (some of whom are front line medical workers). But when we close schools, you have second order consequences that parents struggle with childcare, or children living in poverty lose access to food that is supplied at school.
When you close borders, you stop carriers of the virus from entry. But it also means that our international students (who are in some cases being vacated from post-secondary residences as school’s work to limit social contact among students) have no where to go. Airports are limiting international travel and the cost of purchasing tickets are skyrocketing. By them being in a foreign country, these students are vulnerable and caught in difficult positions on how to keep themselves safe.
By shutting down public spaces, you are helping to keep people from accidentally infecting each other. But when you close down businesses such as restaurants, you cut off people from the economic means they need to support themselves. Sure, the government is offering assistance to persons and businesses alike, but that will provide little comfort to people who can neither travel for groceries, nor pay for the supplies they need.
And let’s not forget what panic purchasing is doing to our supply chain – leaving store shelves cleared out of supplies, which means folks like the elderly are left without.
The hardest part I’m finding in all of this is the feeling of being powerless. You can’t control other people, and so you are forced to anticipate their moves to ensure you won’t be left without. But it’s this kind of thinking that leads to more drastic measures being taken. The virus also makes you feel powerless because you feel like an invisible stalker is coming for you – you don’t know who will be the final vector that leads to you. And you aren’t totally sure if our ritualistic hand-washing and hand-sanitizing is actually keeping us safe, or merely providing comfort. You can’t predict the future, and you can’t be sure you’re doing everything you can; you always feel like there is more you could be doing.
This reminds me of the story of the tinfoil house and pink dragons. A person covers their house in tinfoil, and when asked about it they say it keeps the pink dragons away. When asked if it works, the person shrugs and says “I don’t know, but I haven’t been attacked yet.” Of course, asking “if it works” is the wrong question here because there are no pink dragons. But as Taleb tells us in his book about Black Swans, there are always those highly unprobable events with massive downsides that we don’t see coming. Public policy and budgets are created to deal with clear and present dangers, and those policies and budgets are eroded when it’s felt that the money is not being allocated optimally. Therefore, you run into problems where you are never sure if the resources you spend to prevent something actually works – it’s really hard to prove causality in something that never happens.
Instead, we often are left to scramble to try and get ahead of trouble when we are already flat-footed, which means that our vision narrows as we focus on the fires in front of us that needs to be put out. Fighting fires is great (even heroic at times), but often the measures we take to deal with crisis have unanticipated second-order consequences that become difficult to deal with.
I’m not sure how to deal with this, but it makes me wonder about being my brother’s keeper, and what I can do to protect them.
In the ethics of conducting research with human participants, there is the concept of “informed consent.” At its foundation, informed consent is the process of communicating a sufficient amount of information about a research project to a prospective participant so that the prospect is able to decide whether they want to consent to being a participant in a study. There is a lot of nuance that can go into selecting what gets communicated because you have a lot of necessary information that needs be shared but you don’t want to share so much information that the participant is overwhelmed by the volume of information.
When I review research ethics applications, I am privy to a lot of information about the project. In the course of reviewing the project, I have to make judgement calls about what should be included in the informed consent letters that participants read. It would be counter-productive if the participant had to read all the documentation I am required to read when reviewing an application, so we use certain best practices and principles to decide what information gets communicated as a standard, and what is left in the application.
There is, of course, some challenges that we must confront in this process. As I said, when reviewing a research project, you have to balance the needs of the project with the needs of a participant. All research, by virtue of exploring the unknown, carries with it an element of risk. When you involve humans in a research project, you are asking them to shoulder some of the risk in the name of progress. Our job as researchers and reviewers is to anticpate risk and mitigate it where possible. We are stewards of the well-being of the participants, and we use our experience and expertise to protect the particpants.
This means that one challenge is communicating risk to participants and helping them understand the implications of the risks of the research. In many instances, the participants are well aware of risks posed to their normal, every-day lived experiences and how the research intersects with it. The patient living with a medical condition is aware of their pain or suffering, and can appreciate risks associated with medical interventions. A person living in poverty is acutely aware of what it means to live in poverty, and understands that discussing their experiences can be psychologically and emotionally difficult. Our jobs (as reviewers and researchers) is to ensure that the participant is made aware of the risk, mitigate it as much as we can without compromising the integrity of the research program, and to contextualize the risk so that the participant can make choices for themselves without coercion.
The concept of informed consent is hugely important, arguably the most important component of research projects involving humans as participants. It is an acknowledgement that people are ends in themselves, not a means to furthering knowledge or the researcher’s private or professional goals. Indeed, without a respect for the autonomy of the participant, research projects are likely to not be moved into action even when research funds are available.
All of this is a preamble to discuss the anger I felt when I read a recent CBC report on how anti-vaxxer advocates are using the concept of informed consent as a dog-whistle to their adherents, and are using informed consent as a way of both furthering their awareness and raising money with well-meaning politicians and the public.
In fairness, I can see the chain of reasoning at play that tries to connect informed consent with concerns about vaccines. For instance, in the article there is a photo of supporters of a vaccine choice group with a banner that reads “If there is a risk there must be a choice.” This sentiment is entirely consistent with the principles of informed consent. The problem with this application is that the risk is not being communicated and understood properly within context, and instead fear, misinformation, and conspiracies that lead to paternalistic paranoia are short-cutting the conversation. Further, the incentive structures that are borne out of the economics of our medical system are doing little to address these fears. Because so little money is flowing from the government to the medical system, doctors are forced to maximize the number of patients they see in a day just to ensure enough money is coming into the practice to pay for space, equipment, staff, insurance, and supplies. Rather than seeking quality face-to-face time with a patient, doctors have to make a choice to limit patient time to just focus on a chief complaint and address questions as efficiently as they can.
I don’t think it’s all the doctor’s fault either. I think we as patients, or more specifically we as a society, have a terrible grasp of medical and scientific literacy. I don’t have a strong opinion about what the root cause of this is, but some combination of underfunded schooling, rapid technological innovation, growing income disparities, entertainment pacification, a lack of mental health support, increasingly complex life systems, and precarious economic living in the average household are all influencing the poor grasp people have about what makes the world around us work. Rather than being the case that we are hyper-specialized in our worldviews, I think it’s the case that “life” is too complex for the average person to invest time into understanding. Let’s be clear, it is not the case that the average person isn’t smart enough to grasp it (even if sometimes my frustration with people leads me to this conclusion). Instead, I think that people are pulled in so many directions that they don’t have the time or economic freedom to deal with things that don’t immediately pay off for them. People are so fixated on just making it day-to-day and trying not to fall behind that it becomes a luxury to have the leisure time to devote to these kinds of activities.
What this results in, then, is the perfect storm of ignorance and fear that congeals into a tribal call to rebel against the paternalism of a system that is ironically also too cash-strapped to allow the flexibility to educate people on the nature of risk. People don’t have the time and ability to educate themselves, and doctors don’t have the time to share their experiences and knowledge with their patients.
Within this gap, opportunistic charlatans and sophists thrive to capitalize on people’s fears to push their own agendas. This is why bad actors like the disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield and movement leader Del Bigtree are able to charge fees to profit from speaking at anti-vaccination events. I’m not saying a person who spreads a message should do it for free. What I am saying is that they are able to turn a personal profit by preying on people’s fears while doing little to investigate the thing they claim to worry about.
We must find a way to communicate two simultaneous truths:
There is an inherent risk in everything; bad stuff happens to good people, and you can do everything right and still lose. Nevertheless, the risks involved when it comes to vaccines are worth shouldering because of the net good that comes from it and the risks themselves are vanishingly small.
In the 22 years since Wakefield published his study and the 16 years since its retraction, there has not been any peer-reviewed credible evidence that supports many of the claims given by the anti-vaxx movement. The movement is predicated on fears people have of the probability of something bad happening to them or their loved ones. The motivation behind the fear is legitimate, but the object of the fear is a bogeyman that hides behind whatever shadows it can find as more and more light is cast on this area.
The anti-vaxx ideology knows it cannot address head-on the mounting scientific evidence that discredits its premise, and so it instead focuses on a different avenue of attack.
This bears repeating: the anti-vaxx ideology cannot debate or refute the scientific evidence about vaccination. We know vaccines work. We know how they work; we know why they work. We understand the probabilities of the risk; we know the type and magnitudes of the risks. These things are known to us. Anti-vaxx belief is a deliberate falsehood when it denies any of what we know.
Because of this, the anti-vaxx ideology is shifting to speak to those deep fears we have of the unknown, and instead of dealing with the facts of medicine, it is sinking its claws into the deep desire we have for freedom and autonomy. It shortcuts our rational experience and appeals to the fears evolution has given us to grapples with the unknown – the knee-jerk rejection of things we don’t understand.
Informed consent as a concept is the latest victim of anti-vaxx’s contagion. It’s seeping in and corrupting it from the inside, turning the very principle of self-directed autonomy against a person’s self-interest. It doesn’t cast doubt by calling the science into question. Instead, it casts doubt precisely because the average person doesn’t understand the science, and so that unknown becomes scary to us and we reject or avoid what brings us fear.
Anti-vaxx ideology is a memetic virus. In our society’s wealth, luxury, and tech-enabled friction-free lives, we have allowed this dangerous idea to gain strength. By ignoring it and ridiculing it until now, we have come to a point where it threatens to disrupt social homeostasis. Unless we do something to change the conditions we find ourselves in – unless we are willing to do the hard work – I fear that this ideology is going to replicate at a rate that we can’t stop. It will reach a critical mass, infect enough people, and threaten to undo all the hard work achieved in the past. We have already seen the evidence of this as once-eradicated diseases are popping up in our communities. The immunity and innoculations have weakened. Let’s hope those walls don’t break.
Recently, a lot of things circulating through social media and my podcast feeds have been enraging me. I try to mitigate these things through a number of strategies – limiting my time on social media, intentionally targeting positive messages, not reading comments, not engaging, reminding myself that it is ok to disagree about things, etc. The hardest things for me to let go are cases where my thought-processes seem to wildly diverge from others about the framing of the same set of facts.
Initially, I wanted this blog post to be my master rebuttal. I wanted to lay out my case for why the conclusions others are drawing from this or that event are wrong and why. I wanted to emphasize what the important, salient points are that we should keep in mind.
But I know in my heart that would be an exercise in futility. A blog post is easy to skip; easy to ignore. I won’t change hearts and minds by arguing against a strawman average of the viewpoints expressed in my network of known-people. It would be antagonistic, hostile, and unproductive towards my goals. In all likelihood, it would backfire and entrench or alienate friends.
Instead, I will offer a different approach that I want to continuously remind myself of. When I feel compelled to dig in my heels for an argument, I should remind myself of the following.
First, remember what Aristotle (via Will Durant) tells us about virtue and excellence. It doesn’t matter what others say or share/post online; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
Second, turning to fiction, remember why The Doctor helps people.
“Winning; is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone or ‘cause I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind.”
Series 10, Episode 12: “The Doctor Falls”
Ultimately, it’s not about what I will say, or argue. Arguing with other people doesn’t make me a decent person; picking fights online doesn’t put me on the high road. If I want to bring about change in people I care about, it’s important to remember to be kind. Always be kind and help people, because it’s the right thing to do.
I recognize that being kind doesn’t give a lot of direction and can seem cowardly when meeting the systems that do real harm to the vulnerable and oppressed. In fact, espousing kindness can easily slip into inaction or forced neutrality. It’s hard to be prescriptive in this case at a granular level.
However, if I start with the core values of kindness and action, that what is important is doing things that are kind to others, then you can use your values as a filter for determining what you will choose to do.
Instead of arguing online, I choose to try and lead by being kind.
It’s been some time since I’ve had to commute on the bus. As a student, the bus was my main mode of getting around town (and the occasional trip home), but in my post-student days, I’ve been privledged to have a vehicle of my own to commute in.
A few weeks back, I carpooled to Hamilton with my wife so that I could attend an ethics workshop at McMaster University. After my business was done on campus, I took the bus from campus to her place of work.
I greeted the driver as I embarked the bus, paid my fare, and took a seat. Instead of getting lost in whatever was on my phone, I took the opportunity to watch the streets as we drove by and listen to the sounds of the bus.
I was startled when I realized that I had forgotten that regular bus-riders always thank the driver when disembarking. It was something I did back in my student days, and I was glad to see that not much had changed in the 5-7 years since I regularly rode the bus.
Given that I had forgotten this little gesture of appreciation and kindness, I wanted to take a moment in this otherwise dull blog to commit it to memory and share the sentiment.
I was on a consultation call a few weeks ago about an ethics application. The project was seeking feedback from participants about access to specific mental health information, and in my feedback to their application, I noted that their demographic question concerning the gender of the participant was probably too narrow. The applicant asked for some advice how to address the comment.
On the one hand, they considered dropping the question as it a.) didn’t obviously connect to their research question, and b.) the literature supporting this branch of mental health was pretty well-studied in terms of incidence rates for the condition along the sex dimension, so they might not learn anything new by asking for the participant’s gender or sex. On the other hand, if they left it in, they had to contend with whether they should use sex or gender as the focus of the question. Since the mental health topic they were researching was a medical condition, it seemed like (biological) sex was the more salient feature, whereas my feedback suggested that if they chose gender, they would need to ensure it was inclusive.
While discussing the implications on the phone, I tried to tease out what the purpose of the study was. Their study was collecting qualitative information about how people access information. In the context of the demographic information, they weren’t seeking to know how a person’s sex/gender relates to the condition itself. But, I wonder aloud, it seemed the purpose of the study was to understand how people seek information, which could arguably be influenced by one’s culture, behaviour, socialization, and experience of how the world treats them. In that way, you would want to focus less on a person’s physiology and instead you might discover interesting differences in how a person seeks information based on their life-experiences.
The applicant noted that they started the phone call intending to drop the question from the survey, and through my line of questions and probes, was convinced to keep the question and modify it to be more inclusive.
I am not telling this story as a normative push on how we should conduct inquiry (though by reading through the lines, you should get a sense of how I feel about the topic). Instead, I share this story as an example of why posing good questions is important to remove ambiguity and clarify thought. One of the goals of our ethics board when we review applications is to make implied premises explicit so that we can be sure of what we take as a given when we set out to study a research question. We often default to accepted practice and proceed with common tools, but sometimes we don’t think carefully through the implications of what using those tools means. By leveraging my outsider status, I have an opportunity to get the applicants to explain concepts and lines of reason without assuming I share the same understanding of the material that they do. This helps to spot those areas where the project is weakened by unsupported claims and assumptions.