Vigilance and the Price of Progress

I recently joined a book club, and last week we met virtually to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

The book has been circling my periphery for some time, coming up in recommended reads lists for at least a year. When it came time for me to suggest the next read, I chose this book without really knowing much about the subject. I was vaguely aware that Henrietta Lacks’s cells were instrumental to many scientific and medical advances, and I was aware that the obtaining of the cells was likely done unethically, as was the case for many Black Americans who found themselves under medical scrutiny in the middle of the last century. Since I review research ethics applications on two ethics boards I serve on, and because of the ongoing conversation around Black lives, I thought this would be a good book for us to read and learn from.

In short, the book is fantastic as a piece of writing.

But the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is heartbreaking. The book paints a vivid portrait of who Henrietta was, and gives intimate glimpses into the life of her decedents. It also presents a comprehensive history of both the rise of research ethics since the end of World War Two and of the many advances made by science thanks to Henrietta’s cells. However, those advances were done with cells acquired neither with proper consent nor compensation. For many years after her early death, Henrietta’s name became lost to obscurity outside of her family, but everyone in the cellular biology community knew her cells because of how abundant they were. In a tragic twist, the very medical advances that gave way to better understandings of radiation, viruses, and vaccines, were often not available to the impoverished Lacks family. While the Lacks’s remained stuck in poverty, others profited.

I highly recommend everyone read this book.

As we discussed the book last week, I realized that this was an example of why it’s important to enlarge the domain of one’s ignorance. Learning about history shouldn’t be an exercise in theory; often we forget that history is presented as an abstraction away from the stories of individual people. If we forget about their individual lives, we can sometimes take the wrong lessons from history. As the saying goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In this case, we continue to exploit the voiceless, and profit on the backs of the disenfranchised – those who don’t have the power to speak back.

Reading books like this gives me a greater context for history, and it helps me understand the lived-history of people. I review research projects to understand the ethical consequences of our search for knowledge. If I lack a historical context – the history of how research was and is carried out – then I run the risk of perpetuating the same injustices on the people of today that the research is meant to help.

Research is supposed to be dispassionate, but we must understand and situate it within its proper historical context.

In an allusion to Picard, I close with this: constant vigilance is the price we must pay for progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – July 3, 2020

As I noted in my post earlier this week, I missed my last Friday roundup post. This is my first effort in doing better.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on June 26th July 3rd, 2020.

📽 Video: The Toxic World of Self Help: Hustle Culture, Toxic Positivity, Addiction, and Fake Gurus. | James Jani (YouTube)

I am guilty of buying into the world of self-help. The vast majority of my reading over the last five years has been variations on the self-help genre (to the point that I’ve coined the term animated bibliography to describe its form). I know that the returns on investing in self-help diminishes quickly, and I am aware of how dubious the promise that self-help sells is, but I constantly find myself getting sucked into it. This video doesn’t necessarily say anything new that I haven’t realized myself, but it pulls it together nicely with many examples of how dark this world can be for the copycat authorities that use the same tactics in different domains. This video is a good summary and reminder to myself the next time I’m sold the promise of a better life through tactics and strategies for sale.

Listen: A Recipe for Caesar | Common Sense Podcast by Dan Carlin AND Jon Stewart | Joe Rogan Experience Podcast

I covered a different interview with Jon Stewart in my last published Friday roundup, but I wanted to link these two different podcast episodes along a similar theme, despite the shows being wildly different. I noticed that both Dan Carlin and Jon Stewart remarked on the difficulty that comes with being a voice that people turn to when making sense of the world. Stewart noted that towards the end of his time on the Daily Show, he sometimes struggled to be the person to go on television and say something smart or comforting after a tragedy struck (it might have been part of the reason why he burned-out and needed to retire). Similarly, Dan Carlin has not put out an episode of his podcast Common Sense in a few years, but he released this episode earlier this year. In it, he notes that he’s tried recording an episode multiple times but felt he was adding nothing of substance to the conversation. He struggled to, like Stewart, be a voice for people (like me) who turn to him to help understand the world we find ourselves in. I listened to both of these episodes in the same week, and gained a new appreciation for those like Carlin and Stewart who make livings giving me monologues to pre-digest current events. It must be tough to strike a balance by being both insightful and non-inflammatory, where you avoid stoking the audience against “the other side” (whatever side that happens to be at the time). A YouTuber I follow recently commented on folks like Tim Poole whose sole purpose is to inflame the left/right hostility, rather than adding anything of substance to the discourse. It’s causing me to slowly evaluate what voices I allow in and whether they’ve earned their place in my attention.

Read: Why I’m Leaving Academia | Ozan Varol

I have some deeper reflections that this article prompted, but I wanted to capture this here first. Varol has been a law professor for 10 years now, and with the success of his recent book, he’s decided to move on from his teaching duties to pursue other endeavors. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s idea of via negativa. Varol specifically invokes this idea (though not by name) by reflecting that decisions he’s made in his life that had the greatest positive impact were often decisions that “subtracted” from his life. It’s a reflection I applied to my own circumstances and still need a bit more time to process.

Watch: Every Race in Middle-Earth Explained | WIRED (YouTube)

Because we all need to have some fun once in a while, here is an informative half-hour from a Tolkein scholar who covers the history of Middle-Earth through its inhabitants.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-Up – June 19, 2020

After a poor performance last week left me with no Friday post, and even though today’s post is much later than I intended, here I am to make good on my promise to do better.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on June 19th:

📖Article – Jon Stewart Is Back to Weigh In | The New York Times

Sorry if you hit a paywall on this article (I managed to read it fine from Pocket). I’ve lamented elsewhere that I genuinely miss Jon Stewart, not just from his tenure on the Daily Show, but also from other initiatives he’s thrown his weight behind (remember his masterclass in oration?). While this interview is part of Stewart’s media blitz for his upcoming movie release, it is also chocked-full of wonderful insights and observations about the world we find ourselves in. He’s ever poignant in his wit, but also speaks from a cautious place. The interview is so good, I quickly reached the limit of my free highlights in Pocket.

💭 Reflection Mega-Thread – How We Process Information

I want to turn this into a more formal blog post in the near future, but for now I’d like to lay out a few strands that have come together over the last two weeks about how we process, curate, and digest information.

🎧 Listen – You Must Avoid This Weakness | The Daily Stoic Podcast

First, a short listen from the Daily Stoic reflecting on how our minds are not reliable when it comes to processing truth. Instead, we are bound up in our own biases that we seek to confirm. If we want to be functioning, contributing members of society, we must actively exercise our critical faculties, including seeking out when we are wrong. Or as the closing lines state: “It’s the snowflakes who fly into a rage when someone challenges their views. It’s the snowflakes who can never admit they’re wrong or address deserved criticism or feedback.”

🎧 Listen – 479: Post-truth Expertise | CBC Spark Podcast

Next, a thought-provoking podcast episode from the CBC that tackles expertise in a seeming post-truth world. There is a lot of good information floating around in the ether, waiting for us to latch on to its wisdom. And yet, despite good information there for us to seize, we see many people in our peer groups turn away and distrust the experts. Shunning the norms of knowledge communities, they instead embrace their own norms of knowledge and assertion.

📣 Twitter – Carl T. Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom)

Speaking of experts, one of the voices I’ve turned to on Twitter to help me filter the signal from the noise is Mr. Bergstrom. He has provided both some levity :

As well as valuable information to help stop me from embracing each news article that flies out with clickbait titles:

I have a blog post percolating in my mind about curating news feeds, but I’ll leave that breadcrumb here for now.

🏳‍🌈🎧 Listen – I Don’t Want To Get Over You (Season 3 Mission 9) | Zombies, Run!🏳‍🌈

Finally, I want to give a huge shout-out to the writers and folks behind Zombies, Run! for this episode I listened to last week. The episode really stuck out for me. A large portion of the dialogue involves two lesbian characters discussing a mutual love interest (the love interest is the current partner of one of the characters, and a former lover of the other character in the conversation). The conversation between the characters touches on topics like “gold stars” and the fears that bisexual partners may have, even in committed relationships. I’ve heard my own queer friends discuss these topics, and while it felt noteworthy that the development team included “voices” from a wide range of folks, it was awesome to hear conversations that weren’t centered on the heterosexual experience that’s often given as the default in media. It gives the game a sense of realness and depth, despite it being about living in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. It’s also important, as we reflect on this Pride month, to think about the kinds of voices we engage with that represents life, and whether we are seeking out sources that look to bring more diversity to the table. I’m happy to be supporting the app and the team.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – June 5, 2020

My attention this week has largely focused on what’s happening in the United States with the protests and marches. As such, the vast majority of this week’s round-up are a collection of posts from social media that I want to help amplify.

Here is my round-up for the week ending on June 5th, 2020:

📖Article – James Mattis Denounces President Trump, Describes Him as a Threat to the Constitution | The Atlantic

I read Mattis’s memoir a few months back, and in it he specifically states that he does not intend to publically comment or speak out against a sitting President. He notes that it’s inappropriate as a former military member (he feels that there should be a separation between executive politics and the military) and as a former Cabinet member. The implication is that while he resigned his post in protest over the policy decisions being made by the White House, there will come a time when he feels it would be appropriate to finally criticize the President he served under. That is what made this post all the more surprising (thought not surprising when you read it) – things have gotten to the point that he feels his silence is counter-productive to upholding the American Constitution. Based on his memoir, I hold Mattis in high regard, both as a leader and as a thinker, so this is something I took note of.

💭 Reflection – What can I do as a white ally?

When this week started, I could find no words that would be appropriate. This is, of course, a huge privilege – that I can choose to remain silent while people are out fighting for their lives and a better world.

It would be inappropriate for me to wax on about my thoughts because that would mean centering my voice (even if this is my blog). My voice, my thoughts, and my opinions are not important in this social conversation. Instead, I want to share and amplify some of the great ideas that I bookmarked in my feed.

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Volume I of Creative Ecosystems and Funds that are doing the work to support Black people, especially Black queer, trans, and nonbinary folks, and Black women. ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣I’ll be making an updated version of this graphic every 2 weeks through July to show new adds.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ Donate directly to the funds! ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ What this moment cannot be is a momentary surge of white guilt translating to temporary care and funds to Black people. White people, how will you use your wealth and power to create strategic plans for societal reparations for Black folks? ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ How can you put pressure on your workplaces, governments, etc, to pay reparations to Black folks? How can you make this your own person practice? How will you support not only organizations, but also local Black folks?⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ Do reparations make you feel a type of way? Go to google. Do not ask a Black queer woman to explain a concept that has been well researched by Black people across time.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ SUPPORT AND FOLLOW THESE ORGS AND FUNDS. They have been doing the WORK long before I made this graphic. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ You can view the full list of ecosystems & funds by clicking my bio link.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ If you’d like to submit your Creative Ecosystem or Fund, please hit my bio link and fill out the form. This list in no way encompasses all creative ecosystems, it needs to grow & it needs your help to do that work.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ ⁣⁣Note 1. While I focused this post on reparations for Black folks, Indigenous folks also need to be included in conversations on land & monetary reparations. This is all a part of the larger convo on white people redistributing their power and wealth to the people they’ve stolen from. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Note 2. My repost guidelines are in my “repost” story highlight. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣ Note 3. I could only tag 20 max in this post, I’ve tagged all of orgs in my “blk ecosystems” highlight! ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Note 4. Every listed org/fund is not solely run by or only supports Black people. Some of these organizations support NonBlack people as well, but they (1.) Show dedicated support to Black people, and also (2.) Have Black leaders on their core teams/boards.

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Sending love and hugs to you all everyday. ❤️ Just wanted to take a moment to say and address this again in a post on my feed so this is embedded here. That I will continue to share important information in my stories always at the start of each day, along with swipe up links to things I’ve found helpful in educating myself. I also have a highlight on my page and link in my bio, along with important petitions, donation pages and any further information for books to read, movies to watch, podcasts to listen to that are all really helpful in educating and learning more. I’ll also be sharing any movements and protests we can take part in around the world. . And of course I will continue these conversations offline not just in this online space always. This isn’t a trend, I stand with each and every one of you. Today, tomorrow and always. Change needs to happen and this broken system needs to be fixed. I think, it’s so important we all make sure we really are taking a stand together and help create conversations within our day to day lives always. . I also want to say it’s important right now, we do what we feel works for us in terms of educating, learning and supporting in ways we can. Whether it’s finding and educating online or educating offline. TO make change, we need to continue to speak up, embed conversations in everyday life, help one another carry this throughout all our lives. I’ve attached @nataliesoutlet guide to how to use our voices for change and empowerment in this post as a carousel, which are ways offline we can also show our support and use our voice to fight for what is right. Let’s all continue to positively encourage each other to work together to fight for the change that is needed. If any of you also have anything you’d like me to share, please send them my way ❤️ I also have listed below some incredible, inspiring, amazing and wonderful WOC and MOC creators who I absolutely adore!!! ❤️❤️❤️ @stylebyaysh @laurennicolefk @nimiblackwell @sarahjoholder @basicstouch @styleidealist @iansangala @nicoleocran @_marisamartins_ @eniswardrobe @freshlengths @perpetualplaces @sulsworld @daisyboateng @brenna_anastasia @emmanuellek_

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ok it took forever (there are so many great books!!) but thanks to all your recommendations here’s a stack for kids, from babies up to about 12, I’d say (YA/teens set coming soon). it does include books about racism and how to be antiracist, but also about what it’s like to be made to feel different and other or to be welcomed and included with love, and about how to love everything about yourself ❤️. (also to be clear, it does include books about some experiences other than being Black and dealing with systemic racism in the US; I went a little more broad for this one!) 📚 let me just say up front that there are way more I could have added, but already it’s hard to read the tiny titles even zoomed in. so please comment below with everything I left out! also, I don’t have kids, so I could be a bit wrong about what age a book suits, please correct me on that below too. (for instance, I’ve learned the young readers’ adaptation of Born a Crime and Stamped might be better for older kids!) 📚 also, if you can, as always, please buy books from your local bookstore (and even better if it is Black- or minority- or woman-owned!) instead of from a giant online retailer ☺️. 📚 yes you can repost, just please don’t crop or alter the image, and tag @jane_mount and @idealbookshelf in the image and the caption, thank you! 📚 https://www.idealbookshelf.com/pages/ideal-bookshelf-1163-antiracist-kids-booklist

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THIS POST IS FOR WHITE ACTIVISTS! Please read all of the slides and the caption before commenting or sliding into my DMs on this one because I anticipate some push back. I will ask that you read this post more than once before you challenge me and I’ll be happy to engage. Over the past week I’ve watched as white activists call one another out, publicly shame one another, and cancel each other. It astounds me that folx cannot see how they’re using the very tools of white supremacy and the prison-industrial complex under the guise of social justice and activism. Shame is the tool of the oppressor. We must stop using it. We must stop weaponizing social justice. White folx are being told “you should have known better” (maybe they should have) and that their allyship is “performative” (and maybe it is). But there are just so many assumptions being made. It’s like we forget that everyone started somewhere when they began their activism work. As white folx, it is our job to call those white folx in, not shut them out. It is our job to call them in, so that they can learn and do better next time. What also blows my mind is the complete lack of engagement with disability justice within activism. I’m really just over white folx telling other white folx to “google it.” Do you not see the ableism and classism there? If you’re so much further ahead in your activism, why not share resources? Why not have a conversation? My social justice knowledge is a privilege that I gained through a critical education. Not everyone has that. So here are my thoughts on this particular form of white activism. I’m not here for it. I want y’all to know that wherever you are in your activism, I see you. I’m always here to answer any questions you have and will share resources or point you in the direction of the answer if I don’t. I will never shame you, belittle you, or call you out. I’m committed to meeting you where you’re at if you’re willing to do the work. Image IDs are in the comments! Apologies to folks that are having to dig for them. Full body pain flare + brain fog meant that I spaced out on adding them right away and so there are some other comments in the way!

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Friday Round-up – May 29, 2020

This was a pretty bad week for me consuming content. Between some big stuff happening at work, and a general feeling of blah-ness, I don’t have a lot to share this week.

Here is a round-up list for the week ending on May 29th:

📽 Video – Comedy News: Is It Deep or Dumb? | Wisecrack

I think this video does a good job to interrogate my love of certain kinds of comedic news. I was a late-convert to Jon Stewart, and felt crushed when he announced his (much deserved) retirement. While I’ll admit I haven’t given Trevor Noah a fair shake, I pretty much stopped watching the Daily Show after the change-over. Similarly, I’ve watched other shows that riff on the format, whether on cable (such as Samantha Bee), subscription services (like Hasan Minhaj), or online content (I get John Oliver through YouTube). It’s not lost on me that all of the names listed above are Daily Show alumni. My consumption also includes shows that are inspired by the presentation format, like Some More News on YouTube. Still, it’s rare that I consistently follow any one show because I tend to find the material or subjects to be somewhat hollow. The only exceptions to this, as noted by Wisecrack, are Oliver’s and Minhaj’s shows, which I feel to be both smart and wise in the material they present. Rather than trying to punch for the sake of cracking jokes, their shows punch at topics that are meant to help people that aren’t in on the joke. That is, their shows aren’t just speaking to the in-crowd as a private way of mocking the out-group. This was a great video essay that made me think.

📽 Video/Reading Group – Hannah Ardent Reading Group on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” | YouTube & Hannah Ardent Centre for Politics and Humanities at Bard College

I purchased Hannah Ardent’s The Origins of Totalitarianism as a birthday present for myself a few years ago (I know, I’m weird). I still haven’t cracked into it as of writing, but last week I received an email update from my alma mater, and in it they discussed how one of the faculty members had recently returned from time spent doing research at the Hannah Ardent Centre for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The email also described the regular reading group that occurs, and how it recently moved online to promote physical distancing. I checked out their YouTube page and found this series that I hope to carve out some time to follow along with. Origins is a pretty hefty book, and Ardent is a pretty powerful thinker, so I’m glad to have a resource to help me understand the nuances of her work better.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Leadership Lessons – Individual Rights vs Expediency

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 3 Episode 7 “The Enemy”

As with many other people right now, I have chosen to go back and re-watch favourite television shows. I decided that with Star Trek: Picard’s recent release, it would be a great time to go back to the beginning (of the modern era, anyway) and revisit Star Trek: The Next Generation. I had probably watched every episode in my teen years, but I had always watched it in syndication, so this is my first time going through the show in order.

Approaching the series in my 30’s has been a real treat. I have more life and cultural experience to draw upon as I watch these incredibly written episodes play out. I knew the show was amazing, but I never appreciated how well it engages with moral issues.

I want to highlight one excellent episode from the third season – episode 7, “The Enemy.” The characters provide us with a moral issue about autonomy, and a good lesson in leadership.

The story centres on the conflict that arises when the protagonists rescue an enemy officer from an out of bounds planet. The officer, from a race of people called Romulans, is gravely wounded and requires a blood transfusion. There is only one member of the crew whose blood could be usable, but that crew member, Worf, has a history with the enemy’s peoples – Worf’s parents had been killed during a Romulan attack when he was a child. Worf, still carrying his anger for their death all these years, refuses to give his blood.

Meanwhile, a Romulan ship is en route to recover the officer. There is a tenuous peace treaty that prevents an all out war, but the Romulans have a history of subterfuge and deceit. It is believed they will cross the border and assume an antagonistic stance to provoke a war. Worf’s Captain, Jean Luc Picard, is seeking any means that would avoid an armed encounter, and decides to plead with Worf to reconsider his decision.

In this moment, it would be expedient to Picard and his crew to order Worf to donate his blood. He is about to contend with an adversary whom has no issue with breaking a peace treaty by provoking an attack (whether or not his side is initially in the wrong). Picard is seeking to recover a still-stranded crew member on the planet below, keep his ship safe, maintain the territorial sovereignty of the Federation, and maintain tenuous diplomatic relations with a rival group. This is all threatened because the one solution to his problem, keeping the enemy officer alive, is being blocked by a crew member whose personal history and honour motivate him to not help the enemy.

There is a beautiful scene where Picard appeals to Worf for him to reconsider:

Picard: So, there is no question that the Romulan officer is more valuable to us alive than dead.
Worf: I understand.
Picard: Lieutenant, sometimes the moral obligations of command are less than clear. I have to weigh the good of the many against the needs of the individual and try to balance them as realistically as possible. God knows, I don’t always succeed.
Worf: I have not had cause to complain, Captain.
Picard: Oh, Lieutenant, you wouldn’t complain even if you had cause.
Worf: If you order me to agree to the transfusion, I will obey of course.
Picard: I don’t want to order you. But I ask you, I beg you, to volunteer.
Worf: I cannot.

In silence, Picard slowly walks back around his desk and sits in his chair.

Picard: Lieutenant.
Worf: Sir?
Picard: That will be all.

We then learn from the ship’s Chief Medical Officer that the Romulan has died. Picard has lost the only bargaining chip he had to keep things peaceful with the approaching enemy ship.

Picard could have chosen to order Worf to allow the blood transfusion. Instead, he chooses to respect his crew member’s personal wish, and as a leader deal with the hand he’s given. He also knows that making an order against the personal rights of a crew member under his command sets a dangerous precedence – that anyone is disposable if the captain judges it. Instead, he accepts that this closes off options. He knows that this places him not just on the back-foot, but also with his arms tied behind his back as he prepares for the possibility that his ship will be destroyed. However, the burden of command requires him to take these realities as they come and make the best decisions that he can. Events are being shaped around him that are beyond his control, but he strives to make the best decision that he can. He’s not perfect, but he becomes a role model in striving to do the right thing.

Even if the right thing might mean the death of he and his crew.

It’s a wonder piece of science fiction that I’m glad to be discovering anew.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – May 1, 2020

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.

Have you ever noticed the tendency that when you’re thinking about a topic, you seem to notice it everywhere? I first became aware of its phenomenology back in my university days, where stuff that I was learning in my lectures seemingly popped up randomly in my non-class time. Turns out, there is a word for that feeling – the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the frequency bias. It’s why you start to see your car’s model everywhere after buying one. I bring this up because today’s articles are all loosely connected with scientific literacy in the digital age (especially as it relates to COVID). The more I read about thoughts concerning how to understand research about the pandemic, the more content I noticed about the topic of scientific literacy in general. This might be the phenomenon/my bias at play, or maybe the algorithms that govern my feeds are really in tune with my concerns.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on May 1st:

📖Article – What You Need to Know about Interpreting COVID-19 Research | The Toronto Star

My round-up for the week started with this short article that was open in one of my browser tabs since last week. There is a lot of information floating around in our respective feeds, and most of it can charitably be called inconclusive (and some of it is just bad or false). We’ve suddenly all become “experts” in epidemiology over the last month, and I want to remind myself that just because I think I’m smart, doesn’t mean I have the context or experience to understand what I’m reading. So, this article kicked off some light reflection on scientific and data literacy in our media landscape.

📖Article – Experts Demolish Studies Suggesting COVID-19 is No Worse Than Flu | Ars Technica

This next piece pairs nicely with our first link, and includes reporting and discussion of recent flair ups on Twitter criticizing recent studies. Absent of the pressure being applied by the pandemic, what this article describes is something that normally takes place within academic circles – experts putting out positions that are critiqued by their peers (sometimes respectfully, sometimes rudely). Because of the toll the pandemic is exacting on us, these disagreements are likely more heated as a result, which are taken to be more personally driven. I link this article not to cast doubt over the validity of the scientific and medical communities. Rather, I am linking to this article to highlight that our experts are having difficulty grappling with this issues, so it’s foolish to think us lay-people will fare any better in understanding the situation. Therefore, it’s incumbent on journalists to be extra-vigilant in how they report data, and to question the data they encounter.

📽Video – Claire Wardle: Why Do We Fall for Misinformation | NPR/TED

The Ars Technica piece raises a lot of complex things that we should be mindful of. There are questions such as:

  • Who should we count as authoritative sources of information?
  • How do we determine what an authoritative source of information should be?
  • What role does a platform like Twitter play in disseminating research beyond the scientific community?
  • How much legitimacy should we place on Twitter conversations vs. gated communities and publication arbiters?
  • How do we detangle policy decisions, economics, political motives, and egos?
  • How much editorial enforcement should we expect or demand from our news sources?

There are lots of really smart people who think about these things, and I’m lucky to study at their feet via social media and the internet. But even if we settle on answers to some of the above questions, we also have to engage with a fundamental truth about our human condition – we are really bad at sorting good information from bad when dealing at scale. Thankfully, there are people like Claire Wardle, and her organization FirstDraft that are working on this problem, because if we can’t fix the signal to noise ratio, having smart people fixing important problem won’t amount to much if we either don’t know about it, or can’t action on their findings. I was put onto Claire Wardle’s work through an email newsletter from the Centre for Humane Technology this week, where they highlighted a recent podcast episode with her (I haven’t had time to listen to it as of writing, but I have it queued up: Episode 14: Stranger Than Fiction).

📖 Essay – On Bullshit | Harry Frankfurt

All of this discussion about knowledge and our sources of it brought me back to grad school and a course I took on the philosophy of Harry Frankfurt, specifically his 1986 essay On Bullshit. Frankfurt, seemingly prescient of our times, distinguishes between liars and bullshitters. A liar knows a truth and seeks to hide the truth from the person they are trying to persuade. Bullshit as a speech act, on the other hand, only seeks to persuade, irrespective of truth. If you don’t want to read the essay linked above, here is the Wikipedia page.

I hope you find something of value in this week’s round-up and that you are keeping safe.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Second Order Brother’s Keeper

person behind mesh fence
Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

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 heartened by some of the genuinely positive messages being shared around, from people finding clever ways to spend time with loved ones in lockdown, to our Canadian Prime Minister ending his recent public address with a message of watching out for each other, to care for each other, and reinforce this as a Canadian value.

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.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Appealing to my Smarmy Brain

selective focus photography of spiderweb
Photo by Nicolas Picard on Unsplash

From time to time, I catch myself thinking some pretty stupid stuff for entirely dumb reasons. A piece of information finds a way to bypass any critical thinking faculties I proudly think I possess and worms its way into my belief web. Almost like a virus, which is a great segue.

A perfect example of this happened last week in relation to the COVID-19 news, and I thought it important to share here, both as an exercise in humility to remind myself that I should not think myself above falling for false information, and as my contribution to correcting misinformation floating around the web.

Through a friend’s Stories on Instagram, I saw the following screencap from Twitter:

My immediate thought was to nod my head in approval and take some smug satisfaction that of course I’m smart enough to already know this is true.

Thankfully, some small part at the back of my brain immediately raised a red flag and called for a timeout to review the facts. I’m so glad that unconscious part was there.

It said to me “Hang on… is hand-sanitizer ‘anti-bacterial’?

I mean, yes, technically it is. But is it “anti-bacterial” in the same way that it is getting implied in this tweet? The way the information is framed, it treats the hand-sanitizer’s anti-bacterial properties as being exclusively what it was designed for, like antibiotics. For example, you can’t take antibiotics for the cold or flu, because those are not bacterial infections but viral infections.

Rather than leaving this belief untested, I jumped on ye ol’ Googles to find out more. I found a write-up in the National Center for Biotechnology Information discussing alcohol sanitizers.

According to the author on the topic of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS),

A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Infectious Diseases evaluated the virucidal activity of ABHS against re-emerging viral pathogens, such as Ebola virus, Zika virus (ZIKV), severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and determined that they and other enveloped viruses could be efficiently inactivated by both WHO formulations I and II (ethanol-based and isopropanol-based respectively). This further supports the use of ABHS in healthcare systems and viral outbreak situations.

There are some special cases where ABHS are not effective against some kinds of non-enveloped viruses (e.g. norovirus), but for the purposes of what is happening around the world, ABHS are effective. It is also the case that the main precaution to protect yourself is to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, and follow other safety precautions as prescribed.

The tweet, while right about the need for us to wash our hands and not overly rely on hand-sanitizers, is factually wrong generally. Thanks to a mix of accurate information (bacteria =/= virus) and inaccurate information(“hand sanitizer is not anti-bacterial”), and a packaging that appeals to my “I’m smarter than you” personality, I nearly fell for its memetic misinformation.

There are a number of lessons I’ve taken from this experience:

  1. My network is not immune to false beliefs, so I must still guard against accepting information based on in-group status.
  2. Misinformation that closely resembles true facts will tap into my confirmation bias.
  3. I’m more likely to agree with statements that are coded with smarmy or condescending tonality because it carries greater transmission weight in online discourse.
  4. Appeals to authority (science) resonate with me – because this was coming from a scientist who is tired of misinformation (I, too, am tired of misinformation), I’m more likely to agree with something that sounds like something I believe.
  5. Just because someone says they are a scientist, doesn’t make the status true, nor does it mean what they are saying is automatically right.
  6. Even if the person is factually a scientist, if they are speaking outside of their primary domain, being a scientist does not confer special epistemological status.
  7. In the aftermath, the tweet was pulled and the person tried to correct the misinformation, but the incident highlights that the norms of Twitter (and social media more broadly) are entirely antithetical to nuance and contextual understanding.

It’s interesting how much information spread (memetics) resembles pathogen spreading. If the harmful thing attacking us is sufficiently designed to sidestep our defenses, whether that’s our body’s immune system or our critical thinking faculties, the invading thing can easily integrate within, establish itself within our web, and prepare to spread.

The one thing that really bums me out about this event is the inadvertent harm that comes to scientific authority. We as a society are caught in a period of intense distrust of the establishment that is coinciding with the largest explosion of information our species has ever seen. The result of this is not that good information is scarce, but rather the signal-to-noise ratio is so imbalanced that good information is getting swept away in the tide. If people grow distrustful of the sources of information that will help protect us, then forget worrying about gatekeepers that keep knowledge hidden; there will be no one left to listen.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan