I was reflecting on Seth Godin’s musings about the number of moons in our solar system. The initial assumptions we use to make predictions about our world can sometimes be orders of magnitude off from truth.
We as humans don’t like to be wrong, but we shouldn’t be overly concerned with our initial assumptions being off the mark. After all, if we knew the truth (whatever “truth” happens to be in this case), there would be no need to start from initial assumptions. It is because we are starting from a place of ignorance that we have to start from an assumption (or hypothesis) in order to move forward.
The problem lies with whether we realize we are making assumptions, and how committed we are to holding on to them. Assumptions made about the physical world can often be value-neutral, but assumptions that intersect with the lived experiences of people always come pre-packaged with history that’s value-loaded. It’s fine to make an assumption that your experiences are shared with others, but that assumption can only be carried so far. At some point, you have to acknowledge that there will be a lot missing in your initial assumptions that need to be accounted for.
The lesson then is this: when working from an estimation or prediction, be careful with your initial assumptions. It’s fine to begin with your own experiences, but always put an asterisks beside it because your experience is likely not universal. We must guess, then check. Test, verify, then revise.
Aiming at truth is a noble goal, but we should settle for asymptotically moving closer towards it as it more likely reflects reality.
Over the weekend, I attended a virtual board meeting for engineering education. One of the reports pertained to a working-group’s findings and recommended actions to support the aims the 30 by 30 Campaign to address low representation of women in the engineering profession. This is a great initiative and I’m looking at ways we can improve our own processes to support women in STEM in our programs at the college. There was a comment that made me think, and it’s worth considering.
One of the board members expressed support for the report, but also commented that she had provided input as early as the 1990’s on this very initiative. Her comment was not meant to cast doubt over the process, but instead highlighted two important things – that this is not a new issue, and that many people have tried to make sweeping changes for the profession, which clearly hasn’t been entirely successful. Her advice was to be cautious about taking on too much scope with the recommendations, and instead to support a “divide and conquer” strategy for making targeted, meaningful actions to promote change.
I don’t hold any illusions that we will solve systemic issues overnight. If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that my hopes for reform are likely to fail and that instead of refinement, we should be aiming at transformative changes.
There is also another tension – on some level, this line of thinking suggests a teleological progression of progress for society and culture. I want to think that our culture is aiming at progress (“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a powerful vision to work towards), but a skeptical voice reminds me that, like our misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, there is nothing inherent in the progress of change that aims towards a higher, final form. A kind of defeatism can creep in when one thinks that meaningful actions do not contribute towards progress, but instead are just the spinning of our collective wheels.
I reject this defeatist view and want to aim towards a higher vision. I grant that the universe is largely amoral and unconcerned with our progress. So, instead, we must clearly define our values and principles, and take actions towards achieving these ends. The actions are neither good nor bad in an absolute sense. Rather, we mark progress with how close we come to realizing the values we want to see manifested in our lives. Meaningful actions are measured not against morality, but instead on efficacy for the outcomes. There are trade-offs and consequences along the way, and so we must be prudent. Both history and mythology have given us plenty of examples of why hubris should be avoided.
I don’t have a good answer on what meaningful actions we ought to settle on as part of our agenda. As noted, this issue has been discussed far longer than my tenure in the employment game. I’ll defer to folks much smarter than I, and try to learn from their efforts to do my part.
This week’s post is late. The proximal cause is that because of the Tech Shabbat experiment, I was shutting my computer down for the weekend. Weekends are the most common time I write and prepare to publish my posts. Therefore, an unintended consequence of the Tech Shabbat is that I didn’t have a post ready for Monday.
However, that is a poor excuse when we consider the distal causes of why the post is late, because the Tech Shabbat was a known event in my calendar. It wasn’t something that was unanticipated, and I knew roughly what participating in the Tech Shabbat would entail. I knew, for example, that I had to get my course marking done before the Shabbat if I wanted to give my students their feedback with sufficient time for them to use my feedback in their next assignment. I was able to always get my grading done before the Tech Shabbat began each week of the experiment, so why did I not do the same for the weekly blog posts?
The Tech Shabbat became a convenient excuse to blame, when really the blame lies with a poor writing habit. Maybe I would have finished the posts had I not participated in the Tech Shabbat, but instead of dwelling in a possible else-world, I should focus on fixing the things I have control over, such as my schedule and how I set my priorities.
Proximal causes are easy to fixate on, and are often more expensive to address (it’s why we spend lots of money on shiny new toys that promise to fix our problems). Distal causes can be harder to spot and require longer, steady investment to overcome.
The Varol piece was new, and as I read it, it reminded me of the Sivers piece, so I’m pairing them together. I’m a little conflicted with the message. On the one hand, I agree with both writers about the sentiments they are expressing. In Varol’s case, often citation becomes a short-hand for original thinking. Rather than expression your own unique ideas, you regurgitate what you’ve consumed from others (whether you are citing it or not, as is on display in the Good Will Hunting example). Likewise, Sivers is on to something when he suggests that integrating facts into our mental apparatus should not require us to cite our sources when it’s no longer the appropriate context. It makes sense to cite sources when writing something that will be graded in school, but it is stilted while in informal settings.
Where I feel conflicted is when there is a need to trace ideas back to verify the content. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, but it has certainly accelerated in recent years that misinformation is being thrown out into the void at a rapid pace. The internet has optimized itself on three facts of human nature – we like sensation, we like things that are familiar (that accords with what we already believe), and we are less critical of our in-group. Therefore, information bubbles get set up online, which creates a digital environment that’s conducive to rapid spreading of memetic viruses. When you think about it, it’s a marvelous analogy: the online information bubble is a closed environment where people are like-minded, which amounts to a roughly analogical immune system. A memetic virus then latches hold on one person, who spreads it to people in their network. Since the folks in the network share similar belief structures, the homogeneous group quickly spreads the meme throughout the information bubble. The meme is then incorporated into the belief network of the individuals through repetition and confirmation bias exposure. It writes itself into the belief web, in the same way viruses incorporate themselves into DNA.
I’m using the example of a memetic virus, but I think this framework is equally applied to more benign examples. Scientists release findings in the form of pre-peer reviewed news releases, which gets amplified and distorted through the media, which is then amplified and distorted through information bubbles. See here for an example:
At each phase, part of the signal is lost or transformed, like a social media game of telephone. When one person in the chain misunderstands the data, that impacts how the idea gets replicated. Over time, it becomes the digital version of a cancerous mutation of the base information.
This is why it’s important that we take care of how information is communicated, because as soon as you print something like “the majority of people believe x,” or “studies showed a y% decrease in the effect,” without a proper context of what the data is saying (or its limitations), that gets incorporated into people’s webs of belief. If you are a part of the population that believes something and you read that information, it reinforces your prior beliefs and you continue on in replicating the idea.
And so I’m torn. On the one hand, I shouldn’t need to cite my sources when having a casual conversation (a la Sivers), and I shouldn’t be substituting original thoughts with the ideas of others (a la Varol), but at the same time, I want it to be the case that when I encounter something that it should be verifiable and scruitable. I don’t know what the solution to this is, other than to flag it and remind myself to be wary of absolutist language.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
My wife and I are fortunate to be able to work from home. I started working from home Wednesday of last week, and initially found the transition to be manageable. Thanks to my wife’s discipline, we were keeping our normal sleep schedules, and we are able to maintain our normal working routine from the safety of home.
One thing that really threw me this weekend was when I allowed myself the permission to completely relax my schedule. Because of the pandemic, a lot of my pressing obligations and scheduled social time have been put on hold, meaning I have more free time than is typical. During the work week last week, I kept up with work and tending to things around the house, but by the weekend I decided to jump into playing video games, reading, and podcast listening. I also enjoyed a few beers Friday and Saturday nights while exploring the Borderlands, so going to bed before midnight was quickly forgotten.
This had two interesting consequences. First, by Sunday I physically felt bad. Not sick, but my body felt sluggish, I was tired, I had a headache, and my motivation was sapped. While I didn’t drink to excess, I did wonder aloud to my wife if what I was feeling was a low-grade hangover from my general poor choices over the weekend.
The (amusing) second consequence was that my wife remarked that she now sees why I impose schedules and routines on my daily life. She normally encourages me to relax and play games, but this is the first time in a long time that she has seen me proactively partake in games. It was a little like a crash-and-burn by Sunday night – I don’t do moderation very well and her mock-horror was a good reminder of that.
In reflecting on the last few days of the self-isolation, I have learned that it’s important for me to keep regular routines and impose discipline on my otherwise chaotic whims. I’ve known this about myself for some time, but this weekend helped to reinforce why I prefer keeping routines and habits active. Like a child, I crave structure.
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.