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 24, 2020

Let’s keep the momentum going from last week!

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on July 24th:

💭Reflection – Books as Monuments – Ryan Holiday (Instagram)

Last week Ryan shared the following post:

I have a vague recollection of when Madison Holleran died by suicide in 2014, though less about her as a person and more because of the conversation it sparked around mental health and how social media can portray a perfect life despite the hidden struggles of the person. I’ve yet to read this book, however as I was reflecting on this post I realized that this isn’t a book about a famous person, but it still stands as a monument to a life. That felt like a weird mental juxtaposition against the conversation going on about monuments in general and what we choose to remember. During a recent conversation with my grandmother, she was showing me photos of friends from her past that have since passed away. For nearly every person on the planet, your legacy extends only as far as your genes and the living memories of those who knew you. And yet, sometimes we pulp trees into paper and create a monument that will be read in the future. Monuments are not accidental – it’s a reflection of what we choose to remember. Madison’s life was tragically cut short, but at least she remains more than a fragile memory.

🎧Listen – What You Need To Know About Protective Face Masks – NPR Life Kit

There is a lot of misinformation around the effects of wearing a mask. Here is a good quick summary. tldr: it prevents the wearer from spreading germs and it does not prevent one from breathing adequately. I’ve demonstrated this for myself by donning a non-surgical mask for the last two weeks of running on the elliptical. To date, in the 30 masked-miles I’ve run (roughly 3.5-hours of exertion), I have yet to have any symptoms related to hypoxia.

📖Read – Graduating during a downturn | A Learning a Day blog

Two paragraphs stood out in this post that resonated with me:

By all accounts, COVID-19 is a ridiculously bad time to graduate. It isn’t just a bizarre year from the perspective of the job market. Graduates who have a job will face an unusual first year as part of the workforce. With organizations and the people generally unprepared and dealing with multiple stressors, they’re unlikely to get the training that they need on the job.

These are moments when you realize how big a role dumb luck plays in any professional success we enjoy. It is so easy to attribute things that are going well to our smarts and hard work. But, there’s so much more to any success than that.

Reading this made me reflect on my own career to this point. I finished my undergrad in 2009, the year after the 2008 economic downturn. I was fortunate to be accepted into grad school, where I stretched a 1-year program into a 3-year experience by the time I finished writing my thesis. That put me into the formal job market at the tail end of 2012, four full years after the markets took a dive. I was lucky to enter the working world while the economy was rebounding, and I didn’t have to face the same setbacks and struggles that many of my cohort felt (that is, had I not did my 5th year “victory lap” in high school, I would have finished undergrad a year earlier with my secondary school classmates). In this, I was very fortunate that my choices became opportunities of timing, and something worth keeping in mind as context.

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

Aristotle and Moral Education in Art

silhouette of three performers on stage
Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.

While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.

On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.

But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.

Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.

Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.

Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.

Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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

Friday Round-Up – May 8, 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, 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:

📖Article – Breaking deaf stereotypes and normalizing sign language through gaming – Anthony McGlynn | Ars Technica

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 Whisper from 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.

📽 Video – YOU’RE AN ALL STAR! – vlogbrothers

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.

📽 Video – Weird, or Just Different – Derek Sivers | TED

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.

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

A Modern Cartesian Demon

grey and brown concrete building close-up photography
Photo by Marius on Unsplash

During a throwaway thought experiment in his 1641 treatise, Meditations on First Philosophy in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated, René Descartes posited the idea of an evil genius or demon that systematically deceives us to distort our understanding of the world. Contrary to first year philosophy students everywhere (a younger version of myself included), Descartes did not actually believe in the existence of an evil manipulator that was holding us back from understanding the nature of the real world. Instead, he was using it as part of a larger project to radically re-conceive epistemology in an era of rapid advancements in science that was threatening to overturn centuries of our understanding of the world. He felt that knowledge was built upon shaky ground thanks to an over-adherence on the received authorities from Greek antiquity and the Church’s use of Aristotelian scholasticism. Similar to Francis Bacon twenty years earlier, Descartes set out to focus on knowledge that stood independent of received authority.

Through Meditations one and two of his book, Descartes considers the sources of our beliefs and considers how we come to know what we think we know. He wants to find an unshakable truth to build all knowledge from, and through an exercise of radical doubt he calls into question many of the core facts we hold – first that knowledge gained from the senses are often in error, that we often can’t distinguish the real from fantasy, and through the use of the evil genius, that perhaps even our abstract knowledge like mathematics could be an illusion.

André Hatala [e.a.] (1997) De eeuw van Rembrandt, Bruxelles: Crédit communal de Belgique, ISBN 2-908388-32-4.

When I teach this to first year students, they either don’t take his concerns seriously because of the force of the impressions the real world gives us in providing sense data for knowledge (a stubbed toe in the dark seems to forcefully prove to us that the external world to our senses is very real), or they take Descartes too seriously and think Descartes really thought that a demon was actively deceiving him. Regardless of which side the student falls on, they will then conclude that Descartes’ concerns are not worth worrying about; that this mode of thinking is the product of an earlier, less sophisticated age.

Unless you are a scholar delving into Descartes’ work, the real purpose of teaching the Meditations is to provide students with a framework to understand how one can go about thinking through complex philosophical problems. Descartes starts from a position of epistemic doubt, and decided to run with it in a thought experiment to see where it took him. The thought experiment is a useful exercise to run your students through to get them to think through their received opinions and held-dogmas.

However, in light of my rant a few weeks back about informed consent and vaccines, I’ve discovered a new contemporary use for thinking about Descartes’ evil genius. In some sense, the evil genius is *real* and takes the form of fear that shortcuts our abilities to learn about the world and revise our held beliefs. Descartes posited that the evil demon was able to put ideas into our heads that made us believe things that were completely against logic. The demon was able to strip away the world beyond the senses and even cast doubt on abstract concepts like mathematics.

Much in the same way Descartes’ demon was able to “deceive” him into believing things that were contrary to the nature of reality, our fear of the unknown and of future harm can cause us to hold beliefs that do not map onto facts about the world. Worse yet, the story we tell about those facts can get warped, and new explanations can be given to account for what we are seeing. This becomes the breeding ground for conspiracy thinking, the backfire effect, and entrenched adherence to one’s beliefs. We hate to be wrong, and so we bend over backwards to contort our understanding of the facts to hold-fast to our worldview.

In truth, we are all susceptible to Descartes’ demon, especially those whom believe themselves to be above these kinds of faults of logic. In psychology, it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, of which there are all sorts of reasons given why people overestimate their competence. But in the context of an entrenched worldview that is susceptible to fear of the unknown lurks Descartes’ Demon, ready to pounce upon us with false beliefs about the world. Its call is strong, its grip is tight, and the demon is there to lull us into tribalism. We fight against those we see as merchants of un-truth and in a twisted sense of irony, the weapons of truth we yield only affect those already on our side, while those we seek to attack are left unaffected. It becomes a dog-whistle that calls on those who already think and believe as we do.

If we hope to combat this modern Cartesian demon, we’ll need to find a new way of reaching those we see on the other side.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan