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.
According to the author on the topic of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS),
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:
My network is not immune to false beliefs, so I must still guard against accepting information based on in-group status.
Misinformation that closely resembles true facts will tap into my confirmation bias.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the ethics of conducting research with human participants, there is the concept of “informed consent.” At its foundation, informed consent is the process of communicating a sufficient amount of information about a research project to a prospective participant so that the prospect is able to decide whether they want to consent to being a participant in a study. There is a lot of nuance that can go into selecting what gets communicated because you have a lot of necessary information that needs be shared but you don’t want to share so much information that the participant is overwhelmed by the volume of information.
When I review research ethics applications, I am privy to a lot of information about the project. In the course of reviewing the project, I have to make judgement calls about what should be included in the informed consent letters that participants read. It would be counter-productive if the participant had to read all the documentation I am required to read when reviewing an application, so we use certain best practices and principles to decide what information gets communicated as a standard, and what is left in the application.
There is, of course, some challenges that we must confront in this process. As I said, when reviewing a research project, you have to balance the needs of the project with the needs of a participant. All research, by virtue of exploring the unknown, carries with it an element of risk. When you involve humans in a research project, you are asking them to shoulder some of the risk in the name of progress. Our job as researchers and reviewers is to anticpate risk and mitigate it where possible. We are stewards of the well-being of the participants, and we use our experience and expertise to protect the particpants.
This means that one challenge is communicating risk to participants and helping them understand the implications of the risks of the research. In many instances, the participants are well aware of risks posed to their normal, every-day lived experiences and how the research intersects with it. The patient living with a medical condition is aware of their pain or suffering, and can appreciate risks associated with medical interventions. A person living in poverty is acutely aware of what it means to live in poverty, and understands that discussing their experiences can be psychologically and emotionally difficult. Our jobs (as reviewers and researchers) is to ensure that the participant is made aware of the risk, mitigate it as much as we can without compromising the integrity of the research program, and to contextualize the risk so that the participant can make choices for themselves without coercion.
The concept of informed consent is hugely important, arguably the most important component of research projects involving humans as participants. It is an acknowledgement that people are ends in themselves, not a means to furthering knowledge or the researcher’s private or professional goals. Indeed, without a respect for the autonomy of the participant, research projects are likely to not be moved into action even when research funds are available.
All of this is a preamble to discuss the anger I felt when I read a recent CBC report on how anti-vaxxer advocates are using the concept of informed consent as a dog-whistle to their adherents, and are using informed consent as a way of both furthering their awareness and raising money with well-meaning politicians and the public.
In fairness, I can see the chain of reasoning at play that tries to connect informed consent with concerns about vaccines. For instance, in the article there is a photo of supporters of a vaccine choice group with a banner that reads “If there is a risk there must be a choice.” This sentiment is entirely consistent with the principles of informed consent. The problem with this application is that the risk is not being communicated and understood properly within context, and instead fear, misinformation, and conspiracies that lead to paternalistic paranoia are short-cutting the conversation. Further, the incentive structures that are borne out of the economics of our medical system are doing little to address these fears. Because so little money is flowing from the government to the medical system, doctors are forced to maximize the number of patients they see in a day just to ensure enough money is coming into the practice to pay for space, equipment, staff, insurance, and supplies. Rather than seeking quality face-to-face time with a patient, doctors have to make a choice to limit patient time to just focus on a chief complaint and address questions as efficiently as they can.
I don’t think it’s all the doctor’s fault either. I think we as patients, or more specifically we as a society, have a terrible grasp of medical and scientific literacy. I don’t have a strong opinion about what the root cause of this is, but some combination of underfunded schooling, rapid technological innovation, growing income disparities, entertainment pacification, a lack of mental health support, increasingly complex life systems, and precarious economic living in the average household are all influencing the poor grasp people have about what makes the world around us work. Rather than being the case that we are hyper-specialized in our worldviews, I think it’s the case that “life” is too complex for the average person to invest time into understanding. Let’s be clear, it is not the case that the average person isn’t smart enough to grasp it (even if sometimes my frustration with people leads me to this conclusion). Instead, I think that people are pulled in so many directions that they don’t have the time or economic freedom to deal with things that don’t immediately pay off for them. People are so fixated on just making it day-to-day and trying not to fall behind that it becomes a luxury to have the leisure time to devote to these kinds of activities.
What this results in, then, is the perfect storm of ignorance and fear that congeals into a tribal call to rebel against the paternalism of a system that is ironically also too cash-strapped to allow the flexibility to educate people on the nature of risk. People don’t have the time and ability to educate themselves, and doctors don’t have the time to share their experiences and knowledge with their patients.
Within this gap, opportunistic charlatans and sophists thrive to capitalize on people’s fears to push their own agendas. This is why bad actors like the disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield and movement leader Del Bigtree are able to charge fees to profit from speaking at anti-vaccination events. I’m not saying a person who spreads a message should do it for free. What I am saying is that they are able to turn a personal profit by preying on people’s fears while doing little to investigate the thing they claim to worry about.
We must find a way to communicate two simultaneous truths:
There is an inherent risk in everything; bad stuff happens to good people, and you can do everything right and still lose. Nevertheless, the risks involved when it comes to vaccines are worth shouldering because of the net good that comes from it and the risks themselves are vanishingly small.
In the 22 years since Wakefield published his study and the 16 years since its retraction, there has not been any peer-reviewed credible evidence that supports many of the claims given by the anti-vaxx movement. The movement is predicated on fears people have of the probability of something bad happening to them or their loved ones. The motivation behind the fear is legitimate, but the object of the fear is a bogeyman that hides behind whatever shadows it can find as more and more light is cast on this area.
The anti-vaxx ideology knows it cannot address head-on the mounting scientific evidence that discredits its premise, and so it instead focuses on a different avenue of attack.
This bears repeating: the anti-vaxx ideology cannot debate or refute the scientific evidence about vaccination. We know vaccines work. We know how they work; we know why they work. We understand the probabilities of the risk; we know the type and magnitudes of the risks. These things are known to us. Anti-vaxx belief is a deliberate falsehood when it denies any of what we know.
Because of this, the anti-vaxx ideology is shifting to speak to those deep fears we have of the unknown, and instead of dealing with the facts of medicine, it is sinking its claws into the deep desire we have for freedom and autonomy. It shortcuts our rational experience and appeals to the fears evolution has given us to grapples with the unknown – the knee-jerk rejection of things we don’t understand.
Informed consent as a concept is the latest victim of anti-vaxx’s contagion. It’s seeping in and corrupting it from the inside, turning the very principle of self-directed autonomy against a person’s self-interest. It doesn’t cast doubt by calling the science into question. Instead, it casts doubt precisely because the average person doesn’t understand the science, and so that unknown becomes scary to us and we reject or avoid what brings us fear.
Anti-vaxx ideology is a memetic virus. In our society’s wealth, luxury, and tech-enabled friction-free lives, we have allowed this dangerous idea to gain strength. By ignoring it and ridiculing it until now, we have come to a point where it threatens to disrupt social homeostasis. Unless we do something to change the conditions we find ourselves in – unless we are willing to do the hard work – I fear that this ideology is going to replicate at a rate that we can’t stop. It will reach a critical mass, infect enough people, and threaten to undo all the hard work achieved in the past. We have already seen the evidence of this as once-eradicated diseases are popping up in our communities. The immunity and innoculations have weakened. Let’s hope those walls don’t break.
A few months back, I published a post about one of my favourite visual metaphors captured from Killswitch Engage’s video for “In Due Time.” While my impressions from that post stand, I like to add the image above to moments that make me happy.
The image was taken from KSE’s latest music video “The Signal Fire” from their track released this month, “Atonement.”
The track features guest vocals from former KSE frontman Howard Jones, who replaced the original and current frontman Jesse Leach (confusing, I know) when Jesse stepped away from the mic for personal reasons prior to the band soaring to popularity in the mid-2000’s metalcore scene.
Howard fronted the band for nine years through it’s early commercial success before departing the band in January 2012, and Jesse returned later that year. While all parties involved remained friendly and supportive of each other’s projects since, this collaboration was a welcomed surprise and I thoroughly appreciate that this is a thing that exists.
I liked this image for two reasons. First, I love that despite the personal reasons for people to decide to end things (see last week), it doesn’t mean there needs to be hard feelings for it. In every interview on the topic, the remaining band members acknowledge that it sucks their friend had to leave, but that they understand and respect the decision, and they are supportive that the departing person leaves because it’s for their own wellbeing to walk away. It’s a very mature reaction to what is likely a very difficult decision.
Second, the fanboy in me loves that despite the changes, it’s a nod to my nostalgic recent-past. I stumbled across the band during the Howard years while I was in undergrad. I once had an opportunity to see the band play in town, but couldn’t justify paying for the ticket, so I didn’t see them. A few years later, Howard departed the band, and I felt that I had missed out on seeing something awesome. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jesse and have enjoyed the subsequent albums the band has released since his return. I have seen the band 7 or 8 times, at one point not missing their tours through Ontario over a 4 year period. Yet, this moment harkens back to many happy memories I had while a student, and seeing them fistbump on camera is a little nod to that idyllic time of my not-so-youthful youth.
While I didn’t dive too deeply into political philosophy while in school, I do muse on it from time to time. I grant that my knowledge about political philosophy can be charitably labelled as “naive,” so please forgive some of the silliness I’m about to wade around in.
On the whole, I tend towards the idea that the protection of liberty is good, even at the cost of bad actors. I think the State should limit as few liberties as they can to ensure social cohesion and social protection. This will come with a few hard to manage examples where people’s liberties can come into conflict (e.g. the right to free speech and the right for people to not give platforms to people they disagree with).
I won’t attempt to give a comprehensive exploration here. I just want to comment on why good media is important for moral education.
Last week, I was rolling around with an idea I was tentatively calling “dynamic homeostatic liberty.” I don’t know if this concept has been expressed by anyone else, but the term refers to the idea that the rights respected by the State are dynamically recognized and abide by the principle of homeostasis according to the social and economic conditions at play at any given time. During times of war or disaster, rights are constricted to maximize good while also achieving some sort of political aim (think curfews and forced redistribution of material goods, for example). There would have to be some mechanism that says the State owes more responsibility of care to the people in proportion to the amount the State restricts the freedoms of its people. And this would also recognize that when the strife is over, liberties are relaxed and the State removes itself from meddling in people’s lives.
This is a fantasy, of course, because it assumes the government would always keep the best interests of the people in mind and not lead to tyranny. It also assumes people would freely give up their rights for better protection and better outcomes.
I was wondering how well a system like this would work, then I watched the season 4 episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Drumhead.” The episode covers a situation aboard the Enterprise which leads to a series of conspiratorial speculations about members of the crew. A set of minor accusations ends up leading to wild allegations and a full-blown future version of a witch hunt.
The voice of reason on the ship is Captain Picard, who pauses throughout the ordeal to question whether things are spinning out of control, and people are letting their passions and righteousness get the best of them.
Watching the two speeches above made me realize how silly my idea of “dynamic homeostatic liberty” is. The truth is, there is no way to ensure that the restriction of liberties would be in the best interests of the people who need their liberties protected the most. The powerful have a tendency to allow themselves to be corrupted by their righteous fury and perceived moral authority. It was a fantastic example of why we need good media that makes us think and reflect.
Good media helps to elevate us and educate us morally. It helps us to empathize, and see ourselves from outside our perspectives and lived experiences.
I often think about what kind of media I will want to promote to my children. I think about what stories I want to tell them to give them a good, moral education. I think Star Trek will definitely be on that list.
*Update: I’ve added bullet points to the bottom since the time of original publication. New points are identified as “New.”
I’ve made references to the concept of the “animated bibliography” in a few recent instagram posts. I first started conceiving of the idea when I wrote a short self-reflective critique of my habit of reading self-help books.
I doubt I’m the first person to notice this trend in publishing, and I’m not entirely confident that this is a new trend at all. The more likely explanation is that this is something that has gone on for a while and I’m just too stuck in reading the same books listed on every “must read” list to see the broader context. Were I to read books that were published earlier than the last decade, perhaps I would see that book have always used this strategy to convey information.
Nevertheless, it would be fun to take on a bit of a research project to see whether this trend has proliferated from a certain point in time, who the early adopters were, and how quickly it’s accelerating.
For the moment, here are my early observations:
The animated bibliography is a style of nonfiction where the author uses a micro expression of some authority to explain or contextualize some broader universal “truth.”
The authority is either scientific studies or biographical case studies. Biographical case studies are not always literal examples, but can also be mythical or metaphorical examples.
The material is rarely discussed from the negative; that is, the material is presented as a causal relationship to explain a phenomenon, but less commonly are counter-examples, counterfactuals, or false-positives discussed.
The author is usually repackaging the work of someone else, rather than the original author of the micro expression. For example, there is a difference between Daniel Kahneman writing a book reflecting on behavioural economics and his original studies, and someone invoking a study published by Daniel Kahneman to explain an phenomenon. The animated bibliography would be the latter, but not the former. The animated bibliography is a presentation of the things the author has learned.
The animated bibliography has parallels to how research papers are written at the undergraduate level.
The animated bibliography can be thought of as a narrative stitched together. A series of vignettes (chapters) that bring stories together under a broader meta-narrative that provides a unified theory.
The animated bibliography is a method of delivering nonfiction, but it is not necessarily meant to be a moral lesson. It is protreptic in aim – it attempts to be explanatory, if not educative.
The animated bibliography typically falls under a few key genres of nonfiction: business, productivity, leadership, personal development or self-improvement.
In isolation, the animated bibliography is merely a geneology of ideas, but taken as a genre it becomes self-referential. The same studies and case studies start popping up over and over. These, in turn, get meta-referenced by popular authors who write about them. For instance, a reference could take the form of a book referencing another author’s book about a series of published studies.
Hypothesis: this phenomenon (if it is a new phenomenon) is an emergence from the overlapping worlds of start-ups and founder idolization, social media-fed ennui, high technology, scientism, and people’s inability to move from idea to action. The books are proliferated as instructionals and how-to’s to solve a behavioural problems. They paint an ideal way forward, but the fact that they keep getting published, and that a market still exists, means that no one book can actually be held up as the definitive voice. The plurality exists because they singly do not provide broad answers.
The market creates a series of urtexts that spawn and inspire secondary and tertiary levels of reference.
*New* The author takes on an authoritative tone in the books, but uses the references to others as the source of their authority.
*New* Rarely is the book the result of a lengthy period of research or work in the field as a practitioner. Instead, the book is the product of some period of immersion or research in the topic at hand (e.g. the author spent a year working on the topic and is writing a book about it).
I’ve deliberately kept things vague in terms of which authors and books I have in mind when I make the observations above. Perhaps in time, I’ll have more courage and name names of those I find to be the biggest offenders of the genre. For now, though, I choose to remain silent.
Last week, I published a long, rambley set of thoughts about my relationship to Facebook. The following night, I sat down with a group of friends to discuss a taped forum discussion published by the CBC. If you have never looked into CBC’s programming, particularly their show Ideas, and their daily program The Current, I highly recommend them.
It’s always good to check your intuitions and opinions against what others think, because sometimes its possible that your biases blind you to alternative considerations.
Now, what I’m about to write about is entirely unverified and does not serve as an argument on any side of this debate. This post is not meant to deliver any definitive answers on the topic of whether Facebook (or the modern internet) is less democratized, more problematic, or having a polarizing effect on how people think. What I wish to capture is how my mind expanded a bit when I listened to how others viewed the podcast topic and their reactions to it.
Going into the meeting, I felt that I aligned with the views discussed in the program. I feel that people are polarizing in the online echo-chamber communities and that the internet, or specifically products created for the web, are designed to be attractive and modify behaviour to increase engagement. Shallow content and emotional shortcuts are easily bypassing critical thought and our ability to maintain our attention is being eroded.
There were two counter thoughts brought up at the meeting that significantly shook my opinion. Again, I pose these as items to consider, not definitive rebuttals to the original claims.
The first assumption challenge by one friend was that the understanding and explanation of how the internet is currently, and how the internet “used to be,” do not adequately reflect reality. In the first instance, the speakers on the program are only speaking to a mainstream understanding of social media. They use Facebook as the default conversation piece because it is the highest trafficked site, however their descriptions do not account for all uses of the net, nor all demographic engagements. In fact, Facebook-use is in decline among younger internet uses (“old people got on Facebook and ruined it”).
But in the second instance, my friend (whom is a few years older than I am) disagrees with the assumption that the internet in the late-90’s and early 2000’s was more democratized. On a purely surface level, sure, it was more democratized because there were less corporate products. But at the same time, the internet was more closed off to the mass market because no one knew how to use the internet. Without the advent of streamlined user-interfaces, most people lacked the technical skills to adequately use the internet beyond services provided by internet providers (the Yahoo’s, the AOL’s, etc.).
I realized that my understanding and buy-in for the arguments is predicated on an understanding of the internet that I have no direct experience of. I only started using the web in 1998, compliments of AOL and the many coasters they sent to our house. Other than chat rooms and Slingo, my recollection of the net pre-2000 is pretty spotty. I have nothing that informs my opinion on the matter, and it’s entirely possible that I’m agreeing with a characterization of the web that is out of line with reality.
Another excellent criticism that another friend raised is that Facebook isn’t necessarily forcing people into echo-chambers, nor are people necessarily becoming more radical in their views. In fact, we don’t really know what’s happening relative to the pre-2000’s. For the first time in history, we are able to collect massive amounts of data on the reading habits of people online. Until recently, understanding where people seek out content, how they share, what they share, what they click through, etc, was not possible to the degree we are seeing now. It’s bad for us to see the limited data and fit a worldview to it. Quite simply, we don’t know if Facebook is changing anything, or if we are just able to glimpse into the minds of others for the first time.
But, you may say, “I’ve been on Facebook since the mid-2000’s and I’ve noticed a shift in my news feed.” Yes, that’s true. It’s also true that algorithms are more sophisticated now to curate your news feed. The only thing missing from that consideration is that the sample size for you has changed. If Facebook’s size had remained constant, we could potentially make an inference to how Facebook has impacted people. Instead, Facebook has gone from being the domain of college students (a typically liberal-leaning demographic) to high school students (remember when we thought that was a mistake, and these kids shouldn’t be on the network) to when our parents joined Facebook (ugh! They ruined Facebook!). Consider an alternative perspective – our experience of other people on Facebook was initially biased, and then regressed back to the mean once the user pool expanded to include non-university users (which is a fairly homogeneous class of people, all things considered).
Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what’s right, but I suppose that’s a good thing. Recognizing that my own views and opinions should be treated as suspect is a valuable insight to have. It requires a level of self-awareness that usually doesn’t get a lot of discussion in today’s media. Instead, everyone seems to speak from a position of authority that I feel as though I lack in my internal monologue. Maybe my friends are correct, and that the think-pieces about the dangers of walled-gardens and the role that social media has on our ability to think critically is all smoke and little fire. To be fair, where there is smoke, there is usually fire, so there is *something* there that needs to be discussed.
I appreciate the insight my friends brought to the table. It shouldn’t be surprising that the answers they gave above are wholly connected to their fields of expertise. The first friend has a PhD in criminology and has studied deviance online. The second friend works in marketing for a major Canadian food company. Their experiences are helpful to provide alternative viewpoints to my own, and if it is true that you are the average of the 5 people you most commonly associate with, it’s a pretty powerful example to me of the value in a diversity (plurality) of thought.