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 17, 2020

I missed posting last week again! I’m not perfect, and so I keep moving forward and try to do better.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on July 17th:

🎧 Listen – “This Is What Living Through History Looks Like” | Daily Stoic Podcast

This is a short and sweet observation that hit me just at the right time. I’ve been feeling low recently and lamenting some of the stuff I have on my plate that’s causing me minor stress. Were it not for the pandemic, I mused, I wouldn’t be having problems coping – if only things were easier. Then a line popped from this podcast to give me perspective: “What did you think that living through history was going to be like?” I can pine for the fabled good ol’ days, but we should be honest that between the periods of calm, there will be periods punctuated with strife. And as observed in the podcast, only time will turn the turmoil of the present into a passage in a history book.

🎧 Listen – “#444: Hugh Jackman on Best Decisions, Daily Routines, The 85% Rule, Favourite Exercises, Mind Training, and Much More” | Tim Ferriss Show Podcast

Hugh Jackman has a bit of a reputation for being a good guy, and this podcast did not disappoint. He’s sweet, thoughtful, humble, and genuinely a person you’d want to aspire towards. He’s an example worth following.

🎧 Listen – “JRE #1504 – Alan Levinovitz” | The Joe Rogan Experience Podcast

I’m a bit of a casual listener to the JRE podcast. I’ll usually check things out depending on who the guest is. In this case, Rogan sent out an image on Instagram with the author, Alan Levinovitz, holding up his book. The caption referenced how quick and enjoyable the 3.5hr show zipped by. Then I caught the book’s subtitle: How faith in nature’s goodness leads to harmful fads, unjust laws, and flawed science. Colour me interested, but I’m a sucker for discussions about the appeal to nature fallacy, so I check it out.

How cool is it that the author tweeted back!?!

To be honest, I couldn’t tell you what the book’s about after listening to the episode. I have a vague sense that Levinovitz is looking to push back against those who believe things that are natural are automatically good/valuable as well as its opposite that things that are artificial or manipulated are automatically bad. I’m not saying that the episode was bad. Just the opposite – the episode was so good. I’m glad that Rogen doesn’t bring on guests to discuss well-rehearsed talking points to promote the book. Instead, they have a free-wheeling conversation that follows their curiosities. And based on some of the ideas that Levinovitz has, and how he calls for a kinder form of discourse, I was made an instant fan and grabbed the audiobook.

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

Leadership Lessons – Individual Rights vs Expediency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Lost in Translation – Sophrosune

In preparation for my upcoming book club meeting, I’ve been reading through our current selection, Plato’s Symposium. While on Friday I chuckled at a little dialogue I’ve started with myself as a reader over time, I stumbled across a very interesting footnote that I wanted to share.

23. The word can be translated also as “temperance” and, most literally, “sound-mindedness.” (Plato and Aristotle generally contrast sophrosune as a virtue with self-control: the person with sophrosune is naturally well-tempered in every way and so does not need to control himself, or hold himself back.) From: Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper (Hackett) p479.

I love learning about words in foreign languages that don’t have an exact translation into English. The great thing about these words is that is serves as a worldview expanding device that adds to the filters we use to engage with the world. Sophrosune (or sophrosyne as I later learned from Wikipedia) is often translated to mean temperance or self-control. But as this footnote discusses, the world has an added element that sets it apart from self-control.

It carries an added moral character dimension that describes a certain kind of disposition. Implied in the idea of self-control is an element of instability – the self-control is needed to push against some felt desire or want. Were the desire absent, there would be no need for self-control. We don’t think of a person who is not thirsty as exercising self-control because they are not drinking water. Self-control would instead apply to the person who is actively thirsty but must resist imbibing for some reason. There is a force of will that is being applied against a desire to tamp it down.

Thirst for water might be a poor example here since water is necessary for life. Instead, we can think of the addict who is fighting an impulse to consume something they seek to abstain from. When they fight against the impulse, they can be said to be exercising self-control.

By contrast, sophrosune describes a moral quality of a person who is, in some sense, harmonious in their inner life. They don’t have the cravings that create impulses that require self-control. Instead of fighting cravings, as in the case of the addict, they may choose to engage or not engage in an activity without any internal pull towards it.

Whether this is a quality that is possible to attain, I cannot say. But it was an interesting word to learn about as separate from what one typically thinks about when pondering self-control and temperance.

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

Friday Round-up – May 1, 2020

Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation. You can find the first round-up post here from April 24th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

📖 Essay – On Bullshit | Harry Frankfurt

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

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

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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