Reflection – A Systems Review of Results

I’ve been mulling over a quote I wrote down in my notebook back in March, especially as it relates to my productive output at both work and for my personal projects:

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
~Paul Batalden

At the end of the day, I’ll look back at my lists of tasks and feel frustrated that another day has slipped by thanks to my monkey brain’s inability to focus. Of course, this is placing the blame on the wrong focus because it’s ignoring two important facts: it assumes I’m not in control of my behaviours when I blame it on my “monkey brain,” and it assumes that I’m setting myself up for success merely by sitting at my computer. Both of these are patently untrue. I have control over my environment and (to borrow a phrase from Jocko Willink) I should be taking extreme ownership over my work situation.

If I find myself frustrated with my lack of output, I have to look at the system that my productivity is set against. If I spend my day getting lost down YouTube video and blog holes, then it’s because my system is optimized for it.

If I’m allowing myself to give in to temptation or distraction, it’s because it’s easier to fall back on things that are psychologically comforting and there is too much friction to get started on the real work.

Motivation is a flywheel – I have to overcome inertia to get the wheel turning, and it takes time before inertia helps the wheel turn freely. If the system is optimized to prevent me turning the flywheel, then it’s important to look at the system for fixes, rather than bemoaning the outcomes.

It’s not a quick fix. It will take time, effort, and a direction to push towards that will start the flywheel. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. If the flywheel grounds to a halt, then it’s my job to stop, reset, appraise, and re-engage.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-Up – June 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

💭 Reflection Mega-Thread – How We Process Information

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

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

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

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

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

📣 Twitter – Carl T. Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom)

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – June 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Extra Post – 4 Year Milestone!

I normally post on Monday’s, but today is the 4 year anniversary of my first post on this site (tomorrow if the 4 year anniversary of my substantive first post, but let’s batch them into this post for funsies).

With everything that’s going on, I wanted to pause for a moment to commemorate my “Hello World” moment on this blog. Even though I still don’t have any concrete plans for this site, I’m still going strong by committing myself to consistently putting in the work. If I’ve learned anything in 4 years, it’s less about the business plan and more about putting in the work. In this case, it’s better to focus on quantity, rather than waiting for the quality to start.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Ramble: Professionalism by the Inch

white measuring tape on white surface
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

When it comes to posting for this blog, my goal is to have content ready to go live by Monday mornings at 9am. It’s largely an arbitrary objective, but I like to try and keep it so that the post is live by the time I get to work for the week and I can kick off work feeling a sense of accomplishment. As of writing these words, it’s 11:46am on a Monday – clearly I’ve missed my target.

Like many people, I’m finding it challenging to maintain productivity while working from home. I can try to claim that I’m in an adjustment period. Afterall, Wednesday will mark two full weeks of me being home from work. But I know in the back of my mind that while it might be true that I’m still adjusting to working from home (now that the novelty has worn off a bit), I also am keenly aware that my productivity habits are spotty at best.

Thanks to my wife, I’ve been able to keep a structured schedule for my days. I’ve also increased my excersising and have used the time at home to practice time-restricted feeding. I’ve brainstormed what I’d like to work on during this period of instability, and my relationship with my wife has grown closer as we’ve been forced to spend more time together at home.

But when it comes to actually doing the things on my list, I’m struggling with tipping over from plan to action. I’ve known for a week that a blog post needed to get done. I’ve even drafted a few ideas with some rough thoughts and structure. Yet, here I am, almost three-hours past my deadline, and I’m writing a vaguely stream-of-consciousness post. I recognize in me the same level of performance I see when students leave their assignments to the last moment to start (note: stream-of-consciousness is a typical strategy to fill space and sound smart).

Meta-blogging aside, the problem is that I’m still not a professional when it comes to many things in my life. I don’t mean ‘professional’ in the sense of being paid for my work, nor do I mean professional in the sense of being recognized as such.

In this case, I mean professional in the sense that Seth Godin invoked in a podcast episode I listened to recently (Seth Godin [Empathy] on the Creative Elements podcast). A professional is someone who shows up (often because they are being paid, though not necessarily) because that is what they do; it’s what’s expected of them. It doesn’t matter how they feel – they show up. Seth Godin notes that this can be hugely inauthentic. Sometimes, like this morning, you have a hard time feeling like you want to show up. You want to show up, and at a second order you want to want to show up, but no matter how much you desire to show up, you struggle with moving from thought to action.

There are tricks to motivating yourself. If I may be allowed to tap Seth Godin again, a recent blog post of his resonated strongly with me last week (React, Respond or Initiate on Seth’s Blog). Reacting is often the easiest route to overcome the motivation barrier – it’s visceral and immediate. It’s also unfocused and sloppy. Responding is more thoughtful and directed, but like this post is still intimately tied to someone else putting work into the field. But Initiate? That gives you maximum freedom of direction, but the hardest to push yourself through. The Resistance (hat-tip to Mr. Pressfield) is felt in direct proportion to how much ownership you have over the initial starting move. To React is to cede the initiative because you are unaware and flat-footed. To Respond is to acknowledge that you are going second, but you are at least aware and ready to make a move. But, to Initiate means you pick the time and place to move things into action, which can have all sorts mental barriers in the way.

I’m of two minds on the matter. On the one hand, I feel like not moving towards a goal is to waste an opportunity that has presented itself to me. Like with compound interest, the more small progress I can put in, the more it will pay off down the line. And if you fail to put in the work, you’ll struggle to rise to new challenges; you’ll end up hurting your future-self because you failed to practice and prepare. Or as Ryan Holiday notes, “you can lie to yourself, saying that you put in the time, or pretend that you’re working, but eventually someone will show up. You’ll be tested. And quite possibly, found out.”

But at the same time, I know I have to be kind to myself. These aren’t expectations that I need to follow, nor do I have to choose them. These are one version of a vision of success, but it’s not the only path or formula to follow.

Being afforded the opportunity to work from home is giving me space to be able to think and reflect. Within the opportunity, it’s important that I take the time to pause and listen to what my preferences are telling me – what do I find important and how do I leverage the tools I have to go where I want to go. Being a professional towards goals you don’t want strikes me as pyrrhic. Sure, you might gain measures of success as someone might define it, but at what cost? If we know that lunches are truly never free, then what is it we give up when we go with defaults?

Showing up doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Being a professional means being consistent and accountable, even if you are fighting to create progress by the inch. Chain enough inches together over time will still create progress forward.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Modern Cartesian Demon

grey and brown concrete building close-up photography
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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

Informed Consent and the Virus of Harmful Rhetoric

person injecting someone on his arm
Photo by Hyttalo Souza on Unsplash

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan