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 – 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

Appealing to my Smarmy Brain

selective focus photography of spiderweb
Photo by Nicolas Picard on Unsplash

From time to time, I catch myself thinking some pretty stupid stuff for entirely dumb reasons. A piece of information finds a way to bypass any critical thinking faculties I proudly think I possess and worms its way into my belief web. Almost like a virus, which is a great segue.

A perfect example of this happened last week in relation to the COVID-19 news, and I thought it important to share here, both as an exercise in humility to remind myself that I should not think myself above falling for false information, and as my contribution to correcting misinformation floating around the web.

Through a friend’s Stories on Instagram, I saw the following screencap from Twitter:

My immediate thought was to nod my head in approval and take some smug satisfaction that of course I’m smart enough to already know this is true.

Thankfully, some small part at the back of my brain immediately raised a red flag and called for a timeout to review the facts. I’m so glad that unconscious part was there.

It said to me “Hang on… is hand-sanitizer ‘anti-bacterial’?

I mean, yes, technically it is. But is it “anti-bacterial” in the same way that it is getting implied in this tweet? The way the information is framed, it treats the hand-sanitizer’s anti-bacterial properties as being exclusively what it was designed for, like antibiotics. For example, you can’t take antibiotics for the cold or flu, because those are not bacterial infections but viral infections.

Rather than leaving this belief untested, I jumped on ye ol’ Googles to find out more. I found a write-up in the National Center for Biotechnology Information discussing alcohol sanitizers.

According to the author on the topic of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS),

A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Infectious Diseases evaluated the virucidal activity of ABHS against re-emerging viral pathogens, such as Ebola virus, Zika virus (ZIKV), severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and determined that they and other enveloped viruses could be efficiently inactivated by both WHO formulations I and II (ethanol-based and isopropanol-based respectively). This further supports the use of ABHS in healthcare systems and viral outbreak situations.

There are some special cases where ABHS are not effective against some kinds of non-enveloped viruses (e.g. norovirus), but for the purposes of what is happening around the world, ABHS are effective. It is also the case that the main precaution to protect yourself is to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, and follow other safety precautions as prescribed.

The tweet, while right about the need for us to wash our hands and not overly rely on hand-sanitizers, is factually wrong generally. Thanks to a mix of accurate information (bacteria =/= virus) and inaccurate information(“hand sanitizer is not anti-bacterial”), and a packaging that appeals to my “I’m smarter than you” personality, I nearly fell for its memetic misinformation.

There are a number of lessons I’ve taken from this experience:

  1. My network is not immune to false beliefs, so I must still guard against accepting information based on in-group status.
  2. Misinformation that closely resembles true facts will tap into my confirmation bias.
  3. I’m more likely to agree with statements that are coded with smarmy or condescending tonality because it carries greater transmission weight in online discourse.
  4. Appeals to authority (science) resonate with me – because this was coming from a scientist who is tired of misinformation (I, too, am tired of misinformation), I’m more likely to agree with something that sounds like something I believe.
  5. Just because someone says they are a scientist, doesn’t make the status true, nor does it mean what they are saying is automatically right.
  6. Even if the person is factually a scientist, if they are speaking outside of their primary domain, being a scientist does not confer special epistemological status.
  7. In the aftermath, the tweet was pulled and the person tried to correct the misinformation, but the incident highlights that the norms of Twitter (and social media more broadly) are entirely antithetical to nuance and contextual understanding.

It’s interesting how much information spread (memetics) resembles pathogen spreading. If the harmful thing attacking us is sufficiently designed to sidestep our defenses, whether that’s our body’s immune system or our critical thinking faculties, the invading thing can easily integrate within, establish itself within our web, and prepare to spread.

The one thing that really bums me out about this event is the inadvertent harm that comes to scientific authority. We as a society are caught in a period of intense distrust of the establishment that is coinciding with the largest explosion of information our species has ever seen. The result of this is not that good information is scarce, but rather the signal-to-noise ratio is so imbalanced that good information is getting swept away in the tide. If people grow distrustful of the sources of information that will help protect us, then forget worrying about gatekeepers that keep knowledge hidden; there will be no one left to listen.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“The Same Fifteen Academic Studies”

Despite my rant a few weeks back on the podcast-book marketing relationship, there are a few authors I will check out when they appear on podcasts I’m subscribed to.  For instance, Ryan Holiday just released his new book and is out promoting it to various podcast audiences.

He appeared on Rolf Pott’s podcast, Deviate, and had a conversation about what it’s like to write a big idea book.  Towards the end of the episode, he makes an off-hand remark on getting ideas from recently published books, and how he chooses not to do this because it tends to result in recycling the same academic studies.  Given how much I rant about animated bibliographies and short term content bias, I was happy to see some convergence in our ideas – that my amateur attempt on commenting on culture is shared by people I admire and hold in regard.

I’ve transcribed his remarks below, but you can go here to listen to the episode yourself.  Holiday’s comments begin at the 50:37 mark:

Potts: And that’s why you should feel blessed not to be an academic, right, because that’s such a useful model from which to write a book.  The academic world has these different hoops to jump through that often aren’t as useful.  And I would think that, sometimes, there’s types of research, like, do you do much Google or Wikipedia research, or is it mostly books?

Holiday: Yeah, I mean, you have to be careful, obviously, relying on Wikipedia, but yeah you do wanna go get facts here and there, and you gotta check stuff out.  I like to use obituaries.  Let’s say I’m writing about a modern person and they’ve died.  New York Times obituaries, Washington Post obituaries often have lots of really interesting stuff.   Then you can be really confident that dates and places and names are all correct because they’ve been properly fact-checked.  So I like to do stuff like that.  I watch documentaries from time to time.  In this book, there wasn’t really a great book about Marina Abramović, but there was some really great New York Times reporting about her Artist is Present exhibit, and there’s also a documentary with the same name.  So I’m willing to get stuff from anywhere provided I believe it’s verified or accurate, but you can’t be choosy about where your stuff comes from.  And in fact, if you’re only drawing from the best selling books of the last couple of years, just as an aside, an example, I find when I read a lot of big idea business books, it feels like they’re all relying on the same fifteen academic studies.  It’s “the will power” experiment, and “the paradox of choice” experiment, and the “Stanford Prison” experiment!  They think it’s new because it’s new to them, but if they’d read a little bit more widely in their own space, they’d realize that they’d be better off going a bit deeper or treading on some newer ground.

*****
(Note: I’ve lightly edited the transcript to remove filler words and some idiolects).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Value of Probing Assumptions

I was on a consultation call a few weeks ago about an ethics application.  The project was seeking feedback from participants about access to specific mental health information, and in my feedback to their application, I noted that their demographic question concerning the gender of the participant was probably too narrow.  The applicant asked for some advice how to address the comment.

On the one hand, they considered dropping the question as it a.) didn’t obviously connect to their research question, and b.) the literature supporting this branch of mental health was pretty well-studied in terms of incidence rates for the condition along the sex dimension, so they might not learn anything new by asking for the participant’s gender or sex.  On the other hand, if they left it in, they had to contend with whether they should use sex or gender as the focus of the question.  Since the mental health topic they were researching was a medical condition, it seemed like (biological) sex was the more salient feature, whereas my feedback suggested that if they chose gender, they would need to ensure it was inclusive.

While discussing the implications on the phone, I tried to tease out what the purpose of the study was.  Their study was collecting qualitative information about how people access information.  In the context of the demographic information, they weren’t seeking to know how a person’s sex/gender relates to the condition itself.  But, I wonder aloud, it seemed the purpose of the study was to understand how people seek information, which could arguably be influenced by one’s culture, behaviour, socialization, and experience of how the world treats them.  In that way, you would want to focus less on a person’s physiology and instead you might discover interesting differences in how a person seeks information based on their life-experiences.

The applicant noted that they started the phone call intending to drop the question from the survey, and through my line of questions and probes, was convinced to keep the question and modify it to be more inclusive.

I am not telling this story as a normative push on how we should conduct inquiry (though by reading through the lines, you should get a sense of how I feel about the topic).  Instead, I share this story as an example of why posing good questions is important to remove ambiguity and clarify thought.  One of the goals of our ethics board when we review applications is to make implied premises explicit so that we can be sure of what we take as a given when we set out to study a research question.  We often default to accepted practice and proceed with common tools, but sometimes we don’t think carefully through the implications of what using those tools means.  By leveraging my outsider status, I have an opportunity to get the applicants to explain concepts and lines of reason without assuming I share the same understanding of the material that they do.  This helps to spot those areas where the project is weakened by unsupported claims and assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan