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, the second on May 1st, the third here from May 8th, and last week’s on May 15th.
I’m enjoying this posting format so far, so I’ll continue for a few more weeks before making a decision whether it’ll stick around. This week, I stumbled across a lot of heartwarming videos and some cool, creative content.
Here is my round-up list for the week ending on May 22nd:
I stumbled across Arjun Menon’s work through a post on Peta Pixel, however I really encourage you to check out his Instagram page. Once you get past his recent project of filming figurines, you’ll also find many incredible photos from his portfolio. But his figurine photos are super creative and inspiring!
The “Dad, how do I?” YouTube channel has blown-up recently, and I stumbled across a “Mom, how do I?” companion channel that was likely inspired by the Dad channel. The apparent story behind the Dad channel is the host, Rob, wanted to create videos to impart his wisdom now that his kids have grown. Rob’s father walked out on his family when he was in his early teens, so these videos also serve to help kids who were like him who don’t have someone they can turn to for how-to help. Like broxh_ above, the Dad and Mom channels show us that there are wonderful people out there who are spreading kindness in small, meaningful ways.
💭 Reflection – On Experimentation and the Unknown | Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol
This was an interesting observation that I stumbled across while reading Varol’s new book. While there are pedagogical reasons why we do experiments with known outcomes, I think sometimes we forget that the point of experiments is to test hypotheses because we don’t know the outcome with certainty. This pairs nicely with a quote Varol includes a few pages later from Richard Feynman: “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.” We tend to demand fixed answers from our experts and media, when instead we should be reminded repeatedly and often that our understanding of the universe is based on probabilities and not binary truth-conditions.
It’s taken me six weeks, but I think I’ve finally found a good system for working from home. Like many people who are fortunate to work from home during the pandemic, I’ve been struggling with keeping my normal routines while working from my computer at home. I won’t pretend that I had a perfectly productive system when I used to commute to the office everyday, but where I had the illusion of being productive simply by being at work and conversing with my colleagues, at home I am totally cut off from those signifiers of “work.” In the last few weeks, I’ve had spurts of productive time, but those were relatively few in number.
Late last week, however, I found a good combination that allowed me to really focus on moving my tasks along. I’ll share some of the tools that have been working for me.
First, using headphones to play noise while I work helps me make the mental shift in context from “home” to “work”. I have two sets of headphones at home, and both work well – a wired set of Sony headphones with noise canceling function, as well as a set of Philips Bluetooth headphones that also cancel noise actively.
I don’t just listen to music, however. I find most music to be distracting to my workflow – even lyric-less songs. My mind tends to pick up on the melody, and I’ll focus on that instead of the task at hand. I have two sources of noise I currently use – a pomodoro Chrome extension that plays fuzzy white noise (and conveniently tracks my pomodoro sessions), as well as a pomodoro video on YouTube that includes a visual timer and ticking clock. The white noise blocks out ambient noises that otherwise gets through my headphone’s noise canceling feature, and the ticking noise helps me focus.
Speaking of pomodoros, I use the pomodoro method to break down the tasks into manageable chunks. It also has the benefit of bypassing my motivation drive. Rather than committing to working an 8-hour work day, I commit to the next 25-minute block of work.
I have a lot of projects and tasks to keep track of, so I use two systems to prioritize and track my work. For long term, multi-step tasks, I have set up a dedicated board on Trello to manage where each project is in the pipeline. I have created buckets that I can move tasks through, from the general pool of tasks, to the planning phase, into an active phase, and if the project is put on hold, I can take notes on what I need to do to push things along while the task is in limbo.
For day to day task planning, I went simple and set up a text file that I number tasks as I think of them for the day, then I keep track of what I accomplish each day in a growing list. I usually would do this in my notebook, but I liked being able to cleanly re-order tasks. On paper, you can only order tasks in the initial stack you wrote them in, but if something changes during the day (e.g. a meeting gets scheduled on short notice), it’s harder to move things around.
Aside from the Microsoft Office tools provided by my employer (Outlook, Teams, Sharepoint, and OneNote), that covers my current workflow. Depending on how long the stay-home order is in place, I might update how this system evolves. It’ll also be interesting to see what of this system I port back with me to the office (I have a feeling I might bring the headphones to help me focus).
If you have any systems or tools you like, I’m curious to hear about it in the comment section.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
From time to time, I catch myself thinking some pretty stupid stuff for entirely dumb reasons. A piece of information finds a way to bypass any critical thinking faculties I proudly think I possess and worms its way into my belief web. Almost like a virus, which is a great segue.
A perfect example of this happened last week in relation to the COVID-19 news, and I thought it important to share here, both as an exercise in humility to remind myself that I should not think myself above falling for false information, and as my contribution to correcting misinformation floating around the web.
Through a friend’s Stories on Instagram, I saw the following screencap from Twitter:
My immediate thought was to nod my head in approval and take some smug satisfaction that of course I’m smart enough to already know this is true.
Thankfully, some small part at the back of my brain immediately raised a red flag and called for a timeout to review the facts. I’m so glad that unconscious part was there.
It said to me “Hang on… is hand-sanitizer ‘anti-bacterial’?”
I mean, yes, technically it is. But is it “anti-bacterial” in the same way that it is getting implied in this tweet? The way the information is framed, it treats the hand-sanitizer’s anti-bacterial properties as being exclusively what it was designed for, like antibiotics. For example, you can’t take antibiotics for the cold or flu, because those are not bacterial infections but viral infections.
According to the author on the topic of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS),
There are some special cases where ABHS are not effective against some kinds of non-enveloped viruses (e.g. norovirus), but for the purposes of what is happening around the world, ABHS are effective. It is also the case that the main precaution to protect yourself is to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, and follow other safety precautions as prescribed.
The tweet, while right about the need for us to wash our hands and not overly rely on hand-sanitizers, is factually wrong generally. Thanks to a mix of accurate information (bacteria =/= virus) and inaccurate information(“hand sanitizer is not anti-bacterial”), and a packaging that appeals to my “I’m smarter than you” personality, I nearly fell for its memetic misinformation.
There are a number of lessons I’ve taken from this experience:
My network is not immune to false beliefs, so I must still guard against accepting information based on in-group status.
Misinformation that closely resembles true facts will tap into my confirmation bias.
I’m more likely to agree with statements that are coded with smarmy or condescending tonality because it carries greater transmission weight in online discourse.
Appeals to authority (science) resonate with me – because this was coming from a scientist who is tired of misinformation (I, too, am tired of misinformation), I’m more likely to agree with something that sounds like something I believe.
Just because someone says they are a scientist, doesn’t make the status true, nor does it mean what they are saying is automatically right.
Even if the person is factually a scientist, if they are speaking outside of their primary domain, being a scientist does not confer special epistemological status.
In the aftermath, the tweet was pulled and the person tried to correct the misinformation, but the incident highlights that the norms of Twitter (and social media more broadly) are entirely antithetical to nuance and contextual understanding.
It’s interesting how much information spread (memetics) resembles pathogen spreading. If the harmful thing attacking us is sufficiently designed to sidestep our defenses, whether that’s our body’s immune system or our critical thinking faculties, the invading thing can easily integrate within, establish itself within our web, and prepare to spread.
The one thing that really bums me out about this event is the inadvertent harm that comes to scientific authority. We as a society are caught in a period of intense distrust of the establishment that is coinciding with the largest explosion of information our species has ever seen. The result of this is not that good information is scarce, but rather the signal-to-noise ratio is so imbalanced that good information is getting swept away in the tide. If people grow distrustful of the sources of information that will help protect us, then forget worrying about gatekeepers that keep knowledge hidden; there will be no one left to listen.
In the ethics of conducting research with human participants, there is the concept of “informed consent.” At its foundation, informed consent is the process of communicating a sufficient amount of information about a research project to a prospective participant so that the prospect is able to decide whether they want to consent to being a participant in a study. There is a lot of nuance that can go into selecting what gets communicated because you have a lot of necessary information that needs be shared but you don’t want to share so much information that the participant is overwhelmed by the volume of information.
When I review research ethics applications, I am privy to a lot of information about the project. In the course of reviewing the project, I have to make judgement calls about what should be included in the informed consent letters that participants read. It would be counter-productive if the participant had to read all the documentation I am required to read when reviewing an application, so we use certain best practices and principles to decide what information gets communicated as a standard, and what is left in the application.
There is, of course, some challenges that we must confront in this process. As I said, when reviewing a research project, you have to balance the needs of the project with the needs of a participant. All research, by virtue of exploring the unknown, carries with it an element of risk. When you involve humans in a research project, you are asking them to shoulder some of the risk in the name of progress. Our job as researchers and reviewers is to anticpate risk and mitigate it where possible. We are stewards of the well-being of the participants, and we use our experience and expertise to protect the particpants.
This means that one challenge is communicating risk to participants and helping them understand the implications of the risks of the research. In many instances, the participants are well aware of risks posed to their normal, every-day lived experiences and how the research intersects with it. The patient living with a medical condition is aware of their pain or suffering, and can appreciate risks associated with medical interventions. A person living in poverty is acutely aware of what it means to live in poverty, and understands that discussing their experiences can be psychologically and emotionally difficult. Our jobs (as reviewers and researchers) is to ensure that the participant is made aware of the risk, mitigate it as much as we can without compromising the integrity of the research program, and to contextualize the risk so that the participant can make choices for themselves without coercion.
The concept of informed consent is hugely important, arguably the most important component of research projects involving humans as participants. It is an acknowledgement that people are ends in themselves, not a means to furthering knowledge or the researcher’s private or professional goals. Indeed, without a respect for the autonomy of the participant, research projects are likely to not be moved into action even when research funds are available.
All of this is a preamble to discuss the anger I felt when I read a recent CBC report on how anti-vaxxer advocates are using the concept of informed consent as a dog-whistle to their adherents, and are using informed consent as a way of both furthering their awareness and raising money with well-meaning politicians and the public.
In fairness, I can see the chain of reasoning at play that tries to connect informed consent with concerns about vaccines. For instance, in the article there is a photo of supporters of a vaccine choice group with a banner that reads “If there is a risk there must be a choice.” This sentiment is entirely consistent with the principles of informed consent. The problem with this application is that the risk is not being communicated and understood properly within context, and instead fear, misinformation, and conspiracies that lead to paternalistic paranoia are short-cutting the conversation. Further, the incentive structures that are borne out of the economics of our medical system are doing little to address these fears. Because so little money is flowing from the government to the medical system, doctors are forced to maximize the number of patients they see in a day just to ensure enough money is coming into the practice to pay for space, equipment, staff, insurance, and supplies. Rather than seeking quality face-to-face time with a patient, doctors have to make a choice to limit patient time to just focus on a chief complaint and address questions as efficiently as they can.
I don’t think it’s all the doctor’s fault either. I think we as patients, or more specifically we as a society, have a terrible grasp of medical and scientific literacy. I don’t have a strong opinion about what the root cause of this is, but some combination of underfunded schooling, rapid technological innovation, growing income disparities, entertainment pacification, a lack of mental health support, increasingly complex life systems, and precarious economic living in the average household are all influencing the poor grasp people have about what makes the world around us work. Rather than being the case that we are hyper-specialized in our worldviews, I think it’s the case that “life” is too complex for the average person to invest time into understanding. Let’s be clear, it is not the case that the average person isn’t smart enough to grasp it (even if sometimes my frustration with people leads me to this conclusion). Instead, I think that people are pulled in so many directions that they don’t have the time or economic freedom to deal with things that don’t immediately pay off for them. People are so fixated on just making it day-to-day and trying not to fall behind that it becomes a luxury to have the leisure time to devote to these kinds of activities.
What this results in, then, is the perfect storm of ignorance and fear that congeals into a tribal call to rebel against the paternalism of a system that is ironically also too cash-strapped to allow the flexibility to educate people on the nature of risk. People don’t have the time and ability to educate themselves, and doctors don’t have the time to share their experiences and knowledge with their patients.
Within this gap, opportunistic charlatans and sophists thrive to capitalize on people’s fears to push their own agendas. This is why bad actors like the disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield and movement leader Del Bigtree are able to charge fees to profit from speaking at anti-vaccination events. I’m not saying a person who spreads a message should do it for free. What I am saying is that they are able to turn a personal profit by preying on people’s fears while doing little to investigate the thing they claim to worry about.
We must find a way to communicate two simultaneous truths:
There is an inherent risk in everything; bad stuff happens to good people, and you can do everything right and still lose. Nevertheless, the risks involved when it comes to vaccines are worth shouldering because of the net good that comes from it and the risks themselves are vanishingly small.
In the 22 years since Wakefield published his study and the 16 years since its retraction, there has not been any peer-reviewed credible evidence that supports many of the claims given by the anti-vaxx movement. The movement is predicated on fears people have of the probability of something bad happening to them or their loved ones. The motivation behind the fear is legitimate, but the object of the fear is a bogeyman that hides behind whatever shadows it can find as more and more light is cast on this area.
The anti-vaxx ideology knows it cannot address head-on the mounting scientific evidence that discredits its premise, and so it instead focuses on a different avenue of attack.
This bears repeating: the anti-vaxx ideology cannot debate or refute the scientific evidence about vaccination. We know vaccines work. We know how they work; we know why they work. We understand the probabilities of the risk; we know the type and magnitudes of the risks. These things are known to us. Anti-vaxx belief is a deliberate falsehood when it denies any of what we know.
Because of this, the anti-vaxx ideology is shifting to speak to those deep fears we have of the unknown, and instead of dealing with the facts of medicine, it is sinking its claws into the deep desire we have for freedom and autonomy. It shortcuts our rational experience and appeals to the fears evolution has given us to grapples with the unknown – the knee-jerk rejection of things we don’t understand.
Informed consent as a concept is the latest victim of anti-vaxx’s contagion. It’s seeping in and corrupting it from the inside, turning the very principle of self-directed autonomy against a person’s self-interest. It doesn’t cast doubt by calling the science into question. Instead, it casts doubt precisely because the average person doesn’t understand the science, and so that unknown becomes scary to us and we reject or avoid what brings us fear.
Anti-vaxx ideology is a memetic virus. In our society’s wealth, luxury, and tech-enabled friction-free lives, we have allowed this dangerous idea to gain strength. By ignoring it and ridiculing it until now, we have come to a point where it threatens to disrupt social homeostasis. Unless we do something to change the conditions we find ourselves in – unless we are willing to do the hard work – I fear that this ideology is going to replicate at a rate that we can’t stop. It will reach a critical mass, infect enough people, and threaten to undo all the hard work achieved in the past. We have already seen the evidence of this as once-eradicated diseases are popping up in our communities. The immunity and innoculations have weakened. Let’s hope those walls don’t break.
Previously, at the start of the notebook I would collect a running series of to-do items. Most of the items at the top of the list would be things that had been carried-over for multiple months, with a few small items at the bottom that likely were first jotted-down in the previous month. I found that I was continuously copying out the same items month-over-month and the list was growing. On the one hand, if the thing isn’t important enough for me to complete in a reasonable amount of time, it could be the case that it’s not important enough for me to carry-forward and that I should just drop the task all together.
Yet, I felt that some of the tasks were things I’d want to complete “one day” in the undefined future, but that I had lots of other pressing things that needed my attention first. Or, some tasks would require a fair amount of planning or coordination, and so I would tackle it after an adequate amount of lead time.
Some time ago, I created an account on Trello, but it was sitting unused as I didn’t know what kind of boards I would find useful. This seemed like the perfect experiment to help me remain flexible.
I set up several columns (buckets) of items. In the far left, I labelled the list “Pool” and dump in all to do items. Within each of the cards I can make notes or sub-lists to help keep me on track of things. At the start of each month, if there is something I don’t want to carry forward into the new book, I put the item into the bucket.
Next, is the “Planning Phase” bucket. The beauty of Trello is I can drag cards from one column to the next, so when I’m ready to move stuff from the Pool to another phase of activity, I can easy drag-and-drop. Items in the Planning Phase might require me to do research or make purchases in preparation to work on the project.
If no further planning is required, I move it into the “Active” column. When a task is active, it’s something that I’m placing priority on and is meant to remind me to carve out space in my schedule to address.
Sometimes, a project needs to be put on hold. I created a bucket to put tasks that are underway but I’m not making active progress on. Items in this bucket might require someone to get back to me on some action of detail, or maybe I need to wait until a future date to complete the tasks. Whatever it is, if I don’t want to move a task back into the pool column, I place it here and make a note of why the tasks is in limbo.
“Completed” is my win column – it gives me a chance to see what I’ve crossed of my list and as the column grows, I can take satisfaction in my accomplishments.
I created an “Abandoned” column because sometimes I will choose not to complete a task but I don’t want to delete it outright. Maybe it’s something that’s still important, or maybe I missed a window but I want to be reminded of it.
Finally, for tasks that occur regularly but infrequently, I have a column so that I can see when the last time was that I finished a task, and remind myself that it will need to go back into the active column (e.g. changing my tires, changing the furnace filter, etc.).
I’ve been using this revised system for a few months and it seems to be satisfying my immediate needs. It both cuts down on the number of items I need to manually copy from book to book while allowing me to indefinitely store things in a user-friendly format – effectively marrying my love of analogue with the convenience of digital.