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.
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.
Unrelated to the post below, but this is my 200th blog post! I hit post number 100 in March of 2018, which feels like forever at this point. Here’s to another 200 more!
On a long(ish) car ride with my mother-in-law over the holidays, we got chatting on the subject of learning from experience. She reminded me of something I’ve known for some time, yet keep forgetting: if you keep an open mind, you can learn something from everyone.
I don’t think this is a trite piece of advice, though often it comes from an experience we would otherwise hope to forget. In my case, I tend to forget this bit of wisdom as I have developed a bad habit of being somewhat dismissive or condescending. There really is no excuse for it – nothing in my experience explains why I’ve adopted this mindset. I just developed the attitude gradually over time.
But it’s good to be reminded that with the right mindset, every encounter you have with others can be an opportunity to learn something, whether that is a piece of knowledge that is exchanged, or if through your interaction with them you learn something about yourself. Rather than seeing things through the lens of whether the person adding or subtracting value (e.g. “this was a waste of my time”) we should look at it from a growth perspective – “what did I learn or discover about myself that I can carry forward and do things better in the future?” This also dovetails nicely with a vlog post I put up recently about finding your tools along the way.
By reframing things this way, you open yourself to serendipitous opportunities to grow and develop. Or, at the very least, you take yourself (and your time) a little less seriously.
I’ve hit a couple of milestones recently. For instance, last week I hit a nice big milestone in Duolingo when I hit 600 consistent days of doing lessons.
I wouldn’t say I’m particularly fluent in German, but during my trip in October of last year, I was able to follow some of the conversation going on around me and put into practice the lessons given by the app. I was able to manage thanks to small, consistent daily micro-lessons that expanded my vocabulary a bit at a time.
Something similar happened for this blog as well. From time to time I check-in on the site’s stats and analytics. I don’t have any plans or intentions to seek monetization, so I only check in on things out of a sense of curiosity rather than seeking optimization. I originally set up this blog as an exercise to see if I could keep a consistent weekly writing schedule. At the time, I had the aspirations to go back to school to become a paramedic, and so I also had intended to use this blog to apply the concepts I was learning to help me reinforce my learning. I’ve sinceabandoned that path, and so the blog largely remains a project to force me to come up with something to post on a weekly schedule.
I was looking at the stats last week and felt a sense of satisfaction for hitting a couple of milestones. First, it appears that I have not missed a weekly post in the last three years (I might be late posting, but I still get something up). Also, I’m happy to see that overall my words per post are trending upwards, though I hope this means I’m providing more meaningful, nuanced posts rather than just being verbose.
Then, I decided to check on how many words I had written for this blog.
Avg Words per Post
As it turns out, I had written the rough equivalent of a book in the four years I’ve been at this. Beyond the urge to create something and a desire to force myself to “write more,” the steady drip of a weekly schedule has now pooled into a large body of words.
I take a lot of inspiration from Seth Godin, and I learned from him the value of consistently showing up and putting in the work. It’s not about creating high quality giant pieces of work from fiat, but instead the slow, plodding, steady work of creating a little bit at a time. When you look back, you see the vast distance you’ve covered by forcing yourself to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Not everything is going to be good – in fact, most of it will suck. But, over time you get better at the work, and sometimes you can find the good stuff emerging from the mediocre.
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.
I learned a valuable lesson this Christmas about being intentional with how one goes about building their space. With all the decorations up – the tree, the lights, and arranging the room to nurture a sense of closeness and conversation – my wife and I were creating a feeling of a cozy home. As we packed up the decorations this past weekend to reflect the end of the holiday season, I felt a twinge of sadness. I will both miss the excitement that comes with the holiday break (yay time off work!), but also the feeling of coziness that comes from Christmas decorations. The green from the tree, the red from the decorations, and the warm yellow hue of the lights. More than time off, I am going to miss relaxing in the living room with the main lights off, basking in the glow of the tree and candles we had burning.
Surprising, candles played an important role of this. I first noticed it back in October during our honeymoon. We had a short stop in Germany to visit family, and it was customary for us to enjoy dinner together by candle light. It gave things an intimate, personal feeling, where time stood still as we enjoyed each other’s company.
I learned that there is a word to describe this feeling. I was listening to the Art of Manliness podcast where they discussed the Danish concept of hygge, which can be translated to represent something like the art of getting cozy. It encompasses a number of sensory feelings you get, such as when you come in after being out in the snow, and you warm up in fresh clothes and a hot beverage. Light, smells, decorations, comfort, and warmth all help one feel cozy, which is attributed in part to explain how the Danes endure long, harsh winters.
This is something I want to carry forward throughout the year. Until now, I’ve largely viewed where I live from a utilitarian perspective – it’s a place to store my stuff. However, now that my basic needs are met, I feel a call to build my space into something that brings me happiness for itself and what it represents, instead of for what it can give or do for me. I want to pay closer attention to all the flourishes that make a house into a home, such as decorations and having things in their place. It’s not just orderliness or tidiness, but instead giving us a place that makes us happy regardless of the harshness beyond our door.
Last week, I gave a highlight of the best books I read in 2019. Below, I present what I read in 2019. By comparison to 2016, 2017, and 2018, last year was a paltry year in reading for me.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The Bullet Journal Method
Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American Republic
Daniel H. Pink
The Gift of Failure
Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
The Graveyard Book
Built to Last
Right Here Right Now
Stephen J. Harper
Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
J. Michael Straczynski
A Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin
Scott H. Young
Reader Come Home
Andrew G. McCabe
The Path Made Clear
I have a few thoughts as to why my reading rate dropped off significantly last year and what I can do about it in the year to come.
Last year had a few significant pressures on my life that might have affected my desire to read. We started basement renovations early in the year, only to discover our basement’s foundation was cracked, requiring us to source quotes and opinions for repairs. This delayed our basement renovation, which didn’t finish until the summer. The protracted project weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year as we questioned whether we were making the right decisions for our home repairs, or whether we would need to make additional fixes later down the line.
Another big change for me was a change of my job at work. While I wouldn’t say it affected me as strongly as the basement renos, it disrupted my routine enough to impact my desire to focus on reading when I came home from work. Couple that with another full year as Board Chair for the non-profit I head up, and it left me with less cognitive bandwidth for self-improvement.
Podcasts and Music
If 2016 was my year of purchasing books, 2017 saw me start to utilize Libby to access the library, and 2018 was an all-out race for me to go through as many audiobooks as my brain could absorb, I felt a greater push away from books in 2019. Instead of working my way through 8-15 hours of content for one piece of work, I found the shorter format of podcasts more satisfying on my commutes. I enjoyed the variety in topics, shows, and voices.
However I also found I was drawn back to listening to music instead of information. With the sheer volume of books I’ve consumed in the last three years, it was nice to go long stretches without a goal of getting through books (or trying to learn new things) and instead allow the melodies, riffs, percussion, and lyrics sweep me away.
Overall, my rate for the year was a bit varied. I started slow in January and February, then picked back up in March. April only saw one book completed, then I found my footing again through May onward. However, October is when my wife and I traveled abroad for our honeymoon, and I never recovered my reading habit for the rest of the year.
Given that I spent most of the last three years focusing on business, personal development, and productivity books, I didn’t feel a strong desire to read those books in 2019. Even among the books I did read from that area, I found looking back that I don’t remember anything of note from those books. Neither the book’s theses nor the examples they offered have stuck with me as I enter the new year.
I’ve mentioned a few time the concept of the animated bibliography on this blog, and I think I’ve hit peak saturation for the genre. I’ve read the canon, and find that reading new books in the genre is resulting in diminishing returns; that is, I’m not really seeing a lot of new insights being offered that leaves me wanting more.
In my list last week, I commented that the books that I’m drawn to now is starting to shift away from business and productivity and more towards moral lessons found in fiction, biography/memoir, and journalistic explorations of current events. That’s not to say I won’t continue to be tempted to pick up the latest book that promises to fix my life, but it does mean that I’m intending to be more selective in what I choose to prioritize.
Assuming I continue to live a somewhat healthy life that is free from accidents, I figure that I have around 45-50 more years of life left. If I read around 3 books consistently per month, I will get another 1,650 books in my lifetime (4 per month is 2,208 books, and 5 books per month is 2,760 more books before I die). While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of books that come out each year and the books that have already been written. There is more to life and learning than being more productive or seeking more meaning in one’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of storytelling this past year, and there are a lot of stories out there to sink into. If I only get access to a few thousand more stories, I should make sure they count.
In the waning days of 2018, I gave a preview of the books I read for the year by listing my top five books. I doubt my current list of books will grow before the new year chimes in tomorrow night, but I will save the 2019 list for next week, and instead present you with my top books I read this year.
My overall volume of reading this year was less than half of what I read last year. Since 2016, I’ve intentionally set about to increase my reading and I was able to keep the pace for three years. However, for some reason my reading slowed down a bit. I’ll reflect on this over the coming week and share some thoughts with my 2019 reading list post. Given the relatively short list this year, I will instead highlight all of my favourite books since it seems that these were the books that stuck with me.
In chronological order of when I finished them, here are my top books I read in 2019.
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
A delightful fictional story about a boy who grows up in a graveyard among ghosts and other creatures of the night. Rather than a horror story as you might expect from the premise, instead this is a charming and whimsical coming of age story that gripped me from start to finish. Like all good stories, I was sad when the book was over and missed the characters dearly.
The story of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos company. Not only is this book a journalistic account of the deceptive “science” and events surrounding the failed tech venture, but it also explores the toxic achievement culture at the company’s top and the lengths the journalists and ex-employees had to go to in order to bring the company down. It’s a riveting story to experience, and I was happy to hear of the Ethics in Entrepreneurship initiative founded by two of the whistle blowers.
This memoir took me to the highest highs and the lowest lows. While Straczynski is known for his ability to craft human stories in the most magical and alien of settings, none of his work of fiction can come close to matching his own personal story of growing up in an abusive home and how that shadow followed him throughout his life. Running in parallel with his own story, he also tells a mystery story about his family’s origins that spans three generations. I mostly started this book to learn about his craft and the origins of some of my favourite projects he’s worked on, but in the end I witnessed a masterclass in writing and reflection.
With the end of the show this year, I felt like it was time for me to crack into the books that kicked-off the phenomenon. I am grateful that I watched the series first as it really helped me keep track of all of the characters in this massive tale. Also, reading a large fictional story was a welcomed relief. Over the last three years, my primary genre to read is at the intersections of business, productivity, and personal development. I think one thing that has lead to me reading less is feeling burnt out of that kind of content, so it was great to read something for pleasure. I am still proud of going through 500-pages while up at the cottage; there is nothing quite like reading by the lake.
Thanks to the Libby app and the library, I was able to check out books I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered if I had to purchase them. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this memoir was fascinating. I’m drawn to books where people look over their life and career to draw lessons when connecting their experiences. Whatever the political climate we find ourselves in, I find it somewhat reassuring to know there are people in the deep state who work to put the mission above party, though as more evidence comes to light, that faith is beginning to crumble.
Despite the subject matter, there is no other word I can think of to describe this book than “awesome.” And I mean “awesome” in both senses of the word. The book inspires “awe” at the sheer scope of things, but also a riveting tale of Snowden’s life to date, full of creativity, ingenuity, and technological espionage. I marveled at the fact that he is only a few years older than me, but what he has gone through is likely to dwarf any contributions I’ll ever make. I hope he can come home one day, but for the present I hope he remains safe while the effects of his actions continue to simmer in the current political climate.
In looking over my top books for the year, we see three genres stand out – fantasy, current events journalism, and memoirs. I would have also included biography in this list, however one book is missing that I unfortunately couldn’t finish before it was checked back in to the library: Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It’ll get added to my 2020 list when the library finally releases it back to me.
As I said above, I think I’m starting to burn out of the business and productivity genres of books. When I reviewed the list for the year, I had almost no recollection of the content for nearly all of the books. It would seem I’ve hit a bit of a block, where I’ve consumed so much content in a short amount of time that I’m failing to hold on to it (or, as a corollary, the content is so superficial that it doesn’t stick…).
I still have a number of books on the go that I hope to finish early next year (such as the first Witcher book that the game and Netflix series was based on, Robert Greene’s Laws of Human Nature, and Working by Robert A. Caro, to name a few). Once I clear some of the current backlog, I plan to start selecting my reading a bit more intentionally so that I can reflect on the lessons the books have to offer. Overall, the main themes that stick out in the books that speak to me personally are good moral stories, cautionary tales, and the reflections of/about people over a long period of time to draw connections and lessons from their life and work.