Friday, June 18, 2021

Make COVID-19 Vaccination Mandatory at Universities?

By Kai Chan [Improved 2021.6.19]

With COVID vaccine policy, Canadian governments and universities risk sleeping at the wheel, unfairly endangering vulnerable individuals in the name of a wrong-headed protection of personal freedoms. Governing effectively might—but doesn't necessarily—mean mandating vaccination.

As we contemplate finally returning to in-person instruction, now is the time to make this right.

Governments have been reticent to mandate vaccinations. For example, B.C.'s Return-to-Campus Primer states that “The COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandatory.” A recent editorial in the Globe and Mail argues forcefully against this policy, pointing out that "there is no constitutional right to put other people’s health at risk."
British Columbia's "Return-to-Campus
: "The COVID-19 vaccine will
not be mandatory"

As a university professor, I've seen these dramas play out first hand. I've had students contract long-COVID, and almost fail out of my course. One student was in tears for an hour as we tried to work out a plan to complete the course.

And that was not a case contracted in class. I teach a course where students are expected to attend class and to participate (last year was on Zoom). Their grades depend on it. Sure, most students will probably get vaccinated, but some will choose not to. Imagine three hypothetical students.

A is unable to get the vaccine, perhaps due to severe allergies to vaccine components or—worse—due to an autoimmune disease that also puts them at additional risk should they contract COVID. They are extremely careful about their own exposure and are deathly afraid to go to any indoor place where some people are unvaccinated (and not nearly as careful as they are).

B is able to get the vaccine, but lives with immunocompromised individuals (perhaps like A), who are understandably hyper-vigilant about any source of exposure to COVID. B understands that the vaccine provides a strong degree of protection against them getting severely sick with COVID, but they worry about the unquantified risk that they might pass COVID from classmates to others, perhaps even without getting symptoms.

British Columbia's Guidelines document
doesn't even mention "vaccine".

is a healthy young adult. They're not afraid of COVID, and they won't get the vaccine. Perhaps they think (contrary to abundant and diverse forms of evidence) that COVID is just a conspiracy. Perhaps they have been told that they need to trust in God's will to protect them, rather than vaccines. Because they are not afraid, they're not at all careful about limiting their own exposure.

Is it fair that C should be able to subject A and B (and their families and friends) to the risk of COVID-19 in the classroom?

I don't think so. And at first, I couldn't see how anyone could argue otherwise. (This was a classic case of cultural cognition, by which my views were inordinately shaped by those I was reading and hearing.) But there are worthy counter-arguments. 

The first is that it is unfair for a government to force an individual to do something that entails side-effects and risks. Vaccination does have risks. Some of the rare side-effects don't emerge until after a large-scale roll-out, like the current concerns about rare heart inflammation associated with Pfizer in young people (fortunately most have recovered quickly, with no apparent deaths). So, on fairness, the arguments for mandatory vs. voluntary vaccination seems to depend on cultural context and political leaning.

Second, there is very little vaccine hesitancy here, and early polls suggested that most people didn't favour mandatory vaccination (only 39% of Canadians did in late 2020; although with vaccine-hesitancy shrinking, views about mandatory vaccination may also be changing). In this context, it's important to consider (a) effective alternatives to mandatory policies; (b) back-fire effects, where anti-vax folks might double-down on their position and cheat (e.g., Savulescu 2020); and (c) blowback in the form of widespread resentment of mandating authorities (e.g., Meier et al. 2019). Risks of back-fire and blow-back are substantial in some contexts (although fortunately, vaccine polarization in Canada is not like the US). 

So let's consider some alternatives to mandatory vaccination. One possibility is that individuals could be left to enforce a social contract by pressuring each other to get vaccinated (e.g., Korn et al. 2020). This might sound attractive. But this means governments leaving the burden of persuasion on the vulnerable and the proactive. To me, that sounds like governments reneging on their responsibility to govern.

A second possibility is incentives, offering rewards for vaccination. There's a question of fairness here, though, with any incentive program that only targets new vaccination once most of the population is vaccinated. Why should the hold-outs get rewarded? This also risks encouraging people to wait until rewards are offered. If instead everyone gets a reward, it's costly. And by rewarding people for basic pro-social actions, we may undermine altruistic and civic motivations.

A third possibility is to shift the default (a form of 'nudge'). Make it expected (not mandatory) for students to be vaccinated. Those who can't be vaccinated safely can supply a doctor's note, etc. Those who don't wish to be vaccinated can show up to provide their reasons for health officials. The decision can be automatic (e.g., without judgement about legitimacy). As long as we shift the burden of effort to those seeking not to be vaccinated, we reflect public priorities for herd immunity in the choice structure that individuals face.

If people requesting exemption have to show up to a vaccine clinic, this solution might be even more elegant. Resistant folks would be surrounded by folks getting vaccinated, and they could change their mind at the last moment to receive a vaccine instead.

For public policy, the choice isn't simply between mandatory vs. purely voluntary. There are other smart alternatives that might be both fair and effective (particularly switching the default).

This is a message for every province, and for every university where provincial governments continue to sleep at the wheel.

Don't mistake a purely voluntary approach for a good solution. It's just the easy one, not the right one.

If you found value in or agree with this post, please share it widely. KC

This post has been modified substantially since first publication, to better reflect a range of views and alternatives, thanks to an exchange with a colleague.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Let’s Talk about Complex Chronic Illness and Academia

By Kai Chan

Yesterday, a subset of my lab group (<10 people) had a gathering on the beach for the first time since COVID began. I wasn’t among them.

The normal way to interpret this is to assume that I don’t care that much about them, that I don’t really enjoy being around them.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I love these people. They’re brilliant, generous, creative, inspiring people that I’ve gone out of my way to surround myself with. I cherish the time I get to spend with them.

So, why did I miss the gathering? Because my wife had a really bad week.

Sounds lame, doesn’t it? The words wither in my mouth as I spoke them, by way of a quick explanation for my absence.

This blog post is the longer explanation, the one I realized I had to give. It explains a whole bunch of events I’ve skipped, tasks I have begged off, deadlines I’ve missed.

Let’s try that sentence again: (because) the woman I love and the mother of my children is suffering. Chronically, and last week was especially bad. For years I made it worse by pushing her when she had nothing more to give. No more.

The suffering is hard to understand from the outside. And for those who suffer, the feeling of shame that folks just don’t get it—even close friends and family—just adds to the misery.

chaya.goldberger, Flickr

The family of conditions are called “complex chronic syndromes”. They include myeloencephalitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), fibromyalgia (sometimes called chronic pain syndrome). With permission, I’ll share that in my wife’s case it’s quite likely fibromyalgia, perhaps with systemic mold toxicity, explained partly by uncommon genetic predispositions. That’s the medical speak, the jargon.

On a human level, this manifests in an unceasing world of fog, incapacity, and hurt. It’s a body reliving past traumas—physical and otherwise—in an endless self-reinforcing cycle. It’s somewhat like having a flu and never shaking it. You still feel off, listless, achy, painfully tired, and out-of-it mentally. People think the pain is the worst of it, but that’s not my wife’s experience. The mental fog is the worst, and the anxious buzz. The pain seems most troublesome because of how it undermines sleep, which seems absolutely crucial for coping and any chance of recovery.

It’s so bad that many chronic sufferers can’t do most of what they used to do. My wife can’t work any longer. She can barely get up to function for appointments that start at 11:30am. One appointment is about all that she can manage in a day, they tax her so much. It’s hard to imagine recovering at that rate, given how many appointments seem necessary when so many things are off.

The biggest blow is almost certainly to one’s sense of self as a capable person. It’s one thing to be sick for a while, and get better. It’s another thing entirely to be so sick that you can’t do most anything, with no clear route to recovery. She will get better—I believe it firmly. But in the meantime, her incapacity gets in her head, dangerously.

And that kind of danger I can’t take lightly.

So life just isn’t the same—for me, either. I always shared child-rearing duties quite equally, and took pleasure in that. But whereas school drop-offs used to be shared, now that plus breakfasts are all mine. Ditto for cooking dinner (after my wife does dinner prep while I work), and bed-time routines—every night. I have 9-5pm on workdays for work; outside that, I’m primary parent >95% of the time.

Travelling used to be a big part of my job, but those days are long gone. When I travelled, I would work like a demon, cranking out 15+ hour days even while also juggling security checks, customs lines, and the rest. That was the only way I could keep up. I haven’t had a ten-plus-hour work day since March 5 2020, when I spent a solid seven hours on a whole-brain task and also cleared out hundreds of emails, including some complex ones. It’s crazy that I miss it.

I don’t need a pity party. My wife is the one who's suffering. (She just wants doctors to stop saying or suggesting that it's all in her head.) I have a few colleagues who are single-parenting, and what I’m going through is not close to that. My wife still does a lot, and she is there to balance out my heavy-handedness and all my other parenting foibles. Plus she’s there for me when I need her.

from Flickr

I used to think that meant that I could travel, and she’d rally. And she did. Before I understood her condition—before either of us did—I thought this was OK. I’d have a work trip on the horizon. As my departure approached, she would grow increasingly anxious about coping without me. Inevitably, she would lash out, and I’d get defensive at the perceived guilt trip. We’d argue for days. When I would return, she’d be sapped, but she would have made it.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” they say. I don’t think they suffered from a complex chronic illness.

These trials certainly didn’t seem to be making my wife stronger. The knowledge that she had made it through before was no comfort next time around. If anything, the anxiety was worse.

I’m done making it all worse. I don’t want to see how far she can be pushed. I want to make space for her to get better.

This post deepens my understanding of achieving balance in academia, which I reflected on in the following three posts from 2015:

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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

It’s a bird, it’s a plane -- it’s a bat!

By Julia Craig, Masters student

View over Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park

Not every master’s thesis makes you feel like a comic book hero. Yet as I strap on my helmet and vest and emerge from my basement apartment, I feel like Batman suiting up and zooming out of the bat cave. Admittedly, there are some differences. Unlike Bruce Wayne, I lack a tragic back story. Oh, and I have to get by on a graduate student’s budget, rather than a billionaire’s. Ultimately however, we share the key qualities that make a comic book hero: we both have cool gadgets, a sweet ride, and a self-mandated mission to protect the citizens bats of Gotham City Vancouver. 

My stealthy mode of transportation is an eco-friendly batmobike. It features several high-tech gadgets including an ultrasonic acoustic detector and microphone on a pole (a lot cooler than it looks) and several low-tech solutions like audio dampening devices (which others might call “pieces of cardboard that block noise from my brakes”). The appearance is as striking as the batmobile--but for entirely different reasons. I often get odd looks from passersby. Maybe they’re also expecting a tinfoil helmet? But here function is more important than form: the batmobike lets me eavesdrop on bats.

Diagram of the Batmobike, drawn by Julia Craig

Like all biology students, I yearn to peek into the lives of animals. In this case, bats. I can’t actually translate bat conversations (yet), but I can tell which bats are present.

There are actually bats in Vancouver— as many as 8 different species, according to a preliminary study. Year after year, they return from a winter-long hibernation to their favourite summer roosts around the city; in tree hollows, abandoned buildings, attics and bat boxes. 

In fact, they’ve been here for generations. Much like humans, bats have long enjoyed living in river valleys, wetlands, and deltas, where there’s fresh water and warm nights. They become so attached to their summer residences that they have found ways to remain even as cities were built up around them. Indeed, they don’t have many other options in BC as much of their ideal habitat is regularly logged or developed for agriculture and industry. This loss of habitat is a primary threat for the many bats at risk in BC.

Protecting these species involves learning how to coexist with them—even in cities. First, we need to know what animals like about our cities to begin with. 

Although bats share our city and live amongst us, we know surprising little about them. Birds advertise themselves in plain sight. Bats, on the other hand, hide during the day. And when they emerge at night, they call at a frequency that people can’t hear. How they use the city is a mystery—for now.

Bats can be distinguished from birds at twilight by their agile and unpredictable flight patterns

Cue the batmobike. Using an ultrasonic detector and riding around the city at night, I hope to catch glimpse into where bats are. From other studies that monitored bat activity, I have some idea of where bats may like to hang out. For example, they often prefer one-stop destinations like ponds where they can easily grab dinner and a drink.

Vancouver, however, is one of the greenest cities in the world, with parks of all sizes, surrounded by a bay and a river, with greenways and trails that run through or by them all. Will bats use these varied landscape features for foraging or as connections to other parts of the city? Or will they stay only in the most “natural” areas? Are there differences between bat species: do they form cliques, with all the artsy little browns hanging out by the river or sporty California myotis foraging by the beach?

These kinds of studies (called “mobile transects”) are often done with cars, but I have chosen to use a bike as it is better suited to the city. With a bike, I can transverse the city on its many greenways, roll through parks on gravel paths, and ride through forests on dirt trails, or by ponds on golf courses. In theory, I will get a pretty complete picture of where bats are in the city. Perhaps batmobikes will become more common practice in the future, with enough velophile grad students!

Stay tuned to discover with me the secret lives of bats! 

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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Should I stay, or should I go? Mental health, retention, and crossroads (Part 1 of 2)

By Jo Fitzgibbons, PhD Student

I almost quit my PhD last week.

It’s probably the thousandth time I’ve considered leaving my PhD. I’ve been insecure in the decision to pursue doctoral studies since even before applying. Frankly, I will think about it a thousand more times before I finish - or don’t. And although most people don’t talk openly about this inner conflict until they actually pull the plug, I know from conversations with my peers that I am not the only one toiling about this decision, right now. 

How did I get to this point, I wonder? I have enjoyed many privileges in life that have allowed me to succeed academically, and have been incredibly fortunate to have supportive supervisors and professors over the years who pushed me to be the best scholar I can be. In many ways, an academic career seems like a natural fit - it’s something I’m good at and have been well-supported to do. But academic achievement isn’t a measure of wellbeing, and like many graduate students, I struggle with chronic mental health problems. 

I was already burnt out by the time I started my Master’s, and again, still, when I started my PhD. I’ve become physically ill from stress. Most of the time, I feel that I am driving on flat tires: I doubt that my research makes a difference, yet, the world chugs on around me, seemingly getting progressively more dismal, hateful, and barren with every moment that I spend working toward my degree. Personal family challenges have me constantly looking over my shoulder at the East Coast, wondering if I am in the right place, and if it is time to go home. Now, in 2021, we have been dealing with COVID-19 related lockdowns and social restrictions for nearly a full year. Grad school is already a solitary endeavor, but the pandemic has made it feel brutally lonely. 

Image source: Melinda Aley, “grad school memes with relatable themes” Facebook group

On the other hand, the limited experiences I have had in practice have felt gratifying. I’m a license-eligible urban planner, and I’ve done internships with governments and worked as a project manager in nonprofits. In these roles, my deliverables (and the uplifting fanfare over their completion) were only ever, at most, about six months out from the current date (instead of… how many years, again?). I could see the impact of my work on real people in real communities, even if the magnitude of it was smaller than the global sustainability issues I explore in my research. Being paid a professional wage for my labour also, obviously, sounds more appealing than watching 60% of my academic “income” get whittled away on the cost of housing and food alone (that's even after splitting the cost of living with another person, and with more generous funding than many students get). And every year that I spend on my PhD is a year that I am not building the essential applied experience needed to get professional accreditation in my field. 

In other words, I feel like there are lots of “push” factors nudging me to leave, and a few “pull” factors urging me to stay. It’s hard to self-help myself out of this rut because sometimes it feels like nobody understands, even though I know, statistically, that most grad students have gone through this. That’s because all the well-intentioned op-eds, self-help apps or online self-guided mental health tools address only one problem at a time, or only talk about factors from one part of my life (school). Sure, impostor syndrome is something that I and many grad students experience, but it is not the only thing keeping me up at night. My life is an ecosystem, full of moving parts and interconnected pieces. Salmon and I have that in common - there is no “smoking gun” causing us to decline, but rather, it is a matter of cumulative impacts from several stressors. 

My situation is not unique - many students struggle with this, and it has been written about on the CHANS Lab Blog before, in 2015. We have learned a few things about graduate mental health and its relationship to retention since then, and with Bell Let’s Talk Day upon us, it felt appropriate to re-ignite the conversation. Let’s Talk Day takes place on January 28th each year, and is the company’s charitable effort to reduce stigma and normalize conversations about mental health. (Note: I share a healthy cynicism with others about this campaign - see here and here - but ultimately still value the space it provides to speak openly about mental health.)

The journal “Nature” published results of an international multi-language survey in 2019 about mental health and life satisfaction of graduate students. While 38% of students indicated that they were “very satisfied” with their decision to pursue a PhD, the (rounded) remaining 63%, a majority of respondents, sat somewhere between “somewhat satisfied” and “very dissatisfied”. 

Furthermore, 36% of respondents indicated that they had “sought help for anxiety and depression caused by their PhD studies”. The study does not report on how many respondents dealt with these issues, but did not "seek help". The findings echo similar research conducted by the World Health Organization examining clinical signs of mental disorder among students. Concerningly, only 26% of the students that sought help “said they got real assistance at their institutions”. Worse still is that many students (18%) do not feel supported when they do seek help, and 10% indicated that no help was available for them at their institution.

The magnitude of these responses indicates that this is not an individual problem - it’s a pervasive, systemic one. A large majority (76%) of survey respondents indicated that they work more than 41 hours per week, and most attribute this to the culture of their university. Combine these excessive working hours with “publish or perish” pressure, rampant impostor syndrome, a lack of suitable mental health supports, an oversaturated job market where a doctoral degree may even reduce your earnings, and people constantly asking you when you’re going to join the “real world”... are we really surprised that so many PhD students do not see their program through to completion?

Image source:

Last week, it all came to a head for me. I sat staring at my puffy red face on Zoom, occasionally muting myself to blow my nose, and trying to explain through a tight throat and a broken voice to my supervisor, Kai, why I could not do this anymore. And Kai, bless him, spent our whole monthly meeting trying to understand, telling me he believed in me, offering help, and nudging me to see the forest for the trees. He was kind, and his arguments were reasonable: planning practice offers more instant gratification and feedback for my efforts, but as a scientist, I could achieve a wider sphere of influence, make more of a difference on the issues that really matter to me outside of the planning profession. It’s not that I don’t care about making a difference, I had to explain, but those are tall ambitions for someone with flat tires. There are days when I can hardly even drag myself out of bed, much less think about changing the world. 

This was not his first rodeo, obviously: he has talked students down from the ledge before. I had a chance to hear from one of those students during our departmental coffee social, and have known a few other people in my life who made the difficult decision to leave their PhD. The truth is that most of these people (the ones I know, anyway) have felt satisfied with their decision whether they stayed, or whether they left… after it’s over, of course, and it’s all hindsight, it is easier to be happy with what you’ve done. In the words of the late, great Douglas Adams in “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” (the title of which is a remarkably good description of how I’m feeling right now): “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” 

For today, at least, I have backed down from the proverbial ledge. It can feel taboo to talk about “dropping out”, but in stigmatizing this conversation, we’re leaving students stranded and confused, worsening stress, and squeezing them out. Your mental health should not be the price you pay for a PhD. So, let’s talk.

In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll hear from some of those people about how they made it through (or didn’t) and what life has been like on the “other side”. In the meantime, let’s acknowledge the truth about systemic mental health problems in academia, and support each other openly, and navigate the weeds together instead of alone.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Great news for coho salmon! Perhaps....

An article in Science magazine describes the new discovery that a little-known chemical used as a tire-preservative may be killing large numbers of coho salmon near roadways (due to the runoff of tire dust). This is being hailed as a tremendous success for salmon, the final chapter in a long search for the 'smoking gun' of coho salmon declines in the Pacific Northwest.

But the allure of the 'smoking gun' idea illustrates a deeper problem of our collective desire for simple answers from reductionist science. At our peril, we continue to forget that all ecological problems have to be viewed as potentially having multiple causes operating at multiple spatial and temporal scales.

The LA Times article is framed in such a way as to suggest that we should expect this level of precision in identifying a single primary source of mortality, and that this is needed before substantial action is taken. Other salmon species—and many other species—are likely declining not primarily due to this one chemical, but rather to the interacting effects of several known stressors (including climate change, other pollutants, diseases, habitat loss including dams and stream simplification), all of which can be managed. And if we wait until we’ve got a smoking gun, we will fail to address the true problem, which is multi-causal.
For Fraser River sockeye salmon, the problem is clearly multi-causal,
likely spanning the whole salmon life cycle. Does that mean we should
give up? No. Image from Marmorek et al., 2011.

E.g., quoting Peter Moyle from the LA Times article: “The challenge when you talk about declines of really sensitive fish like coho salmon, is that there are so many things that are affecting them simultaneously, it’s hard to pinpoint one”. It is hard, but sometimes or perhaps often it’s impossible, because it’s not a single smoking gun that’s the problem.
Joe Dillon: “Now that they’ve gotten it nailed down to one compound — that’s amazing. It’s also really helpful that something could be done about it”. Something can be done about all the known major stressors.
Matt St. John: “When you find a causal link like this that is controllable, we need to take this type of information seriously.” Yes, but we also need to take seriously the science that suggests that for most species, their downward decline is a cumulative function of several stressors, each of which may have mostly sublethal effects alone.
Even coho salmon, good news requires that government and industry act on this science and on other stressors that are also undermining coho survival and reproduction. In the past, such action has been stymied or delayed by pointing to each of the other stressors as suggestion that costly action won't even necessarily fix the problem. Let's not let such obfuscation interfere again.

More broadly, we have to recognize the limitations of this obsession with tidy reductionist science, and acknowledge the necessity of complex-adaptive-system science for most problems of the Anthropocene.


Marmorek, D., D. Pickard, A. Hall, K. Bryan, L. Martell, C. Alexander, K. Wieckowski, L. Greig and C. Schwarz (2011). Fraser River sockeye salmon: data synthesis and cumulative impacts. Cohen Commission Tech. Rep. Vancouver, B.C., ESSA Technologies Ltd: 273. 

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Wednesday, November 4, 2020

When Appreciation of Truth Hangs in the Balance, We All Have Work To Do—Regardless of Which Way it Falls

Let This Be a Wake-Up Call

By Kai Chan

The appreciation of truth, order, and government for the people (not just supporters) hangs in the balance as the US election remains too close to call. No matter what happens, we should all feel an urgency like never before, as we witness a once-great democratic nation crumbling.

What was potentially excusable once, four years ago, as a one-time lapse in judgement, is not excusable now. Back in November 2016, people speculated that maybe Trump wouldn’t be so brash, loose with the truth, and incendiary as President. Others argued that if it got really bad, voters would send him packing in four years.

He was every bit as bad as we could have imagined. And now it’s clear that nearly 50% of Americans prefer the lies and misleading half-truths spewed from a badly written Twitter stream to reputable and reliable journalism. The same almost-50% of Americans love a leader who ‘sounds like us’ (to paraphrase numerous supporters), even if he flagrantly abuses his power for personal and political gain. And they trust a President on climate change, although he is woefully lacking in scientific understanding and at odds with the vast majority of the scientific community, all while climate-enhanced disasters burn and flood their way through US neighbourhoods and homes.

The alternative-reality crisis exacerbates
the climate, ecological and inequality crises.
None would be so bad, if it weren't for the others.
Regardless of the election result, this is a nation that needs transformative change, now. But it’s one that’s dangerously close to sinking into a trap of social-media-fuelled echo chambers of lies and conspiracy theories, that sees enemies in anyone seeking true unity for the nation.

Four years ago, I wrote to my graduate and undergraduate students to help them process what a post-truth world means for those whose entire purpose is seeking truth. It’s deja vu now.

Except that it’s worse. Progressives threw everything they thought they had at achieving a different result. Even if they barely succeeded, they have also failed. The division is so great now, the distrust so deep, the truth so apparently elusive, that a marginal win is nowhere near good enough.

This is not about left vs. right. If a Republican politician with integrity were elected on an honest platform that was fiscally and socially conservative, I would have no beef. As the Lincoln Project demonstrates, the problem with Trump isn’t his Republican affiliation, but rather the threat he poses to cherished and crucial American institutions needed for a functioning democracy.

We need scientists more than ever—including social scientists, of course. They (we) seek the truth for a living. We don’t own the truth, but we have honed the best system available for pursuing it. We can certainly identify lies.

With a million species at risk of extinction, a global climate on the precipice of dangerous tipping points, and pervasive systematic racism and injustice, the truth is essential. And there’s no time to spare.

This crisis of alternative realities is so much worse than the US problems of science integrity of 2004, when a group of us at Stanford wrote in Nature that “If a government abuses science to justify its policies, scientists have a duty to speak out”.

And yet action cannot take the form of scientists simply spouting the truth. As if that will convince anyone new. No, effective science engagement—like effective policy—must recognize that people are not rational agents—that people process ‘facts’ together in ways that consolidate group membership around shared values, even if it’s wrong. Better to be wrong with your friends, than right and alone?

To succeed, we all need to address this reality crisis.

We need to puncture the thought-bubbles on social-media that breed ignorance, incivility, and polarization.

We need to address the systemic inequities that have led so many Americans (especially in the rust belt) to feel angry at being left behind.

And we need to reach out and talk about real issues, even—no, especially—with those who might disagree.

This is hard. And uncomfortable. But necessary.

Those who think this kind of polarization couldn’t happen in Canada or elsewhere are thinking wishfully. Yes, Canada have some distinct advantages over the US. But just last year, in the last Canadian federal election, we had western alienation and memes of #Wexit (a western-province exit from the nation).

As the intersecting global climate, biodiversity, and inequality crises come to a head, it’s hard not to imagine that a functional society depends on addressing this growing fissure now—in every nation.

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Watch "The Social Dilemma"—and Talk about It

by Kai Chan, from a Facebook post from September

I just watched The Social Dilemma (on Netflix), and I strongly recommend it to EVERYONE. Anyone who has a social media account, is concerned about political polarization and fake news, and/or has kids, grandkids, or other children in their lives.

This is not a conspiracy theory. There's no allegation that this technology was invented for manipulation (beyond profit making, which is normal). And there's no suggestion that social media is all bad. It's got tremendous upsides, many noted in the film.

The movie offers something much more. It offers a chance to reflect on what's dangerous about social media, and why. Also, what's not so dangerous. It's informed by the perspectives of a dozen prominent social-media execs (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.) who have come to worry about the virtual realities they have created.

The solution is not to delete all social media accounts. At this stage, we need these media to organize towards a solution. I think the answer is to take a series of very achievable steps to regain control over our time, our children, and a sane society where we can talk to and relate to our neighbours across political divides.
The Social Dilemma, on Netflix
(promotional poster)

MY PLEDGE: I will ...
1. First use a reputable fact-checking centrist news source (where we can all share the experience of a single reality—e.g., CBC, Globe and Mail), not social media for news (where we can get lost in echo chambers, oblivious to others' perspectives).
2. Turn off notifications—except for direct communication with close friends and family.
3. Fact-check, critically evaluate, and seek to understand the other perspective.
4. Keep my whole family off devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime (no devices in the bedroom).
5. Keep my children off social media until they are at least 16, when they have a solid sense of self-worth and an understanding of genuine friendship and superficial social media 'likes'.

Does this make sense for you? If not, what might you do?

I do this all out of respect for others—because I know that those who have different views are not stupid (although social-media thought bubbles don't help me understand how they aren't).

I do it out of concern for the value of my time—because I know that algorithms can feed me content that will keep me online longer than I would otherwise choose (to the benefit of massive social media platforms and consumerism generally).

And I do it out of love for my family—because I know that children are vulnerable to feelings of loneliness, otherness, FOMO (fear of missing out), superficiality, peer-pressure, harassment and bullying (because they are still forming their identities and their senses of self-worth).

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at