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.

Creative Commons Licence
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

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).

Creative Commons Licence
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

Monday, November 2, 2020

What Grief Taught Me about Conflicts of Interest

By Kai Chan

Two and a half weeks ago, I heard the devastating news that my former student Adrian Semmelink had died in his sleep over Thanksgiving weekend. Connected in unexpected ways, I had just renewed my conflict-of-interest declaration at UBC.
Adrian Semmelink, a great student, person, 
... and friend

Here's how it went. Renewing my declaration, I found to my chagrin that I had made a statement that I really couldn't stand by. In response to the question about close personal relationships at the workplace, including students, I had written that I seek to be friendly with all my students, but I didn't consider them to be close personal relationships according to their examples (partner, child, close personal friend).

Except that the bit about "according to their examples" was only implicit. Even then it didn't sit right. I can't help but feel close to my students, and like they're not just my mentees but also friends (defined as sharing a mutual bond of affection). I certainly feel affection for my students. I can hope they feel the same for me.

I remember struggling with this passage the previous year. I remember not knowing what to do. Did the friendships I had with my students constitute close personal ones?

What are the tests of this? Sometimes I share details about my life that go beyond work, including ones that I might otherwise keep guarded. That seems to indicate a closeness, of a personal nature.

I changed the text to indicate simply that I am friends with all my students, and I can't help but become close.

Turns out another test of 'close personal' is hearing that someone died. (What a lousy test.) That feeling of my heart dropping out of my chest, the rage against the universe, the overwhelming sadness about the truncation of life and its relationships, the lost moments of confusion—including right in the middle of class—when memories of Adrian came flooding to front of mind. "Friendship, but not close or personal"?

And how could we not become close? How could we go to the lengths that we go to as supervisors to make our students lives better, to advance their goals, and their visions for themselves and the world—how could we do that without becoming invested in them? That is, in an affectionate rather than instrumental way?

I remember having senior colleagues tell me on several occasions many years ago that our students are not our friends, and that it's crucial to keep a distance. The logic seemed indisputable at the time: we are occasionally put in positions of having to make students do things they don't want to do; occasionally we even have to fail them.

But the logic falls down. Neither of those tasks precludes friendships. At least not for me. I've pulled rank on students a couple of times, and told them that a task was not negotiable. And although I've never had to fail one of my grad students, I've certainly had to indicate that failure was on the horizon, conditional on big changes. (That student left my mentorship).

All of those experiences felt like crap—they all invoked a strong cognitive dissonance because friends don't act like that to friends. But we deal with cognitive dissonance all the time. In this case, it's straightforward although not simple: we have layered relationships. Sometimes I've got to put the friend hat down and wear the supervisor hat exclusively.

So I disagree with those senior colleagues. I will continue to be friends with my students. Acknowledging, of course, that it might be a whole lot harder for my students to let down their guard with me (knowing that I may have to pull rank on them) than for me to let down my guard with them.

So yes, I do have conflicts of interest involving my students—all of them. Grief has clarified what I should already have known: I'm emotionally invested. I can't imagine it being any other way.

I a. person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection