It seems hard to square face-to-face education with pandemic prevention. In states like Colorado, increasing COVID transmissions are driven by college student cases. The New York Times tallies 178 thousand infections and counting at institutions of higher learning across the country. My own institution has just shut down in-person classes for the next two weeks after learning about several large parties happening over the weekend. The few colleges that so far seem to be successful at preventing outbreaks have expended immense resources, some going so far as to test students weekly or prohibit leaving campus except for an emergency. Are universities up to the task of preventing pandemics?
So-called hybrid and in-person classes have taken an immense about of planning and preparation. Hand sanitizer and face masks had to be bought in immense quantities, rooms needed reconfigured for distance education, and dorms and food service needed redesigned to support social distancing. Unfortunately, it seems like few, if any, college administrators gave as much consideration to the organizational and social facets of pandemic prevention, preferring to wag their finger at undergraduates and expect them to behave. No one appears to have stopped to ask, “What do students need in order to be able to comply?”
Just as abstinence-based sex education is ineffective at reducing teenage pregnancy, an abstinence-based approach to pandemic schooling won’t stop social intimacy among college students. And this should have been no mystery to college administrators, or at least it would not have been if they consulted social scientists rather than only epidemiologists and virologists. Safety has rarely been the technological accomplishment. Preventing outbreaks could have only be done through achieving the right kind of campus culture and a deep understanding of how to actually empower people to act safely.
The reality that safety is socially accomplished is well-known to people who study risky technology. Decades of studies on operators of nuclear reactors, sailors on aircraft carriers, and air traffic controllers show that safety can be assured only by investing in a culture of high reliability. High reliability organizations invest considerable time and effort investing in people. Members need to have complete “buy in” regarding the organization’s performance. They not only receive considerable training but are also empowered to help make important collective decisions about the hazards they face. High reliability employees are more than just “rule followers.”
The question is, “Can university campuses become high reliability organizations when it comes to pandemic prevention?” There is good reason to believe the answer is “no.” The same kinds of organizational studies that uncovered the existence of organizations capable of averting disaster typically found college bureaucracies to be very much the opposite. Festering problems go unaddressed, “solutions” are developed to non-existent problems, and decisions get made without obvious efforts at careful problem solving.
The organizational dysfunction of universities is well known to the people that work in them. We have just been lucky up until now that colleges haven’t had to actually handle anything hazardous, like nuclear fuel or supersonic jets. The consequences of chronic institutional incompetence are just a growing mental health crisis among students, poor graduation rates, and graduates who lack many of the fundamental skills that they will actually need in their later careers.
To the skeptic, the solution is dead simple: colleges should only offer online classes. That is the only inherently safe strategy. As a classic paper on the safety of petrochemical plants put it, “What you don’t have, can’t leak.” The easiest way to mitigate the harms of dangerous chemicals is to employ them in smaller amounts, move them shorter distances, introduce them into chemical reactions under more benign conditions, or simply replace them with safer alternatives. The same is true for colleges: What students you don’t have on campus, can’t get infected.
But perhaps that goes too far. Maybe there are lessons from the safe operation of nuclear plants and other potentially catastrophic technologies that could be applied to the college environment. Safety expert Sidney Dekker calls one version of the high reliability approach “Safety Differently,” and it works by seeing people not as problem to managed or to fixed but rather as essential parts of the solution. University administrators have mainly done the former by implementing mandatory testing and quarantine procedures, enforcing social distancing protocols, and employing threats of punishment and injunctions to “be responsible” to try to cajole the students into doing the right thing.
All those efforts seem commonsensical. The problem is that they backfire. Threats of punishment lead people to hide their mistakes, meaning that vital information is not shared with the people who need them. Students have a party, then lie about it.
An overemphasis on protocols reduces safety to rule following, undercutting people’s motivation to think about what the right thing to do might be for a given situation. People treat mask wearing and 6 ft. of distance as if it were magic. They enforce compliance in situations where transmission risk is likely already low, like when walking outside, which can eat away at the seriousness that people take mask requirements. And it remains an open question whether or not cloth masks are really good enough to last an hour of breathing and talking in the enclosed space of a classroom, especially if students don’t launder them enough or they become wet.
Making students part of the solution of pandemic prevention would mean including them in discussions about what kinds of protocols should be implemented and how. In the effort to prevent campus outbreaks, students are no longer universities’ “customers” and more like the operators of a nuclear reactor. It is their behavior that determines whether risks are contained. It is only students who can prevent a pandemic meltdown. Most importantly, they are the only ones with the expertise regarding how different demands and precautions can be made compatible with student life and their social and mental health needs. Without them, administrators are trying to manage a high-risk sociotechnical system that they can’t really understand.
But that sounds like a tall order. Cultivating a high reliability culture is one thing on an aircraft carrier, but quite another among college students. Even worse, students are already infantilized by our educational system in general: by the demeaning carrot and stick incentives of the grading system; by the lack of space for individual curiosity; and by the reluctance to let students take responsibility for their own learning. If we cannot even trust students with their own education, how can we rely on them to be responsible when it comes to COVID? Achieving outbreak-free in-person campuses may prove to be impossible without far more radical changes to the structure of higher education.
Are Americans losing their grip on reality? It is difficult not to think so in light of the spread of QANON conspiracy theories, which posit that a deep-state ring of Satanic pedophiles is plotting against President Trump. A recent poll found that some 56% of Republican voters believe that at least some of the QANON conspiracy theory is true. But conspiratorial thinking has been on the rise for some time. One 2017 Atlantic article claimed that America had “lost its mind” in its growing acceptance of post-truth. Robert Harris has more recently argued that the world had moved into an “age of irrationality.” Legitimate politics is threatened by a rising tide of unreasonableness, or so we are told. But the urge to divide people in rational and irrational is the real threat to democracy. And the antidote is more inclusion, more democracy—no matter how outrageous the things our fellow citizens seem willing to believe.
Despite recent panic over the apparent upswing in political conspiracy thinking, salacious rumor and outright falsehoods has been an ever-present feature of politics. Today’s lurid and largely evidence-free theories about left-wing child abuse rings have plenty of historical analogues. Consider tales of Catherine the Great’s equestrian dalliances and claims that Marie Antoinette found lovers in both court servants and within her own family. Absurd stories about political elites seems to have been anything but rare. Some of my older relatives believed in the 1990s that the government was storing weapons and spare body parts underneath Denver International Airport in preparation for a war against common American citizens—and that was well before the Internet was a thing.
There seems to be little disagreement that conspiratorial thinking threatens democracy. Allusions to Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay on the “paranoid style of American politics” have become cliché. Hofstadter’s targets included 1950s conservatives that saw Communist treachery around every corner, 1890s populists railing against the growing power of the financial class, and widespread worries about the machinations of the Illuminati. He diagnosed their politics paranoid in light of their shared belief that the world was being persecuted by a vast cabal of morally corrupt elites.
Regardless of their specific claims, conspiracy theories’ harms come from their role in “disorienting” the public, leading citizens to have grossly divergent understandings of reality. And widespread conspiratorial thinking drives the delegitimation of traditional democratic institutions like the press and the electoral system. Journalists are seen as pushing “fake news.” The voting booths become “rigged.”
Such developments are no doubt concerning, but we should think carefully about how we react to conspiracism. Too often the response is to endlessly lament the apparent end of rational thought and wonder aloud if democracy can survive while being gripped by a form of collective madness. But focusing on citizens' perceived cognitive deficiencies presents its own risks. Historian Ted Steinberg called this the “diagnostic style” of American political discourse, which transforms “opposition to the cultural mainstream into a form of mental illness.” The diagnostic style leads us to view QANONers, and increasingly political opponents in general, as not merely wrong but cognitively broken. They become the anti-vaxxers of politics.
While QANON believers certainly seem to be deluding themselves, isn’t the tendency by leftists to blame Trump’s popular support on conservative’s faculty brains and an uneducated or uninformed populace equally delusional? The extent to which such cognitive deficiencies are actually at play is beside the point as far as democracy is concerned. You can’t fix stupid, as the well-worn saying has it. Diagnosing chronic mental lapses actually leaves us very few options for resolving conflicts. Even worse, it prevents an honest effort to understand and respond to the motivations of people with strange beliefs. Calling people idiots will only cause them to dig in further.
Responses to the anti-vaxxer movement show as much. Financial penalties and other compulsory measures tend to only anger vaccine hesitant parents, leading them to more often refuse voluntary vaccines and become more committed in their opposition. But it does not take a social scientific study to know this. Who has ever changed their mind in response to the charge of stupidity or ignorance?
Dismissing people with conspiratorial views blinds us to something important. While the claims themselves might be far-fetched, people often have legitimate reasons for believing them. African Americans, for instance, disproportionately believe conspiracy theories regarding the origin of HIV, such as that it was man-made in a laboratory or that the cure was being withheld, and are more hesitant of vaccines. But they also rate higher in distrust of medical institutions, often pointing to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and ongoing racial disparities as evidence. And from British sheepfarmers’ suspicion of state nuclear regulators in the aftermath of Chernobyl to mask skeptics’ current jeremiads against the CDC, governmental mistrust has often developed after officials’ overconfident claims about the risks turned out to be inaccurate. What might appear to an “irrational” rejection of the facts is often a rational response to a power structure that feels distant, unresponsive, and untrustworthy.
The influence of psychologists has harmed more than it has helped in this regard. Carefully designed studies purport to show that believers in conspiracy theories lack the ability to think analytically or claim that they suffer from obscure cognitive biases like “hypersensitive agency detection.” Recent opinion pieces exaggerate the “illusory truth effect,” a phenomenon discovered in psych labs that repeated exposure to false messages leads to a relatively slight increase in the number subjects rating them as true or plausible. The smallness of this, albeit statistically significant, effect doesn’t stop commentators from presenting social media users as if they were passive dupes, who only need to be told about QANON so many times before they start believing it. Self-appointed champions of rationality have spared no effort to avoid thinking about the deeper explanations for conspiratorial thinking.
Banging the drum over losses in rationality will not get us out of our present situation. Underneath our seeming inability to find more productive political pastures is a profound misunderstanding of what makes democracy work. Hand Wringing over “post-truth” or conspiratorial beliefs is founded on the idea that the point of politics is to establish and legislate truths. Once that is your conception of politics, the trouble with democracy starts to look like citizens with dysfunctional brains.
When our fellow Americans are recast as cognitively broken, it becomes all too easy to believe that it would be best to exclude or diminish the influence of people who believe outrageous things. Increased gatekeeping within the media or by party elites and scientific experts begins to look really attractive. Some, like philosopher Jason Brennan, go even further. His 2016 book, Against Democracy, contends that the ability to rule should be limited to those capable of discerning and “correctly” reasoning about the facts, while largely sidestepping the question of who decides what the right facts are and how to know when we are correctly reasoning about them.
But it is misguided to think that making our democracy only more elitist will throttle the wildfire spread of conspiratorial thinking. If anything, doing so will only temporarily contain populist ferment, letting pressure build until it eventually explodes or (if we are lucky) economic growth leads it to fizzle out. Political gatekeeping, by mistaking supposed deficits in truth and rationality for the source of democratic discord, fails to address the underlying cause of our political dysfunction: the lack of trust.
Signs of our political system’s declining legitimacy are not difficult to find. A staggering 71 percent of the Americans believe that elected officials don’t care about the average citizen or what they think. Trust in our government has never been lower, with only 17 percent of citizens expressing confidence about Washington most or all the time. By diagnosing rather than understanding, we cannot see that conspiratorial thinking is the symptom rather than the disease.
The spread of bizarre theories about COVID-19 being a “planned” epidemic or child-abuse rings is a response to real feelings of helplessness, isolation, and mistrust as numerous natural and manmade disasters unfold before our eyes—epochal crises that governments seem increasingly incapable of getting a handle on. Many of Hofstadter’s listed examples of conspiratorial thought came during similar moments: at the height of the Red Scare and Cold War nuclear brinkmanship, during the 1890s depression, or in the midst of pre-Civil War political fracturing. Conspiracy theories offer a simplified world of bad guys and heroes. A battle between good and evil is a more satisfying answer than the banality of ineffectual government and flawed electoral systems when one is facing wicked problems.
Perhaps social media adds fuel to the fire, accelerating the spread of outlandish proposals about what ails the nation. But it does so not because it short-circuits our neural pathways to crash our brains’ rational thinking modules. Conspiracy theories are passed by word of mouth (or Facebook likes) by people we already trust. It is no surprise that they gain traction in a world where satisfying solutions to our chronic, festering crises are hard to find, and where most citizens are neither afforded a legible glimpse into the workings of the vast political machinery that determines much of their lives nor the chance to actually substantially influence it.
Will we be able to reverse course before it is too late? If mistrust and unresponsiveness is the cause, the cure should be the effort to reacquaint Americans with the exercise of democracy on a broad-scale. Hofstadter himself noted that, because the political process generally affords more extreme sects little influence, public decisions only seemed to confirm conspiracy theorists’ belief that they are a persecuted minority. The urge to completely exclude “irrational” movements forgets that finding ways to partially accommodate their demands is often the more effective strategy. Allowing for conscientious objections to vaccination effectively ended the anti-vax movement in early 20th century Britain. Just as interpersonal conflicts are more easily resolved by acknowledging and responding to people’s feelings, our seemingly intractable political divides will only become productive by allowing opponents to have some influence on policy. That is not to say that we should give into all their demands. Rather it is only that we need to find small but important ways for them to feel heard and responded to, with policies that do not place unreasonable burdens on the rest of us.
While some might pooh-pooh this suggestion, pointing to conspiratorial thinking as evidence of how ill-suited Americans are for any degree of political influence, this gets the relationship backwards. Wisdom isn’t a prerequisite to practicing democracy, but an outcome of it. If our political opponents are to become more reasonable it will only be by being afforded more opportunities to sit down at the table with us to wrestle with just how complex our mutually shared problems are. They aren’t going anywhere, so we might as well learn how to coexist.
America’s nuclear energy situation is a microcosm of the nation’s broader political dysfunction. We are at an impasse, and the debate around nuclear energy is highly polarized, even contemptuous. This political deadlock ensures that a widely disliked status quo carries on unabated. Depending on one’s politics, Americans are left either with outdated reactors and an unrealized potential for a high-energy but climate-friendly society, or are stuck taking care of ticking time bombs churning out another two thousand tons of unmanageable radioactive waste every year
Continue reading at The New Atlantis
Anyone who knows the history of major disasters like the BP oil spill will have noticed one common feature: overconfidence in the face of the unknown, or what most of us know as foolhardiness. If US colleges are to avoid being mentioned in those kinds of history books, residents, students, and parents need to demand that university presidents reverse course on their campus reopening plans.
Many institutions of higher learning across the nation find themselves in a precarious financial position. They face declining enrollments, oil bust-driven decreases in funding, and the costs of COVID-related protections. Throughout history, organizations in charge of serious hazards have had to grapple with similar economic pressures. And many of them have made unwise decisions as a result. The disaster in Bhopal, India that took the lives of thousands of people was the result of cost cutting measures by Union Carbide, which fundamentally undermined their chemical plants’ safety systems. More recently, Boeing stifled dissent about destabilizing design changes to their 737 MAX jets, because they were preoccupied with not losing market share to Airbus.
There is an implicit cost-benefit analysis behind university administrators’ justification for reopening. They have balanced the chance of a handful of students in the ICU—perhaps one or more dead—against ensuring a higher quality “educational experience” and shoring up enrollment numbers as well as room and board revenues. No doubt private companies and regulators do the same thing every day when they decide whether it is worth including additional safety features in cars or if extra road and highway deaths caused by high speed limits are a fair price for giving drivers a quicker commute.
But the hazard presented by reopening universities is a different class of risk altogether: Car accidents don’t spread exponentially. We risk repeating the mistaken thinking of Union Carbide or Boeing, courting disaster in the pursuit of more modest gains (or the avoidance of losses). Rather than accept the certain costs of decreased enrollment and of the absence of on-campus students, administrators have bet the farm on in-person and “hybrid” semesters, gambling on unproven strategies meant to keep college students from being socially intimate with each other. If they succeed, the spoils will be modest: Their own institutions won’t lose much ground to peer colleges. If they end up sparking a major outbreak, the damage may prove ruinous to their institution’s reputation and financial solvency, not to mention the harms to nearby residents and local healthcare systems. There are reasons why intelligent people don’t play Russian Roulette. You only get to lose once.
We can do far better than gamble with the lives of students, staff, faculty, and community members in order to avoid moderate financial losses. Forward-looking institutions will instead focus on attracting enrollment by drastically improving the quality of online delivery and on redoubling their efforts to attract dollars through research proposals and contract work. There is no guarantee that such efforts would bear fruit, but at least the losses would be known and plausibly manageable. Far too many universities and colleges are committing themselves to the institutional equivalent of Pamplona’s “running of the bulls,” where "winning" only means avoiding mortal injury. There is still time to change course. But will wiser heads prevail?
“Gift to Big Oil.” “Toxic.” “Dangerous.” Planet of the Humans, which criticizes the idea that green energy will solve the climate crisis, has made a lot of people very upset. Some critics have gone so far as to equate its argument with climate denialism or demand that the film be taken down. While the documentary is far from perfect, far worse is the shallowness of the discussion about the film. Both Planet of the Humans and the critical response of it illustrate everything that is wrong with our fact-obsessed culture, one in which perspectives on controversial topics aren’t honestly engaged with but merely “debunked.”
Most of the critics have zeroed in on parts of the film that are outdated or potentially misleading. The 8% efficient solar panels shown early on of the documentary are now 22% efficient. Most electrical grids are dominated by natural gas rather than coal, greatly improving the relative carbon footprint of an electric car. While the share of different renewables in Germany’s total energy mixture—which includes transportation and home heating—do hover around the single digits, altogether they comprise some 40% of electricity production.
But the facts used in the rebuttals are usually themselves only slightly less simplistic or equivalently misleading. Life-cycle analyses of electric vehicles (EVs) show that they have approximately a 30% advantage in cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions, but their impact on water sources and aquatic life is higher because they require exotic mined materials. So, while critics do have a point that the carbon outlook on electric vehicles are better than what director Jeff Gibbs implies, they don’t actually provide much to counter his argument that EVs may not actually be good enough to deliver on promised environmental outcomes. Will their carbon advantage balance out the harms if we end up building billions of them? Likewise, isn’t it deceptive to only use electricity production statistics to tout the progress made by renewables, since all energy use outputs CO2?
Neither do critics prove themselves to be dispassionate fact arbiters when they cherry pick parts of the documentary to shore up their own narrative of it as misinformed energy heresy. Much has been made of co-producer Ozzie Zehner’s statement in front of the Ivanpah concentrated solar facility: "You use more fossil fuels to do this than you're getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place, instead of playing pretend." Critics aiming at a “gotcha” moment have used this quote to portray Zehner as so obtuse as to believe that no solar technology has a better carbon footprint than fossil fuels. The more reasonable interpretation is, of course, that he’s talking specifically about the Ivanpah solar facility that he’s standing right in front of at that very moment. At this point, critics’ claim to the moral or factual high ground starts to seem suspect.
The underlying problem with the whole debate is the widespread belief that “the facts” will tell us that we are on the right track, that clear-eyed carbon accounting will clear out all the messy political and moral debates inherent in the climate crisis. If only. We get simple answers only by making simplifying assumptions and using reductive metrics, blinding ourselves to the multifaceted ways that our technologies often harm both people and the environment and obscuring far deeper questions about what humanity’s relationship with the planet should be.
The focus on “debunking” distracts us from the recognition that the climate crisis poses far more complex question than the mere carbon footprint of alternative energy technologies, that whenever we generate energy we commit ourselves to doing harm. The framing of PVs and wind turbines as “green,” “renewable,” and “zero-carbon” distracts us from how all energy technologies lead to deaths (animal and human), ecosystem destruction, massive levels of extraction and processing of raw materials, pollution, and even the disruption of our experience of non-human spaces.
If we get too caught up in the dream of green-energy-fueled progress, we risk sleepwalking through the innovation process, ignoring deeper problems until it is too late and setting ourselves up to repeat the same kind of mistake that we made with fossil fuels. In massively expanding wind or tidal energy, will the potential effects on wildlife be worth it? Is it a fair trade to give up the ability to climb a mountaintop in Vermont and hear nothing but the rustling of the trees? Will the probable environmental and sociopolitical consequences of mining rare earth metals in South American and African countries be a worthy sacrifice?
Even then, it is unclear if promises of a 100% renewable consumer society can ever be delivered. Even though a life-cycle analysis of an individual car or photovoltaic unit can produce a nice-looking number, things become far more complex at higher scales. Take Stanford professor Mark Jacobson’s proposal, which would require nearly two billion roof-top solar installations along with thousands upon thousands of tidal turbines, Ivanpah-like facilities, and geothermal plants. One would think they were reading a proposal to terraform Mars, given the sheer material requirements of such an endeavor. And even then his proposal has been pilloried for simplistic assumptions about the power grid, environmental constraints on hydropower capacity, and land use. Gibbs’s core worry that the green energy dream may be a deceptive illusion remains an important one, for the dream remains but a speculative future, one that we are by no means guaranteed to achieve.
To be fair to the critics, the documentary tends to be pretty ham-fisted, and that main point gets lost as Gibbs chases a tale of corporate greed and corruption. My sense of the film is that Moore’s and Gibbs’s voices are too loud, and that the perspective co-producer and environmental scholar Ozzie Zehner is only present in disjointed fragments. For those who feel the urge to condemn the documentary to the dustbin, I recommend taking a look at Zehner’s 2012 Green Illusions.
Surprising as it may seem to viewers of Planet of the Humans, Zehner actually concludes halfway into his book that he believes that the world will eventually be powered by renewable energy, just not in the way that we usually think. He contends that the least expensive and most environmentally beneficent way to shut down a coal plant is to not have to replace it with anything. That is, energy reduction beats green energy any day of the week. But the dominant media narrative is suffuse with speculative ecomodernist hopes and dreams of a world almost entirely unchanged from what we enjoy today, albeit powered by PVs and wind turbines. So, we dedicate far too little money and effort to all the ways that we could use far less energy, needing not only fewer fossil fuel plants but also significantly less green energy to replace it.
Zehner’s book further parts ways from Planet of the Humans by actually providing solutions. A key part of his recommendations is that none of them actually require us to “sacrifice” for the climate. There’s no bleak demand for energy “austerity” here. For example, he advocates designing cities to require far less driving and be made up of denser, more energy thrift housing. Such neighborhoods would provide residents with a level of community engagement that they likely haven’t enjoyed since college (if ever) and a quality of life difficult to find in most contemporary American cities.
Especially noteworthy is Zehner’s answer to the population question. Because Gibbs leaves the viewer to read between the lines when he proposes population control, critics have taken it upon themselves to assume the worst possible interpretation, linking Gibbs’s suggestion with something called “ecofascism” and “far-right hate groups.” (Does that also count as misinformation or is it merely misleading?) Despite the left-wing tendency to dismiss the idea inherently racist and “problematic,” Zehner’s proposal for population control couldn’t be more progressive: gender equality. He simply notes that cultures that afford the equal right of women and girls to go to school and have careers produce fewer babies. That’s certainly not ecofascist by any stretch of the imagination. But why wasn’t that in the film?
So, the problem with Planet of the Humans isn’t so much that it is factually flawed. (I mean, if other large-scale technological controversies are any guide, many critics would use even more minor empirical failings to dismiss an inconvenient perspective in its entirety.) Rather, the real limitation of the film is that it lacks a compelling vision of the future. It too easily allows others—whether it be “big oil” or nuclear energy fanatic Michael Shellenberger—opportunistically fill in the void with their own self-serving conclusions. It allows critics to dismiss it as a paean to ecofascim or nihilism. But Gibbs’s film still alerts us to something important: the need to pause and reflect upon exactly where all this “green” industrial energy activity is supposed take us. But will the critics be too preoccupied with “getting the facts right” to really hear it?
We’ve all got one: that relative, friend, or social media acquaintance who thinks the danger from Covid-19 is overhyped and the real danger is to the economy. I’m less bothered by this than the response: endless grieving about the inability of people to respect the experts and listen to the facts. “If only people recognized epidemiological truths when they saw them!” seems to be a growing cadence among my friends and numerous media pundits. Really people should quit acting as if sharing videos of handwashing techniques and flattening incidence curves will bring everyone else on board. Actually achieving greater compliance with social distancing and lock-downs will require taking a far different tack.
When we misunderstand disagreement as a product of a deficit in truth, we miss all the ways that it is really rooted in matters of trust. When people fail to accept what we ourselves might see as an obvious fact, we are more likely to denigrate them as ignorant or brainwashed. There’s no shortage of handwringing on Twitter about the MAGA-hat-wearing fools who are less concerned the need to take precautions. But in understanding the issue as a battle between fools and those of us ostensibly enlightened enough to hang on to the CDC director’s every word, we lose the ability to actually understand and sway skeptics. If anything, we push them further away.
In framing skepticism as a matter of scientific literacy, we forget that the risk is actually very uncertain, distant, intangible for most people, a challenge that the pandemic shares with challenges like climate change. Even epidemiological experts have been at odds in face of the considerable complexities and uncertainties of the novel disease; some even debate whether we actually know that the mortality rate is significantly worse than the flu and question the practicality of a long-term social lock-down.
Furthermore, most of us are not seeing the harms in front of our faces, and demands that we pursue social distancing can seem irrational when much of the rest of everyday life appears unchanged. It won’t be clear for years if our actions were too precautious, just right, or not stringent enough—if ever. Health officials are really asking quite a lot from people: ignore what you see, trust us and our models to know what’s best…even if this goes on for months.
That some people more readily trust health officials and the exhortations of heads of state says more about their underlying moral framework than their intelligence. As Jonathan Haidt’s work uncovers, most liberals’ politics is guided by a single principle: care for the least advantaged. Calls to social distance are steeped in this morality, asking people to take precautionary action to preserve precious medical resources for the elderly, immunocompromised, etc. So, it comes as no surprise that liberals are the most convinced that the pandemic is worrisome, the problem already fits neatly into their preferred moral universe.
It isn’t so much that the people who do take Covid-19 more seriously are more scientifically literate. Rather the vast majority of them had likely already bought in before they had ever seen a meme about “flattening the curve.” Although there are likely exceptions, most people’s concerns precedes their scientific literacy: if the more precautionary are more scientifically literate it’s because they already accepted the crisis as a legitimate one in the first place and then sought out scientific counsel. Do you know anyone who waited for high school biology or earth science to have an opinion about abortion or climate change, and do you know very many people whose opinion has actually been significantly altered in the short-term by taking in new scientific information? I don’t, and I know a lot of very well-educated people.
The idea that simply listening to the epidemiologists (or climates scientists or…) will end petty politicking and lead to objectively correct actions and policies just doesn’t jive with people’s thinking. I think it is embraced more for relieving our anxieties than accomplishing anything productive. Yet the belief that science can swoop in to establish order in a chaotic and conflictual world is a comforting one. I don’t necessary begrudge anyone who seeks out its comforts, but the belief drives ill-conceived political communication regardless.
The lesson for coronavirus is the same for other scientific crises: Don’t expect people to not only accept your advice but also your moral framework. And even better, leverage already trusted authority figures, like pastors and conservative television hosts.
I won’t pretend to know exactly what is going through the mind of coronavirus skeptics, but there are a few already visible threads that we should follow. Many skeptics argue that the prospect of a global economic crisis is more salient and important to them than the actual deaths that might manifest—rightly or wrongly. That some people still venture out, despite mandated social distancing, is not so much carelessness per se but caring about different things than the rest of us.
Smart pandemic policy would seek to limit the extent to which these economic worries undo social precautions. Apart from the massive proposed economic stimuli on the table, states would be wise to pair limitations on pubs and cafes with a relaxing of laws on the delivery of alcoholic beverages. And many restaurants are surrounded by so much parking that they could function as drive-in’s without too much difficulty, if made legally permissible. Similar temporary changes to regulations could enable other brick-and-mortar institutions to still do some business rather than none at all.
Discovering the right moral intuition to evoke could be done right now, using the same research techniques that marketers already use to fashion more persuasive ads. We should not just appeal to the moral intuition of care but also loyalty, sanctity, and other ideals. Abstract calls to mind the country’s limited infrastructure of intubation machines and intensive care beds would be more fruitful if supplemented by other messages: respecting social distancing is an act of loyalty to one’s older relatives, it is an exercise in patriotic togetherness against an invading disease (hopefully without also evoking xenophobia), or it reflects the truism that cleanliness is next to godliness.
Just because we are working to prevent the worst-case scenario of an epidemiological model doesn’t mean we have to also embrace the epidemiologist’s stripped-down moral accounting. Realizing the best possible outcome from this pandemic may rely on us doing anything but.
Despite the barriers to community presented by suburban sprawl, the distraction of digital devices, and a pervasive culture of individualism, people do regularly collaborate to create pockets of togetherness. Mike Lanza’s Playborhood is an important reminder that ordinary people do have the ability to incrementally realize more communal lives for their children.
Although I briefly encountered Lanza’s work as I was doing the research for my first book, Technically Together, only recently did I give it a careful read. Lanza is a staunch advocate of encouraging and supporting free play: getting kids more often away from screens and out of overly structured activities (the endless shuttling between sports and piano lessons) and letting them decide for themselves how to spend their (relatively unsupervised) time. He champions carving out space in neighborhoods for children to structure their own outdoor play spaces and recounts how he and his wife have done so on their own Bay Area block, installing water features, sandboxes, and trampolines in their yard and giving local kids permission to use them whenever they want.
Lanza’s book and motivation no doubt stems from nostalgia for the childhood he enjoyed in a Pittsburgh suburb in the 1960s and 70s. But Playborhood doesn’t simply dwell on a lost past but focuses on what groups of motivated citizens are doing today, covering efforts in New Urbanist neighborhoods, in cohousing arrangements, and elsewhere.
In contrast to a New York Times profile on Lanza’s work, I did not find any evidence of mom-bashing or unawareness of his own privilege in Playborhood.[i] Lanza is a relatively well-to-do white guy. When he describes how he has prepared his sons to ride to school by themselves, he admits that sometimes their nanny rides with them. Any limitations in his perspective comes from the fact that he writes from his own personal standpoint: his own middle-class childhood and those of his young sons. The failure to say enough about how girls and others fit into a playborhood is more a sin of omission than commission and a fairly understandable one at that.
That is not to say that Lanza doesn’t include diverse cases. One of his main examples is Lyman Place, a road in the Bronx that turns into a car-free play street every summer. While to many readers, one case study may not be enough to convincingly demonstrate that playborhoods are not likely to remain limited to more affluent residential areas for the near future, it at least shows that Lanza is making the effort to cast a wide net.
Yet one should not have unfair expectations for works like Playborhood. The book serves as a sort of how-to guide and provides inspiration for concerned parents. It is not a systematic sociological study of free play. While it is clear that Lanza has read widely on the subject—he references Ray Oldenburg and Jane Jacobs—readers looking for insight on the broader structural changes that would make things like playborhoods more the norm rather than the exception will prefer Adrian Voce’s Policy for Play or my own Technically Together. No doubt there is a lot to say about making free play and more communal child rearing feasible for a greater portion of humanity, but I don't think we should expect books like Playborhood to do that kind of work.
Surveying my own street, I find the prospect of a street-level playborhood for my two-year-old son both exciting and discouraging. The closest thing to an already existing playborhood in my town is “Faculty Hill”, a pocket of largely unaffordable homes tucked next to my University’s golf course. Purchasing a home that was walking distance to work and also within my price range meant buying on a road dominated by college student rentals. Yet my street is also relatively free of car traffic and my corner lot backyard seems likely to be compatible with whatever plans my son and local youth would eventually dream up.
Still, part of me wonders if the broader barriers will loom too large. Perhaps my street simply lacks the sufficient density of children. Maybe other parents won’t be persuaded by my case for the value of free play. Already having been warned by one of my neighbors to keep my kid “out of the street”—ostensibly to save my neighbor the trouble from having to watch out for little ones when driving his big truck down it—foreshadows future conflicts.
Yet one never knows what latent needs and desires may lie just under the surface. When looking at any suburban street, I always wonder: What percentage of houses have lonely people in them at this moment, people sitting in their homes wishing they enjoyed more local togetherness but not knowing how or too discouraged to seek out a community beyond their front door. Books like Playborhood remind us that often the biggest barrier is belief. Small groups of dedicated people can sometimes overcome all the barriers and change their neighborhoods for the better. All it takes is someone to get the ball rolling.
[i] I regret taking this profile at face value in Technically Together. It seems to have exaggerated Lanza perspective, if not wholly distort the position he lays out in Playborhood
Back during the summer, Tristan Harris sparked a flurry of academic indignation when he suggested that we needed a new field called “Science & Technology Interaction” or STX, which would be dedicated to improving the alignment between technologies and social systems. Tweeters were quick to accuse him of “Columbizing,” claiming that such a field already existed in the form of Science & Technology Studies (STS) or similar such academic department. So ignorant, amirite?
I am far more sympathetic. If people like Harris (and earlier Cathy O’Neil) have been relatively unaware of fields like Science and Technology Studies, it is because much of the research within these disciplines is mostly illegible to non-academics, not all that useful to them, or both. I really don’t blame them for not knowing. I am even an STS scholar myself, and the table of contents of most issues of my field’s major journals don’t really inspire me to read further.
And in fairness to Harris and contrary to Academic Twitter, the field of STX that he proposes does not already exist. The vast majority of STS articles and books dedicate single digit percentages of their words to actually imagining how technology could better match the aspirations of ordinary people and their communities. Next to no one details alternative technological designs or clear policy pathways toward a better future, at least not beyond a few pages at the end of a several-hundred-page manuscript.
My target here is not just this particular critique of Harris, but the whole complex of academic opiners who cite Foucault and other social theory to make sure we know just how “problematic” non-academics’ “ignorant” efforts to improve technological society are. As essential as it is to try to improve upon the past in remaking our common world, most of these critiques don’t really provide any guidance for what steps we should be taking. And I think that if scholars are to be truly helpful to the rest of humanity they need to do more than tally and characterize problems in ever more nuanced ways. They need to offer more than the academic equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.
In the case of Harris, we are told that underlying the more circumspect digital behavior that his organization advocates is a dangerous preoccupation with intentionality. The idea of being more intentional is tainted by the unsavory history of humanistic thought itself, which has been used for exclusionary purposes in the past. Left unsaid is exactly how exclusionary or even harmful it remains in the present.
This kind of genealogical take down has become cliché. Consider how one Gizmodo blogger criticizes environmentalists’ use the word “natural” in their political activism. The reader is instructed that because early Europeans used the concept of nature to prop up racist ideas about Native Americans that the term is now inherently problematic and baseless. The reader is supposed to believe from this genealogical problematization that all human interactions with nature are equally natural or artificial, regardless of whether we choose to scale back industrial development or to erect giant machines to control the climate.
Another common problematiziation is of the form “not everyone is privileged enough to…”, and it is often a fair objection. For instance, people differ in their individual ability to disconnect from seductive digital devices, whether due to work constraints or the affordability or ease of alternatives. But differences in circumstances similarly challenge people’s capacity to affordably see a therapist, retrofit their home to be more energy efficient, or bike to work (and one might add to that: read and understand Foucault). Yet most of these actions still accomplish some good in the world. Why is disconnection any more problematic than any other set of tactics that individuals use to imperfectly realize their values in an unequal and relatively undemocratic society? Should we just hold our breaths for the “total overhaul…full teardown and rebuild” of political economies that the far more astute critics demand?
Equally trite are references to the “panopticon,” a metaphor that Foucault developed to describe how people’s awareness of being constantly surveilled leads them to police themselves. Being potentially visible at all times enables social control in insidious ways. A classic example is the Benthamite prison, where a solitary guard at the center cannot actually view all the prisoners simultaneously, but the potential for him to be viewing a prisoner at any given time is expected to reduce deviant behavior.
This gets applied to nearly any area of life where people are visible to others, which means it is used to problematize nearly everything. Jill Grant uses it to take down the New Urbanist movement, which aspires (though fairly unsuccessfully) to build more walkable neighborhoods that are supportive of increased local community life. This movement is “problematic” because the densities it demands means that citizens are everywhere visible to their neighbors, opening up possibilities for the exercise of social control. Whether not any other way of housing human beings would not result in some form of residential panopticon is not exactly clear, except perhaps by designing neighborhoods so as to prohibit social community writ large.
Further left unsaid in these critiques is exactly what a more desirable alternative would be. Or at least that alternative is left implicit and vague. For example, the pro-disconnection digital wellness movement is in need of enhanced wokeness, to better come to terms with “the political and ideological assumptions” that they take for granted and the “privileged” values they are attempting to enact in the world.
But what does that actually mean? There’s a certain democratic thrust to the criticism, one that I can get behind. People disagree about what is “the good life” and how to get there, and any democratic society would be supportive of a multitude of them. Yet the criticism that the digital wellness movement seems to center around one vision of “being human,” one emphasizing mindfulness and a capacity to exercise circumspect individual choosing, seems hollow without the critics themselves showing us what should take its place. Whatever the flaws with digital wellness, it is not as self-stultifying as the defeatist brand of digital hedonism implicitly left in the wake of academic critiques that offer no concrete alternatives. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a full-blown alternative; yet few of these critiques offer even an incremental step in the right direction.
Even worse, this line of criticism can problematize nearly everything, losing its rhetorical power as it is over-applied. Even academia itself is disciplining. STS has its own dominant paradigms, and critique is mobilized in order to mold young scholars into academics who cite the right people, quote the correct theories, and support the preferred values. My success depends on me being at least “docile enough” in conforming myself to the norms of the profession.
I also exercise self-discipline in my efforts to be a better spouse and a better parent. I strive to be more intentional when I’m frustrated or angry, because I too often let my emotions shape my interactions with loved ones in ways that do not align with my broader aspirations. More intentionality in my life has been generally a good thing, so long as my expectations are not so unrealistic as to provoke more anxiety than the benefits are worth. But in a critical mode where self-discipline and intentionality automatically equate to self-subjugation, how exactly are people to exercise agency in improving their own lives?
In any case, advocating devices that enable users to exercise greater intentionality over their digital practices is not a bad thing per se. Citizens pursue self-help, meditate, and engage in other individualistic wellness activities because the lives they live are constrained. Their agency is partly circumscribed by their jobs, family responsibilities, and incomes, not to mention the more systemic biases of culture and capitalism. Why is it wrong for groups like Harris’ center to advocate efforts that largely work within those constraints?
Yet even that reading of the digital wellness movement seems uncharitable. Certainly Harris’ analysis lacks the sophistication of a technology scholar’s, but he has made it obvious that he recognizes that dominant business models and asymmetrical relations of power underlay the problem. To reduce his efforts to mere individualistic self-discipline is borderline dishonest, though he no doubt emphasizes the parts of the problem he understands best. Of course it will likely take more radical changes to realize the humane technology than Harris advocates, but it is not totally clear whether individualized efforts necessarily detract from people’s ability or the willingness demand more from tech firms and governments (i.e., are they like bottled water and other “inverted quarantines”?). At least that is a claim that should be demonstrated rather than presumed from the outset.
At its worst, critical “problematizing” presents itself as its own kind of view from nowhere. For instance, because the idea of nature has been constructed in various biased throughout history, we are supposed to accept the view that all human activities are equally natural. And we are supposed to view that perspective as if it were itself an objective fact rather than yet another politically biased social construction.
Various observers mobilize much the same critique about claims regarding the “realness” of digital interactions. Because presenting the category of “real life” as being apart from digital interactions is beset with Foulcauldian problematics, we are told that the proper response is to no longer attempt the qualitative distinctions that that category can help people make—whatever its limitations. It is probably no surprise that the same writer wanting to do away with the digital-real distinction is enthusiastic in their belief that the desires and pleasures of smartphones somehow inherently contain the “possibility…of disrupting the status quo.” Such critical takes give the impression that all technology scholarship can offer is a disempowering form of relativism, one that only thinly veils the author’s underlying political commitments.
The critic’s partisanship is also frequently snuck in the backdoor by couching criticism in an abstract commitment to social justice. The fact that the digital wellness movement is dominated by tech bros and other affluent whites implies that it must be harmful to everyone else—a claim made by alluding to some unspecified amalgamation of oppressed persons (women, people of color, or non-cis citizens) who are insufficiently represented. It is assumed but not really demonstrated that people within the latter demographics would be unreceptive or even damaged by Harris’ approach. But given the lack of actual concrete harms laid out in these critiques, it is not clear whether the critics are actually advocating for those groups or that the social-theoretical existence of harms to them is just a convenient trope to make a mainly academic argument seem as if it actually mattered.
People’s prospects for living well in the digital age would be improved if technology scholars more often eschewed the deconstructive critique from nowhere. I think they should act instead as “thoughtful partisans.” By that I mean that they would acknowledge that their work is guided by a specific set of interests and values, ones that are in the benefit of particular groups.
It is not an impartial application of social theory to suggest that “realness” and “naturalness” are empty categories that should be dispensed with. And a more open and honest admission of partisanship would at least force writers to be upfront with readers regarding what the benefits would actually be to dispensing with those categories and who exactly would enjoy them—besides digital enthusiasts and ecomodernists. If academics were expected to use their analysis to the clear benefit of nameable and actually existing groups of citizens, scholars might do fewer trite Foucauldian analyses and more often do the far more difficult task of concretely outlining how a more desirable world might be possible.
“The life of the critic easy,” notes Anton Ego in the Pixar film Ratatouille. Actually having skin in the game and putting oneself and one’s proposals out in the world where they can be scrutinized is far more challenging. Academics should be pushed to clearly articulate exactly how it is the novel concepts, arguments, observations, and claims they spend so much time developing actually benefit human beings who don’t have access to Elsevier or who don't receive seasonal catalogs from Oxford University Press. Without them doing so, I cannot imagine academia having much of a role in helping ordinary people live better in the digital age.
Quartier Vauban in Freiberg, Germany seems to be everything that planned neighborhoods in North America are not. Compact. Supportive of walking and biking. And green. Not only does the neighborhood, which houses some five and a half thousand people, enjoy the distinction of one of the lowest rates of car ownership and highest percentages of passive-energy housing in Europe, much of the quarter’s streets are essentially “car-free.” Automobile owners even pay the construction costs of the parking garage spot (about 17,000 euros) where they are required to store their vehicles. But what’s most notable is not simply the successes of the development, but the process that participants used to get there.
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Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
On Vaccine Mandates
Escaping the Ecomodernist Binary
No, Electing Joe Biden Didn't Save American Democracy
When Does Someone Deserve to Be Called "Doctor"?
If You Don't Want Outbreaks, Don't Have In-Person Classes
How to Stop Worrying and Live with Conspiracy Theorists
Democracy and the Nuclear Stalemate
Reopening Colleges & Universities an Unwise, Needless Gamble
Radiation Politics in a Pandemic
What Critics of Planet of the Humans Get Wrong
Why Scientific Literacy Won't End the Pandemic
Community Life in the Playborhood
Who Needs What Technology Analysis?
The Pedagogy of Control
Don't Shovel Shit
The Decline of American Community Makes Parenting Miserable
The Limits of Machine-Centered Medicine
Why Arming Teachers is a Terrible Idea
Why School Shootings are More Likely in the Networked Age
Gun Control and Our Political Talk
Semi-Autonomous Tech and Driver Impairment
Community in the Age of Limited Liability
Conservative Case for Progressive Politics
Hyperloop Likely to Be Boondoggle
Policing the Boundaries of Medicine
On the Myth of Net Neutrality
On Americans' Acquiescence to Injustice
Science, Politics, and Partisanship
Moving Beyond Science and Pseudoscience in the Facilitated Communication Debate
Privacy Threats and the Counterproductive Refuge of VPNs
Andrew Potter's Macleans Shitstorm
The (Inevitable?) Exportation of the American Way of Life
The Irony of American Political Discourse: The Denial of Politics
Why It Is Too Early for Sanders Supporters to Get Behind Hillary Clinton
Science's Legitimacy Problem
Forbes' Faith-Based Understanding of Science
There is No Anti-Scientism Movement, and It’s a Shame Too
American Pro Rugby Should Be Community-Owned
Why Not Break the Internet?
Working for Scraps
Solar Freakin' Car Culture
Mass Shooting Victims ARE on the Rise
Are These Shoes Made for Running?
Underpants Gnomes and the Technocratic Theory of Progress
Don't Drink the GMO Kool-Aid!
On Being Driven by Driverless Cars
Why America Needs the Educational Equivalent of the FDA
On Introversion, the Internet and the Importance of Small Talk
I (Still) Don't Believe in Digital Dualism
The Anatomy of a Trolley Accident
The Allure of Technological Solipsism
The Quixotic Dangers Inherent in Reading Too Much
If Science Is on Your Side, Then Who's on Mine?
The High Cost of Endless Novelty - Part II
The High Cost of Endless Novelty
Lock-up Your Wi-Fi Cards: Searching for the Good Life in a Technological Age
The Symbolic Analyst Sweatshop in the Winner-Take-All Society
On Digital Dualism: What Would Neil Postman Say?
Redirecting the Technoscience Machine
Battling my Cell Phone for the Good Life