16 November 2020

People will still die rather than change their minds

Six months ago, I wrote about how American patients dying of COVID-19 would fight with physicians who were trying to save them because they didn’t believe the virus was real.

Six months and 154,293 deaths later, and people... People. Still. Don’t. Think. This. Is. Real.

 New Day reports:

A South Dakota ER nurse @JodiDoering says her Covid-19 patients often “don’t want to believe that Covid is real.”

“Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real.’ And when they should be... Facetiming their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred.”

It’s sad and depressing. Particularly when we have promising news that COVID-19 vaccines look like they will work.

Update, 17 November 2020: I’m heartened to hear of at least one person who changed his mind.

He mentions hating “fake news”. He says, “I don’t think covids is really more than a flu.“ I clarified, “Now you think differently though?”

He replies, “No the same. I should just take vitamins for my immune system. They (news) are making it a big deal.”

I’m shocked.

I’m at a loss for words. Here I am basically wrapped in tarp, here he is in a Covid ICU. How can you deny the validity of covid? How is this possible? Misinformation is literally killing people in mass, I think to myself.

Typically as a nurse we usually put on a face. We don’t tell our patients another patient just died. We don’t tell them what we just saw. We walk in to care for that patient as they are. We give them our full unbiased care.

I make a choice. Something I’ve never done. I say, “To be honest this is my last shift. You’re the only patient of 25 that has been able to speak to me today or is even aware I’m here.”

He’s surprised but doubtful and asks if other people are doing as well as him. I tell him I’ve never seen so many people SO very sick.

“Really?” He asks if a lot of people have died.

I’m brutally honest. I tell him in 10 years of being a nurse I’ve done more CPR and seen more people die in the last 2 weeks than I have in my entire career combined.

His tone changes, he seems to have understood the gravity of what I’m saying. He apologizes.

Thank you, Ashley.

Related posts

Some people will literally die rather than change their minds


01 October 2020

Student cheating does not justify every step taken to stop it

Consider the following scenario.

You are a young person. Let’s say a woman, for the sake of argument. Like many others, you are mostly working at home. You may not have a lot of your own space at home, if you’re living with family or roommates.

As part of your professional obligations, you are working with a more senior person. Let’s say a man, for the sake of argument.

Your supervisor informs you that you have to install software on your computer that allows him to turn on the camera so he can watch you.

If you are interrupted by anyone, there will be serious professional repercussions. So you may have to do this work someplace private, like your bedroom.

You’re informed that the room has to be well lit and you have to dress a certain way while you’re doing the work.

If you don’t do this, there will be serious professional repercussions.

So you have older man demanding a young woman let him take video of her in her home or he’ll retaliate.

Tell me that’s not creepy.  

Yet that’s exactly what is happening at universities all over North America. Professors are requiring students install some sort of “proctoring software” for exams and tests.

Of course, unlike my hypothetical scenario above, either the student or professor could be a different gender than the one I described. I picked the genders I did because I think it makes the potential for creepiness clearer. 

But the intrusiveness is a problem regardless. 

I wasn’t exaggerating about dictating what you can wear. This example shows professors dictating what students can have on their heads. That’s religious issue for some students, is it not?

That’s on top of issues like this one making the rounds on Twitter. A student got a zero on an exam because she read questions out loud. The software flagged this. 

It’s not clear if the software or the instructor decided that this constituted cheating, but someone, somewhere decided that the only possible reason a student might talk during an exam was to speak to a confederate to cheat. That’s stupid.

There seems to be only one counter to pointing out these concerns.

“But they’ll cheat.”

And many professors will be quick to detail all the times they caught students cheating in one way or another.

Academic integrity is important. I get that. The degree has value because people trust that it represents a fair assessment of a student’s internalized knowledge and abilities.

But the presence of cheating alone doe not justify any and all actions that professors might take in the name of “academic integrity.”

There is such a thing as “proportionate response.”

If you are worried about someone walking on your property, you put up a sign and put locks on your doors. You do not install a minefield to blow up people. Because that would not be a proportionate response to the problem.

Trusting students is hard. Some students will abuse that trust. But there is a line between thoughtful use of measures designed to say, “Cheating is not okay, so don’t do it” and an overblown invasion of students’ lives.

Anyone more worried about students cheating than they are about how to get students excited about the material and learn has already lost the battle. - Amelia Lindsay

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The academic equivalent of “voter fraud”

28 September 2020

9 circles of hell of a scientific paper publishing

In this YouTube video, “9 circles of hell of a scientific paper publishing, or the world is full of non-elephants,” one of my less pleasant publication stories come up as an example of less than ideal publication processes.

Excerpt from video:

It took almost 3 years to publish an article compared to two years of doing the research in sand crabs. Unfortunately, I am even not able to to check out this article, as it is pay walled for ten dollars. Of course this case is extreme but sometimes even two, three, four months are crucial not only for scientists’ career but also for the impact and relevance of this research for the society that actually paid for it.
The video also features Bj√∂rn Brembs, who’s consistently been one of the best commentators of academic publishing.

External links

Related posts

1,017 days: when publishing the paper takes longer than the project

19 September 2020

Konrad Lorenz was a Nazi and a Nobel laureate

(This was written for a behaviour class I am teaching this semester.)

Konrad Lorenz was an important figure in the development of the science of animal behaviour. But I also want to acknowledge that he was a member of the German National Socialist party in the 1930s (Kalikow 2020). Which is to say, Konrad Lorenz was a literal Nazi.

Munz described his party affiliation as “an ugly mix of careerism and genuine enthusiasm for the Nazi regime.” Some of his writing (not necessarily his scientific articles, but his letters and the like) showed many anti-Semitic attitudes and arguments for eugenics.

Lorenz was never in the military during World War II. (Correction, 7 October 2020: Lorenz served as a military physician in Poland near the end of the war. Kalikow 2020.) He was not personally pushing people to their deaths. After the war, he said that he was never a party member. It’s not clear to me whether his attitudes ever changed.

I bring this up because there’s a tendency to talk only about scientists’ research contributions, and gloss over or ignore other things they’ve done, particularly when those actions are distasteful or horrible. We like it when people are consistent. We like it when people who create work that is useful, powerful, or enjoyable are also decent human beings.

That is, unfortunately, not always the case.

An author who created a world you love might be racist, homophobic, or transphobic. An actor you enjoy watching might end up doing a perp walk for some crime or misdemeanor. A song you love might be sung by someone who was abusive. And it can makes it hard to sing that song that you love.

But we do ourselves no favours by acting as though only the science matters. It matters when someone was a bigot or a bully or whatever. Real people suffer real hurt because of those attitudes. We have to grapple with the fact that terrible people can do good science.

Part of that is owning up to the dark corners of scientific history. That’s one small part of how we treat people in science better now and in the future.


Kalikow TJ. 2020. Konrad Lorenz on human degeneration and social decline: a chronic preoccupation. Animal Behaviour 164: 267-272. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2020.01.007

Munz T. 2011. “My goose child Martina”:The multiple uses of geese in the writings of Konrad Lorenz. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 41(4): 405–446. https://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2011.41.4.405 

Sax B. 1997. What is a "Jewish Dog"? Konrad Lorenz and the cult of wildness. Society & Animals 5(1): 3-21. https://doi.org/10.1163/156853097X00196

07 September 2020

Notes from a pandemic: Empty parking lots are the best sign I’ve seen in a while

So across the US, university towns are quickly becoming COVID-19 hotspots because campuses reopened, with crummy plans, and despite warnings for months. Given that South Texas was alreayd a hotspot for COVID-19, with something like 20 deaths reported every day in the country during weekdays for weeks, I was convinced reopening UTRGV – mandated by the UT System very early on – would be a disaster.

Last week, I swung by campus in the middle of the day. This was the second week of class, and the university is nomiall open and holding face-to-face classes.

UTRGV parking lot with few cars

That parking lot was as empty as I see in the week after spring semester ends. Almost as empty as the week between Christmas and New Year.

I was incredibly relieved.

Somehow, our faculty and students have made this semster a de factor online semester for the campus. I don’t know how it happend, because there was no coordination, but I’m glad it did.

31 August 2020

New beginnings

Today is my last day as a tenured full professor at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

This is going to be a tough post to write.

Since starting at The University of Texas Pan-American, I’ve made no secret to people here that I would love a reason to move back to Canada. But it’s always been a low-level, “Wouldn’t it be nice if...?” wish. I had been looking and occasionally applying for years.

But this year, a new word kept forming in my head:


I kept wondering throughout the summer, “Is it time to go, regardless of the job I have now?” At one point, I took out a lot of cash from my bank account in case I needed to leave immediately. The sort of money that many people call the “Fuck you” fund in case they have to leave an abusive partner. Things have felt that bad.

Living in the United States in 2020 has broken my belief in this country. 

And I don’t think an election and a vaccine is going to fix it.

It’s not just that the current administration is awful (though it surely is). It’s how so many people have embraced the awfulness. It’s about how the US can’t address its chronic problems. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create these problems but it sure as hell threw them into sharp relief.

Over at the Better Posters blog, I’ve been compiling pictures of 2020 events in the United States. They are probably more powerful than anything I might write. 

I accepted a new position at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. And doing so was the most brutal professional decision of my life. That is the only word I have to describe the decision. Brutal. There was some crying on the couch with me holding my wife in one arm and my dog in the other arm.

Giving up a tenured professorship? I mean, that is the thing that you are just not supposed to do. I like being a professor. I like doing research. I still have questions about those sand crabs and crayfish that I want to answer. It hurts to think that for all I know, I’ll never be able to hold one of those little Lepidopa in my hands again. I like my department colleagues. I like the students I work with.

But this job offer seemed to come at a “now or never” moment. Between taking the time to focus writing the Better Posters book, followed by a global COVID-19 pandemic making both field and lab research difficult, my biological data collection had practically ground to a halt. It looks like 2020 may be the first year in well over a decade that I haven’t published something. I’m not abandoning projects in mid-stream. I don’t have any graduate students who are counting on me to finish their degree. No mortgage I’m stuck with.

McMaster is teaching remotely this semester, so I will still be in Texas for a while at least. But the plan is to move back to Canada. I am anticipating massive reverse culture shock. I know that Canada is not perfect, but Canada at least looks like functioning democracy and not like a collapsing empire.

I am not sure what this move will mean for me professionally. But I am convinced that this move will result in a better quality of life for me, my wife, and family. I want to look after myself and them. This is not just me wanting to move home.

But I am not kidding myself. There is a big leap of faith here. And in any leap of faith, you have to ask what do you believe? Do I believe I am smart enough and hard working enough and resilient enough to make this okay for me, my wife, and family?

Leaps of faith are scary.

As I mentioned a while ago, I have recently rediscovered the music of The Alarm and Big Country (both bands connected by frontman Mike Peters). And as so often happens, music helps.

There will be hurt, there will be pain
There will be a lot of tears, a lot of joy
What we have left cannot be destroyed

Time to move on, to let it bleed
What will be, will be

There is a land, there is a sea
There is a place where we can be
There is a hope, there is a dream

You gotta make the journey with me

The Journey”, Big Country, 2013

Mike Peters: “Sometimes, you’ve got to make the journey. We have to make that leap of faith. We have to cross that line to embrace what is happening now. We’ve crossed that line, and this is a song that lyrically encourages everybody to cross that line. And it acknowledges, ‘Yes, it’s gonna be a tough journey. There will be pain, there will be joy, there will be tears.’ Everything associated in life comes into making this particular journey.”