22 May 2020

Notes from a pandemic: Coming back out

Depiction of virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2
Back in March, a lot of people got very stressed going into social isolation, lockdown, stay at home, quarantine, whatever you want to call it.

Me? I was good. It’s being the prospect of coming out of isolation that is stressing me out. It’s not because I’ll have to be around people again. It’s that I am not at all convinced it’s being done safely.

As I mentioned, the University of Texas system has already decided all its campuses will have face-to-face instruction for fall.

Earlier this week, my institution had a video chat with the person in charge of “reopening” the university, and I learned that food services, the gym, and the libraries were going to open back up at the start of June.

I asked, “Given the increase in cases that other countries and states have seen after "reopening", as a medical professional, are you comfortable with reopening the campus? Is this a medically advisable course of action?”

I didn’t get an answer to that.

I did get an answer to “If it was not possible for people to be on campus safely through March-May, why is it possible now? What has changed from a public health perspective?” The answer was basically, “We know more now.” Personally, I’d be happier if that answer was, “We have a vaccine now,” but of course, we don’t, and won’t have anytime soon.

I personally will be teaching online in fall, so I am not so much worried for my own health as the safety of my colleagues and students.

My worries got even worse when I saw news last night about the University of Texas’s flagship campus at Austin. Despite having an almost empty campus, they’ve had eleven of their janitorial staff test positive for COVID-19.

(University spokesperson J.B.) Bird said that UT officials did not know exactly how the virus spread among its custodial staff members, but said they had been practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

I just don’t see anything that convinces me that universities – including mine – can realistically expect to keep people safe.

External links

Q&A with Dr. John Krouse, Dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine (Recorded from Facebook livestream)

Virus outbreak hits nearly empty University of Texas campus: What will happen this fall?

20 May 2020

Some people will literally die rather than change their minds

I have been thinking a lot about the craziness of “re-opening” and how some people refuse to take any precautions. Just a day or two ago, I was imagining asking these people, “What would it take to get you to change your mind, short of you getting hooked up to a ventilator because of COVID-19?”

Then today I saw this. Physician Ryan Morino tweeted (lightly edited):

I’ve been called a lot of names and accused of a lot of things by emergency patients but it’s surreal to have a patient accuse me of falsifying their COVID result – because they don’t believe the virus is real – as I’m actively trying to keep them from dying from multi-organ failure from COVID.

My “short of you getting COVID-19” qualifier turned out to be an unreasonable assumption. I thought that the personal first-hand experience of getting so sick that you are hospitalized would be something would force people to reconsider their views. How wrong I was.

(Aside: Hospitalization is bad, but this description of being on a ventilator proved to me that I had not idea how bad things could while trying to keep you alive from COVID-19.) 

From my experiences trying to talk about evolutionary biology, I know lots of people are intransigent. They not going to change their minds in front of you. People have values and beliefs and community ties that matter to them more than evidence. For a long time, I’d been okay with that.

But these sorts of reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic have shaken me. I’ve never felt so depressed and pessimistic about the prospects for science communication. This is the fight of our lives, and we’re losing.

Another piece that hit me hard was this article by Adrienne LaFrance about conspiracy beliefs, and how one in particular has gained so much traction over the space of three years. For someone like me who had never heard of this much before, the conspiracy stories (I refuse to call them “theories”) are unbelievable. They are inconsistent, and they have consistently failed to say anything meaningful. Edited excerpt:

I asked for examples of predictions that had come true. They could not provide specifics and instead encouraged me to do the research myself. When I asked them how they explained the events (that had been) predicted that never happened(,) they said that deception is part of (the) plan.

It brought to mind this from Jessica Price (emphasis added):

I guess it’s time to repeat the main thing I learned from reading a fuckton of Holocaust memoirs again: propaganda does not need to be persuasive, only pervasive. Its secondary purpose is to convince. Its primary purpose is to exhaust.

LaFrance arrives at a point that I had independently been thinking about before I read her article. People often talk about the “politicization” of events in the US now, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

This moment in American history is better understood as being driven by a new religious movement rather than existing political movements.

I don’t mean “religion” in the usual sense of the major Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) – although those are often intertwined with the new zeitgeist.

Like LaFrance, I mean that people are describing and responding to events in ways that you normally see in religious communities rather than political parties. Such as the unshakable beliefs in things unseen (“COVID-19 isn’t real,” says the one about to die from organ failure from it), belief in prophecies, communities springing up around practices not held by everyone.

And certainly, some political leaders act more like old school gods than traditional politician. They demand tribute, sacrifice, and threaten those who oppose them. A thunderbolt or two aimed at demigods who aren’t “respectful” or grateful enough. They sure aren’t above lying (you know, turning into a swan to get laid).

And they sure as hell don’t care about puny mortals. “So a few humans die. So what?”

It’s a radically different vision than one I have for politics, which is more about negotiation and compromise and trying to make most people’s live better. But probably my view was skewed from living most of my life in a relatively peaceful few decades, and mistaking that as normal.

From my point of view as a scientist who wants to do science communication, I think that treating opposition to COVID19 information as being based in religious opposition (in a secular, non-tradition sense) rather than political opposition changes the dynamic and changes the approach that you take.

It makes it clear that the task ahead of us is far, far harder than we ever could have expected.

Ultimately, I have to believe that at some point, reality will sink in. I hope that many people who aren’t wearing masks today, for instance, will one day look back at their actions and think, “Maybe I should have worn that mask.”

I hoped that we might have gotten to that point by now.

Additional: Just after I posted this, Andrew Thaler wrote:

The mistake we're making is thinking we have a science communication problem when what we have is a terror management problem.

Not sure I agree, but I think we both agree that “science communication” is not what the moment calls for. Science communication is a default mode. We need a crisis mode, and we don’t have one.

More additional: Emily G also has a thread that makes a similar point:

Here’s the thing no one wants to hear: you fight propaganda with propaganda. Unless SciComm can fundamentally scale to address the propaganda machine in sum and substance – and it can’t – then it’s doomed to ineffectiveness.

Even more additional: And just to show that some elements of this problem are widespread and not just an American thing, a new report shows a lot of Canadians have false beliefs about some aspect of COVID-19.

More than a quarter think the virus was made in a Chinese lab.

Almost a quarter thought there were drugs that could treat the disease, notably hydroxychloroquine.

More than one in ten think the virus is a cover-up for 5G wireless.

And just to top it off, there’s a lot of overconfidence to go with the misinformation.

Sarah Everts, a Carleton journalism professor and co-researcher in the study, said she was “floored by the overconfidence Canadians have in their own ability to distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation.”

For example, 58 per cent of respondents who believe the 5G conspiracy theory also said they could “easily distinguish” between COVID-19 facts and misinformation.

External links

The prophecies of Q

The hard truth about ventilators

Nearly half of Canadians can’t tell coronavirus fact from conspiracy theory: survey

08 May 2020

Cameo in article about scientific illustration

I make a very brief cameo appearance in this Nature article by Jeffrey Perkel on scientific illustration, particularly BioRender.

That’s it. That’s the post. Back to grading for me.

External links

The software that powers scientific illustration

04 May 2020

Notes from a pandemic: Not good

I was doing fine until this weekend.

Then I realized that I screwed up in my online classes. I made a mistake when I changed courses to accommodate for extended spring break back in March, put it in the syllabus then, but nobody caught it (including me) until Saturday. Like, right before it mattered.

The mistake shouldn’t be too bad for two courses (except for me own grading load), but is... not what I would have done in the third. Students are grumpy with me, rightfully so, and I’m not happy with myself, either, so that fits.

Then Texas has decided to start to “re-open” and I saw images like this at my field site on the beaches of South Padre Island:

Visitors return to beach, local businesses re-open

We are going to watch so many people get sick or die. And the reporting of this story bothers the hell out of me because there is no talking to anyone in public health, no epidemiologist, nobody to assess what the consequences of packed beaches and open restaurants is going to be.

And what is just killing me inside is that I am worried that a large chunk of Americans have decided not to care. That they are going to take the same approach to COVID-19 that they have with guns for all these years: they are just going to get used to it. Get used to constant deaths running along the chyrons of news channels, shrug and say, “That’s just the price of freedom.”

Of all things, what caught the moment for me was this review of a Godzilla movie box set.

In 2019, the world is on fire. We should know better. We move on because this is what we do: We get used to the flames, the poison, the death and destruction. We constantly erect new normals, and once those are surpassed, we craft newer normals, and pretend those have always been. When we see signs of that which we cannot escape, we change the channel because it isn’t our cup of tea. We shrug at the monsters, huge and black and opposing silhouettes on the horizon. We get used to the apocalypse because we can get used to anything.

It’s just a virus we’re getting used to instead of kaiju.

External links

Visitors return to South Padre Island, local businesses reopen

Criterion's Gorgeous Godzilla Box Set Is a Testament to Our Ability to Get Used to Anything

02 May 2020

Notes from a pandemic: Football is not more important than life

I am still mad and disappointed I was by the University of Texas system’s decision to open campuses for fall, no matter what. More Texas universities have decided to open up, and I’m not just mad, I’m disgusted.

On Thursday, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp told all 11 university presidents in the system that they will reopen their campuses next school year and be ready to play sports, a university system official confirmed to The Texas Tribune. Texas Tech University has also announced that it plans to resume on-campus classes in the fall, and university President Lawrence Schovanec told the Tribune that Tech is planning to play sports, too.

I know people miss their past times. I know people love their sports. But football? Football absolutely, positively, should. not. be. the. lede here. I hate it. Football is not what a university is for. A game for the masses is not worth reopening campuses and putting hundreds of thousands of people across the state at risk.

A long time ago, I seem to remember someone comparing being at a university to owning a pet wolf. Everything is fine as long long as you keep feeding the wolf. But you should never, ever forget that the wolf will turn on you the instant there’s a problem. I feel a lot like that pet owner these days.

External links


01 May 2020

Notes from a pandemic: Back to work orders

The Daily Texan is reporting that all University of Texas campuses will be opening this fall. My initial reaction has not changed.


I cannot see any scenario in which UT System campuses being open for fall will not mean a lot of people are going to get sick and some are going to die.

If anything, I’ve gotten even angrier with this plan. Because the Daily Texan article makes it pretty clear that what is driving the decision is not the best interests of the students or the faculty, but money.

Milliken said the UT System has encountered economic hardship as campuses shut down.

The article goes on to describe refunds to students who can’t live in housing, the loss of income from elective surgeries in health institutions, and the drop in funding coming from oil sales (which support the state’s Permanent University Fund).

I’m upset that money seems to be a higher priority than health.

I’m upset that the decision is to try to push everything back to the old model instead of taking steps to create something new, like offering much more remote instructions.

I’m upset that the decision is being taken months before the start of fall, when Texas is deciding it wants to let restaurants and movie theaters and such open again, and we have no idea of how that is going to pan out. The possibility of things getting worse before Fall semester begins is very real.

The one good piece of news is that I was already scheduled to do a semester of courses online. So I personally will not have to go to campus very often.

I wish my students and colleagues had that option.

Update: My skepticism about Texas’s handling of the pandemic and “getting back to normal” feels justified.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported fifty new deaths from COVID-19 in the state, the largest single day increase during the pandemic. For only the second time since tracking began, it also reported more than one thousand new confirmed cases.

We do not have COVID-19 under control. Not even close. So why is Texas allowing businesses to reopen, exactly?

External links

UT System plans for fall reopening of all institutions

28 April 2020

Fallacies of composition and division in journals and publishers

“Publishers” and “journals”are related. One academic publisher typically has many journals. Each journal is independent and has its own editorial board and practices. But I’m surprised by how often I see people committing either the fallacy of composition or the fallacy of division with publishers and journals.

“I had a bad experience reviewing for Journal X from Publisher Y” should lead to the conclusion that Journal X is problematic, but I frequently see people conclude that everything from Publisher Y is problematic. Fallacy of composition.

That there are 53 disciplinary journals with the word “Nature” in the front of their title from Nature Publishing Group might be in part because people commit the fallacy of division.

What’s interesting is that which fallacy people are willing to commit seems to be mainly a factor of the age of the publisher.

I’ve seen people argue, “You can’t process the quality of each journal separately” for a relatively new publisher with less than 250 journals. But people do judge journals individually for old publishers that are home to ten times more journals.