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Sep 27, 2021

Academic freedom and disciplinary authority

Here is a case: Another unit at the University has invited someone to be a guest speaker at a public event. The speaker happened to be in one of our fields. Should the other unit consult us before inviting someone, or should they maintain the stance of academic freedom, and invite anyone they want, no matter how controversial?

Let us say you are in the more pro-freedom camp. Yes, they should feel free to invite whoever they want. However, let us extend this logic a little further. What mechanism can prevent a university inviting, let us hay a Holocaust denier, or a climate change denier, or an anti-vaxxer? That would make us look like a collective fool, right?

My preference is to always check with whoever has the disciplinary authority. If you speak about homelessness, perhaps check with Social Work. If you are talking about science, let’s talk to the college of math and science. A talk about nursing should probably be run by the Nursing faculty, etc. The thing is – you may in the end override your colleagues’ objections, and still invite a controversial figure to come. After all, every discipline is full of disagreements, and many fields are split on specific issues. But you would be making this choice from a more informed position, not out of ignorance.

This is the important lesson: in making a choice, just the ability to make a choice is not enough of a motive. Flipping a coin is not an act of choice. Freedom of choice does not apply to the choice between knowledge and ignorance. In some cases, equally well-informed people have strong differences in opinion. It is enlightening to hear their dialogue. In the absence of hard facts, informed opinions are the next best thing. But when opinions get stuck on egos, when having a different opinion is the goal on its own, the talk is not fun.

The question is, who can make that distinction between wacko quasi-science and a real science? Well, this is why we have academic departments, with their own disciplinary knowledge. You don’t have to believe them, but you must try to listen to what they have to say. That is the limitation imposed by working at a university. 

Sep 20, 2021

Cooler winds sweep through Central Valley

Every summer, the Valley restarts its probation period. ‘Can you withstand the heat?,’ - it asks, and then again – ‘Are you sure? How about some more?’ Sometime in September, it relents and sends one of it cooler winds, - not yet cool, just a little cooler. The trial is over, you may now go out in the afternoon, and no one will try to bake you alive.

Despite a plenty of warning, people keep trying to live here, and every Summer the Valley tries to scorch them, sometimes adding fire and smoke for variety. And yet, every September it relents, and rewards the patient with cooler winds.

To be fair, the reward lasts twice as long as the tribulation. The Valley is not unreasonable. It is just maddeningly obsessive in its cyclicity. It mocks our naïve understanding of hell and paradise: “How about both, every year? Four months of hell, eight of paradise?” Like a crazy parent, it keeps switching from bad days to good days, back to bad, and back to good again. We all know the game; it is nothing if not predictable. And yet never fail to feel grateful for the fist cooler winds of September.

Sep 9, 2021

When reasonable people disagree they don't get mad at each other

Here is another interesting tidbit from our internal debate on COVID contact disclosure. Someone from the other side of the university presents an argument that we should not inform students who we know had a low-risk level contact with an infected classmate or instructor. The rationale for this is the following: (1) The blanket notifications result in "notification fatigue" and people ignore them later, when they may actually need to pay attention. (2) You create unnecessary anxiety and unnecessary healthcare demands which comes at a cost. The logic is impeccable from the public health perspective. I am sure it represents the best thinking in the public health.

However, in the context of our relationships with students, this does not work. In colleges, we deal with specific small groups of students – we face them in classrooms and know them by names. When students find out we knew about the exposure, and did not tell them, they will be upset with us. Our unspoken agreement is not that of a healthcare provider and a patient. These are longer-term relationships of mutual trust. We are expected to share the information we have and let them make their own decision about whether they should worry or not. Withholding that information makes us look somewhat paternalistic and untrustworthy, regardless of the actual outcome. The considerations of cost do not enter into our calculus at all. Because we do not deal with thousands of students, large effects like lowering the sensitivity to exposure messages also is not a part of our worldview.

This is a classic case where a disagreement does not arise from one of the parties being wrong. We just operate in different relational worlds, with different assumptions about the nature of the relationships. It would be interesting to see how such a no-fault difference of opinions gets ultimately resolved. Ideally, it should have happened before the school year started, but we cannot resolve a difference in opinion we do not know about. The problem with disagreements like this is that pop up unexpectedly. Each party is blind to the fact that the other party may see things differently, until such differences clash.

They normally resolve as a compromise of some sort, just like any other disagreement. For that to happen, we continue to talk across the organization. It is not a matter of figuring out whose argument is stronger, and who holds more power. A successful solution depends on how much we all can expand our horizons beyond our immediate professional experiences and consider the other position seriously.

Sep 7, 2021

The ethics of COVID disclosure and the unlikely events

Let’s say a student in your class tells you he has tested positive for COVID-19. The first steps are obvious: please stop coming to class, inform the University, and get medical advice. However, the next step is tricky. If you tell his classmates that he has tested positive for a communicable disease, you violate his right to privacy, and it is illegal under HIPPA. However, if you do not tell anything to anyone, you are sitting on information that could feel very important to the other students and their families as well as all those other people they may be in contact with. We prepare educators, so most program have a lot of field experiences, so the circle of potentially exposed includes children, who cannot yet get vaccinated. So, the student in question may infect one of his classmates, who will have no idea, go to a school for a field experience, and infect a child. The child would suffer the extremely rare case of severe childhood of COVID and die. I am not going to be responsible for a death of a child and am going to alert the rest of the students, and suspend the program’s in-person classes and field experiences.

That was my initial thinking, and it was wrong. Incidentally, most of the initial thinking about any complex problem is wrong. Those who favor the “gut feeling” I strongly encourage to think through their conundrums.

Like all ethical dilemmas, it has two sets of values balancing against each other. Unlike some of my friends-analytical philosophers, I am not interested in an abstract, universal solution applicable to all contexts. I would much rather consider it within a specific context of a large institution with specialized units dealing with special problems. When someone tells me – do not worry, we have a policy and procedure for these kinds of things, - I do not always find it within myself to completely believe it. It is just a function of a larger organization. Because we cannot know each other’s business, mistrust is easy and natural, while trust is difficult; it needs to be built specifically.

I am not sure of the exact math here. What would improve our collective trust is some sort of a disclosure: here is the protocol we use, and these are the probabilities of low risk vs. high risk. After all, many of us in higher ed do understand probabilities. But in general, 0.1% chance of a large disaster and 100% chance of a small disaster do not weigh equally; the latter outweighs the former. Our lives are filled with small disasters and we rarely experience large disasters. We should all think about consequences of our actions in probabilistic terms. We can be sure about some consequences, but other remain merely a possibility, sometimes remote.

The truth is that ethics is useless without some understanding of probability. Hence risk assessment is a probabilistic discipline. The student is not sick, just positive. Everyone in his class is fully vaccinated. All are required to wear masks all the time. The chances of an outbreak are actually fairly low. I should recognize that people in Risk Assessment are professionals and have the best interest of students in mind.

Should we include very unlikely events in our moral reasoning? We normally do not consider a possibility that while driving we may kill a pedestrian. Let us not stop driving because of it. Any action or non-action can go wrong and have disastrous effects.