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Leveraging Google’s Technology to Improve Mental Health

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Last Tuesday, October 10 was World Mental Health Day. To mark the holiday, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, in partnership with other student wellness organizations, welcomed Dr. Megan Jones Bell, PsyD, the clinical director of consumer and mental health at Google, to discuss mental health. Bell was formerly chief strategy and science officer at Headspace and helped guide Headspace through its transformation from a meditation app into a comprehensive digital mental health platform, Headspace Health. Bell also founded one of the first digital mental health start-ups, Lantern, where she pioneered blended mental health interventions leveraging software and coaching. In her conversation with Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, Duke professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Thomas Szigethy, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Duke’s Student Wellness Center, Bell revealed the actions Google is taking to improve the health of the billions of people who use their platform. 

She began by defining mental health, paraphrasing the World Health Organization’s definition. She said, “Mental health, to me, is a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her or their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to their own community.” Rather than taking a medicalized approach to mental health, she argued, mental health should be recognized as something that we all have. Critically, she said that mental health is not just mental  disorders; the first step to improving mental health is recognition and upstream intervention.

Underlining the critical role Google plays in global mental health, Bell cited multiple statistics: three out of four people turn to the internet first for health information. On Google Search, there are 100 million searches on health everyday; Youtube boasts 25 billion views of mental health content. Given their billions of users, Bell intimated Google’s huge responsibility to provide people with accurate, authoritative, and empathetic information. The company has multiple goals in terms of mental health that are specific to different communities. There are three principal audiences that Bell described Google’s goals for: consumers, caregivers, and communities. 

Google’s consumer-facing focus is providing access to high quality information and tools to manage their users’ health. With regards to caregivers, Google strives to create strong partnerships to create solutions to transform care delivery. In terms of community health, the company works with public health organizations worldwide, focusing on social determinants of health and aiming to open up data and insights to the public health community. 

Szigethy followed by launching a discussion of Google’s efforts to protect adolescents. He referenced the growing and urgent mental health crisis amongst adolescents; what is Google doing to protect them? 

Bell mentioned multiple projects across different platforms in order to provide youth with safer online experiences. Key to these projects is the desire to promote their mental health by default. On Google Search, this takes the form of the SafeSearch feature. SafeSearch is on by default, filtering out explicit or inappropriate results. On Youtube, default policies include various prevention measures, one of which automatically removes content that is considered “immitable.” Bell used the example of disordered eating content in order to explain the policy– in accordance with their prevention approach, YouTube removes dangerous eating-related content containing anything that the viewer can copy. YouTube also has age-restricted videos, unavailable to users under 18, as well as certain product features that can be blocked. Google also created an eating disorder hotline with experts online 24/7. 

Jokingly, Bell assured the Zoom audience that Google wouldn’t be creating a therapist chatbot anytime soon — she asserted that digital tools are not “either or.” When the conversation veered towards generative AI, Bell admitted that AI has enormous potential for helping billions of people, but maintained that it needs to be developed in a responsible way. At Google, the greatest service AI provides is scalability. Google.org, Bell said, recently worked with The Trevor Project and ReflexAI on a crisis hotline for veterans called HomeTeam. Google used AI that stimulated crises to help scale up training for volunteers. Bell said, “The human is still on the other side of the phone, and AI helped achieve that”. 

Next, Bell tackled the question of health information and misinformation– what she called a significant area of focus for Google. Before diving in, however, Bell clarified, “It’s not up to Google to decide what is accurate and what is not accurate.” Rather, she said that anchoring to trusted organizations is critical to embedding mental health into the culture of a community. When it comes to health information and misinformation, Bell encapsulated Google’s philosophy in this phrase: “define, operationalize, and elevate high quality information.” In order to combat misinformation on their platform, Google asked the National Academy of Medicine to help define what accurate medical sources are. The Academy then put together a framework of authoritative health info, which WHO then nationalized. YouTube then launched its “health sources” feature, where videos from the framework are the first thing that you see. In effect, the highest quality information is raised to the top of your page when you make a search. Videos in this framework also have a visible badge on the watch panel that features a  phrase like “from a healthcare professional” or “from an organization with a healthcare professional.” Bell suggested that this also helps people to remember where their information is coming from, acting as a guardrail in itself. Additionally, Google continues to fight medical misinformation with an updated medical misinformation policy, which enables them to remove content that is contradictory to medical authorities or medical consensus. 

Near the end of the conversation, Szigethy asked Bell if she would recommend any behaviors for embracing wellbeing. A prevention researcher by background, Bell stressed the importance of early and regular action. Our biggest leverage point for changing mental health, she asserted, is upstream intervention and embracing routines that foster our mental health. She breaks these down into five dimensions of wellbeing: mindfulness, sleep, movement and exercise, nutrition, and social connection. Her advice is to ask the question: what daily/weekly routines do I have that foster each of these? Make a list, she suggests, and try to incorporate a daily routine that addresses each of the five dimensions. 

Before concluding, Bell advocated that the best thing that we can do is to approach mental health issues with humility and listen to a community first. She shared that, at Headspace, her team worked with the mayor’s office and community organizations in Hartford, Connecticut to co-define their mental health goals and map the strengths and assets of the community. Then, they could start to think about how to contextualize Headspace in that community. Bell graciously entered the Duke community with the same humility, and her conversation was a wonderful commemoration of World Mental Health Day. 

By Isa Helton, Class of 2026

My Face Belongs to The Hive (and Yours Does Too)

Imagine having an app that could identify almost anyone using only a photograph of their face. For example, you could take a photograph of a stranger in a dimly lit restaurant and know within seconds who they are.

This technology exists, and Kashmir Hill has reported on several companies that offer these services.

An investigative journalist with the New York Times, Hill visited Duke Law Sept. 27 to talk about her new book, Your Face Belongs To Us.

The book is about a company that developed powerful facial recognition technology based on images harnessed from our social media profiles. To learn more about Clearview AI, the unlikely duo who were behind it, and how they sold it to law enforcement, I highly recommend reading this book.

Hill demonstrated for me a facial recognition app that provides subscribers with up to 25 face searches a day. She offered to let me see how well it worked.

Screen shot of the search app with Hill’s quick photo of me.

She snapped a quick photo of my face in dim lighting. Within seconds (3.07 to be exact), several photos of my face appeared on her phone.

The first result (top left) is unsurprising. It’s the headshot I use for the articles I write on the Duke Research Blog. The second result (top right) is a photo of me at my alma mater in 2017, where I presented at a research conference. The school published an article about the event, and I remember the photographer coming around to take photos. I was able to easily figure out exactly where on the internet both results had been pulled from.

The third result (second row, left) unsettled me. I had never seen this photo before.

A photo of me sitting between friends. Their faces have been blurred out.

After a quick search of the watermark on the photo (which has been blurred for safety), I discovered that the photograph was from an event I attended several years ago. Apparently, the venue had used the image for marketing on their website. Using these facial recognition results, I was able to easily find out the exact location of the event, its date, and who I had gone with.

What is Facial Recognition Technology?

Researchers have been trying for decades to produce a technology that could accurately identify human faces. The invention of neural network artificial intelligence has made it possible for computer algorithms to do this with increasing accuracy and speed. However, this technology requires large sets of data, in this case, hundreds of thousands of examples of human faces, to work.

Just think about how many photos of you exist online. There are the photos that you have taken and shared or that your friends and family have taken of you. Then there are photos that you’re unaware that you’re in – perhaps you walked by as someone snapped a picture and accidentally ended up in the frame. I don’t consider myself a heavy user of social media, but I am sure there are thousands of pictures of my face out there. I’ve uploaded and classified hundreds of photos of myself across platforms like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and even Venmo.

The developers behind Clearview AI recognized the potential in all these publicly accessible photographs and compiled them to create a massive training dataset for their facial recognition AI. They did this by scraping the social media profiles of hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, they got something like 2.1 million images of faces from Venmo and Tinder (a dating app) alone.

Why does this matter?

Clearly, there are major privacy concerns for this kind of technology. Clearview AI was marketed as being only available to law enforcement. In her book, Hill gives several examples of why this is problematic. People have been wrongfully accused, arrested, detained, and even jailed for the crime of looking (to this technology) like someone else.

We also know that AI has problems with bias. Facial recognition technology was first developed by mostly white, mostly male researchers, using photographs of mostly white, mostly male faces. The result of this has had a lasting effect. Marginalized communities targeted by policing are at increased risk, leading many to call for limits on the use of facial recognition by police.

It’s not just government agencies who have access to facial recognition. Other companies have developed off-the-shelf products that anyone can buy, like the app Hill demonstrated to me. This technology is now available to anyone willing to pay for a subscription. My own facial recognition results show how easy it is to find out a lot about a person (like their location, acquaintances, and more) using these apps. It’s easy to imagine how this could be dangerous.

There remain reasons to be optimistic about the future of privacy, however. Hill closed her talk by reminding everyone that with every technological breakthrough, there is opportunity for ethical advancement reflected by public policy. With facial recognition, policy makers have previously relied on private companies to make socially responsible decisions. As we face the results of a few radical actors using the technology maliciously, we can (and should) respond by developing legal restraints that safeguard our privacy.

On this front, Europe is leading by example. It’s likely that the actions of Clearview AI are already illegal in Europe, and they are expanding privacy rights with the European Commission’s (EC) proposed Artificial Intelligence (AI) regulation. These rules include requirements for technology developers to certify the quality of their processes, rather than algorithm performance, which would mitigate some of these harms. This regulation aims to take a technology-neutral approach and stratifies facial recognition technology by it’s potential for risk to people’s safety, livelihoods, and rights.

Post by Victoria Wilson, MA Bioethics and Science Policy, 2023

Meet Some of the Teams at the Bass Connections Showcase

If you weren’t outside enjoying the sun on Wednesday, April 19, you were probably milling around Penn Pavilion, a can of LaCroix in hand, taking in the buzz and excited chatter of students presenting at the 2023 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase.

Open floor presentations at the 2023 Bass Connections Showcase

This annual celebration of Bass Connections research projects featured more than 40 interdisciplinary teams made up of Duke faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and even partners from other research institutions.

Research teams presented posters and lightning talks on their findings. You might have heard from students aiming to increase representation of women in philosophy; or perhaps you chatted with teams researching physiotherapy in Uganda or building earthquake warning systems in Nepal. Below, meet three such teams representing a wide variety of academic disciplines at Duke.

Building sustainable university-community partnerships

As Bass Connections team member Joey Rauch described, “this is a poster about all of these other posters.” Rauch, who was presenting on behalf of his team, Equitable University-Community Research Partnerships, is a senior double-majoring in Public Policy and Dance. His interest in non-profit work led him to get involved in the team’s research, which aims to offer a framework for ethical and effective university-community research collaboration – exactly what teams do in Bass Connections. The group looked at complicated factors that can make equitable relationships difficult, such as university incentive structures, power dynamics along racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines, and rigid research processes.

Senior Joey Rauch with his team’s 2nd-place poster!

Along the lines of rigid research, when asked about what his favorite part of Bass Connections has been, Rauch remarked that “research is oddly formal, so having a guiding hand through it” was helpful. Bass Connections offers an instructive, inclusive way for people to get involved in research, whether for the first or fourth time. He also said that working with so many people from a variety of departments of Duke gave him “such a wealth of experience” as he looks to his future beyond Duke.

For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.

Ensuring post-radiation wellness for women

From left to right: seniors Danica Schwartz, Shernice Martin, Kayle Park, and Michelle Huang

Seniors Michelle Huang, Shernice Martin, Kayle Park, and Danica Schwartz (all pictured) were gathered around the poster for their team, Promoting Sexual Function and Pelvic Health in Women’s Healthcare.

The project has been around for three years and this year’s study, which looked at improving female sexual wellness after pelvic radiation procedures, was in fact a sister study to a study done two years prior on reducing anxiety surrounding pelvic exams.

As Huang described, graduate students and faculty conducted in-depth interviews with patients to better understand their lived experiences. This will help the team develop interventions to help women after life events that affect their pelvic and sexual health, such as childbirth or cancer treatment. These interventions are grounded in the biopsychosocial model of pain, which highlights the links between emotional distress, cognition, and pain processing.

For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.

From dolphins to humans

Sophomores Noelle Fuchs and Jack Nowacek were manning an interactive research display for their team, Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health. At the center of their research question is the condition of hypoxia, which occurs when tissues are deprived of an adequate oxygen supply.

Sophomores Noelle Fuchs and Jack Nowacek

Hypoxia is implicated in a host of human diseases, such as heart attack, stroke, COVID-19, and cancer. But it is also one of the default settings for deep-diving whales, who have developed a tolerance for hypoxia as they dive into the ocean for hours while foraging.

The project, which has been around for four years, has two sub-teams. Fuchs, an Environmental Science and Policy major, was on the side of the team genetically mapping deep-diving pilot whales, beaked whales, and offshore bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Cape Hatteras  to identify causal genetic variants for hypoxia tolerance within specific genes. Nowacek, a Biology and Statistics double-major, was on the other side of the research, analyzing tissue biopsies of these three cetaceans to conduct experiences on hypoxia pathways.  

The team has compiled a closer, more interactive look into their research on their website.

And when asked about her experience being on this team and doing this research, Fuchs remarked that Bass Connections has been a  “great way to dip my toe into research and figure out what I do and don’t want to do,” moving forward at Duke and beyond.

For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

One Man’s Death Is Not Another Man’s Science

Geer Cemetary in Durham is one of many burial grounds in America that hold the remains of thousands of Black Americans from the 19th century. There are no records of the people buried there. The process of researching grounds like these as a form of reparations to descendent communities was pioneered by Michael Blakey in the African Burial Ground Project in Lower Manhattan, New York. He is currently the Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary.

Dr. Michael Blakey. Image courtesy of Library of Virginia Education

On April 4, Blakey visited Duke as a guest of the Franklin Institute of Humanities, the Department of Classical Studies, the Department of International Comparative Studies, and Trinity College. In attendance to his lecture were students of Classical Studies 144: Principles of Archaeology with Alicia Jimenez, International Comparative Studies 283: Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas with Adam Rosenblatt, and several graduate students by invitation (and me). His presence was clearly highly anticipated.

I initially approached Dr. Jimenez with my interest in bioarchaeology in January as I was planning my Program II application. She invited me to this seminar, and to lunch with Blakey and the graduate students beforehand. I came prepped with questions on osteopenia and hypertrophy, as well as a map of Brightleaf Square so I wouldn’t get lost (I still got lost) and a few dollars cash for parking (they only took card).

Geer Cemetery, Durham, NC. Image Courtesy of Durham in Plain Sight

For those of you who have ever loved the detective fiction heroine Temperance Brennan, Blakey’s work is for you. He is co-chair of the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains through the American Anthropological Association. He was claiming the title of bioanthropologist before it was cool. He wrote a guide for the profession called Engaging Descendant Communities, or, more lovingly, The Rubric. Blakey encourages allowing those descendant communities to guide scientists’ research on human remains. He calls us Homo reminiscens, because what makes us “human” may be our affinity for memorializing our dead as much as it may be our large brains (á la Homo sapiens). “Burial is human dignity,” Blakey announced during the seminar, “Dignity is what we do.”

“Ethical code is not law. It is our greatest responsibility.”

Michael Blakey

After all, science has historically been used to justify the unjust. Bioarchaeology is a famous contributor to the field; the pseudoscience of phrenology was upheld until well into the 20th century, and was originally used as “scientific proof” that people of African descent were lesser than Europeans. It was also cited as a justification for displacing Native Americans from their lands.

During lunch, I was struck by Blakey’s cadence. He had a deep, slow voice and spoke with intention. He ordered the giant pretzel. I never asked my questions; instead, I was swept away by the group’s discussion on ethics–a topic I had no open Safari tabs on. I asked instead why a scientist would choose to guide themselves entirely by a non-expert opinion rather than scientific inquiry; would that not hinder discovery?

The scientific method, as you may recall, starts with asking a question. Rather than gracefully including descendent communities after the paper has been written, Blakey urges scientists to only pursue questions about remains that the descendants wish to answer. The science of death should never be self-serving, he noted. There is no purpose to publishing a paper if it is not in the service of the community that provided the subject. A critical reader may notice that The Rubric is not called The Gospel or The Constitution. Rather than a rule of law, it is a guideline. That’s because ethics is based on the respect of self, of craft, and of others. “Ethical code is not law,” Blakey reminds scientists. “It is our greatest responsibility.”

Geer Cemetary has been the subject of Duke research for years now, from a Story+ program to class field trips. Members of ICS, CLST, and FHHI have been in cooperation with Friends of Geer Cemetary to answer such questions about burial conditions–the attempt at dignity granted to Black residents of Durham by their descendants.


Edit: a previous version of this article had incorrectly stated that the Department of African and African American Studies sponsored Michael Blakey’s lecture.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

Only Mostly Dead? The Evolving Ethics of Evaluating Death

I recently had the pleasure of attending Professor Janet Malek’s lecture: Only Mostly Dead? The Evolving Ethical Evaluation of Death by Neurologic Criteria, a lecture sponsored by the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine.

Dr. Malek is an associate professor in the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, and at the Baylor College of Medicine Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy.

Janet Malek Ph.D.

We don’t often talk about death. On the surface, it seems like it would be a straight-forward concept. You’re either dead, or you’re not dead. Right? It turns out that clinically defining death is not so simple.

Popular media has some grasp on the ambiguity of the definition of death. Remember this scene from the popular movie, The Princess Bride? Suspecting that the protagonist is dead, his friends bring him to a miracle-worker and have the following conversation. 

Miracle Max: “Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.

Inigo Montoya: What’s that?

Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

In real life, death used to be determined by cardiopulmonary criteria – when the heart and lungs stop working.  In recent decades the idea that death can be determined using neurologic criteria – when the brain stops working – has gained acceptance. As neuroscience and technology has evolved, so too have our definitions. Now that we know more about how the brain works, we know that there may be some brain activity even after a person has met the criteria for death by neurologic criteria (DNC). This leads to philosophically rich and practically relevant questions of ethics – for example, when do we stop providing life-sustaining care? In the field of bioethics and beyond, there is high demand for discussion on this topic.

There has been controversy over defining death since the 1650’s — when a woman named Anne Greene woke up after being hanged. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that a consensus definition of death was first identified. Here is a brief history:

1950s

  • Widespread availability of ventilators led to the identification of a state described as death of the neurological system.

1960s

  • Advances in organ transplantation foster discussion on the ethics of defining death.
  • A committee at Harvard Medical School examined the definition of Brain Death. They created a definition of “Irreversible Coma,” which focused on loss of neurological function.

1980s

  • The 1980 Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) provided a legal basis for clinically determining death as: an individual who has sustained either 1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions OR 2) irreversible cessation of functions of the entire brain.
  • 1981: President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research report. Findings are centered on questions of functioning of the organism as a whole and the brain’s role in coordinating it.

1990s-2000s

  • Clinicians arrive at general agreement that a patient in a state of coma or unresponsiveness, without brainstem reflexes and who fails an apnea test is dead by neurologic criteria. Largely it is accepted that “brain death is death” but there is not complete consensus.

2010-late

  • 2013: Case of Jahi McMath. A 13-year old girl was declared “brain dead” in California, and a death certificate was issued. However, the family fought to have her maintained on life support. They moved to New Jersey, the only state which recognized objections to brain death, and the “brain dead” declaration was reversed. Jahi lived there for 4 years before passing away. This famous case caused people to reconsider the concept of brain death.

2020s:

  • Recent innovations in heart transplantation technology will likely challenge the acceptance of the Dead Donor Rule (DDR) which requires that an individual is clinically declared dead before vital organs are removed for transplantation.
  • 2021: Assembly of the Determination of Death Committee, tasked with updating the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA). Duke faculty (and founding director of Science & Society) Nita Farahany, is involved with this process.

What ethical issues and practical questions challenging Death by Neurologic Criteria (DNC) today? Dr. Malek shared the following case.

Following a tragic car accident, Ms. Jones, a 20-year-old college student, was brought to the hospital, having suffered significant anoxic brain injury. The medical team determined that she met criteria for DNC. However, her family refused to allow for further testing. Several days passed. Ms. Jones was maintained on life support, during which she did not show signs of improvement. After several difficult conversations, the family consented for assessment and Ms. Jones was declared dead — using the criteria associated with DNC.

What is the proper amount of time to continue life-sustaining treatment if a physician suspects the patient will never recover?

Although this may sound like an uncommon occurrence, nearly half of neurologists have been asked to continue neurologic support for patients that may meet criteria for DNC.

Obligating life support for patients suspected of meeting DNC, either through the family’s refusal for testing or by direct request, would likely result in ethical harms such as violation of the dignity of decedent, unjustly using scarce resources, or causing moral distress in caregivers.

However, it may be permissible to maintain life support in these situations. Dr. Malek says that we do not yet have a good ethical framework for this. Reasonable accommodations that are in line with professional guidelines probably have minimal impact, and might provide some psychosocial benefits to families.

Is consent required to test for DNC? Should it be?

Legal and professional standards favor the idea that testing for DNC likely falls under the category of implied consent, which assumes that a person would want reasonable medical care in the event of unconsciousness. In fact, 80% of neurologists think that getting consent for these evaluations is unnecessary.

These are extremely difficult questions, and there is continuing controversy over what the correct answers should be. Dr. Malek advises medical experts to work with healthcare administrators to develop clear institutional policies.

Post by Victoria Wilson, 2023 MA student in Bioethics & Science Policy

What Should We Do with the Works of “Immoral Artists”?

How should we engage with books, songs, or other works of art created by artists, dead or alive, who have done bad things or hold morally problematic views?

The list of artists who have been accused of doing or saying disparaging, criminal, or morally reprehensible things is long. Paul Gauguin. Michael Jackson. Woody Allen. J.K. Rowling. Kanye West. Pablo Picasso. R. Kelly. Louis C.K. Bill Cosby. Many more.

J.K. Rowling, the author of the landmark Harry Potter series, has become controversial because of her 2020 tweets about transgender people.

It’s one thing to firmly condemn their actions and reject their beliefs. But what should we do with their art—as individuals and as institutions?

The Kenan Institute of Ethics recently held a conversation to discuss exactly that issue. The discussion was moderated by Jesse Summers, Ph.D., and featured speakers Erich Hatala Matthes, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College and author of “Drawing the Line: what to do with the work of immoral artists from museums to the movies,” and Tom Rankin, Professor of the Practice of Art and Documentary Studies and Director of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University.

Why should we care about morality in art, anyway? Why not just appreciate the art and separate it from the artist?

Matthes believes that in some cases, “to not engage with the moral dimensions of a work would be to not take the work seriously.” He thinks Shakespeare’s works belong in this category. “Trickier cases,” he adds, “might come from works that aren’t explicitly engaged” with morality, but even in those cases, “the moral life of the artist can actually become a lens through which to read aspects of the work.”

Film director Woody Allen with his wife and former step-daughter Soon Yi Previn in 2009. (David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons)

We already consider context when viewing art, not just “formal features of the work.” What was the artist responding to? What were the politics at the time? Matthes believes it makes sense to consider the “moral life” of the artist, too. That “doesn’t mean the artist’s moral life is always going to be relevant” to engaging with the art, but he thinks it’s worth at least acknowledging.

According to Rankin, “When we look at a piece of art or hear something, what we hope is that it propels us” to consider moral issues. How, he asks, can we not look at a painting or photo and wonder, “Where did this come from? Who made it? What was their agenda? What is their point of view? What was their background?”

So where does that leave us, Rankin asks, when it comes to “work that was made a hundred years ago but is really powerful… and yet when we look at it a hundred years later it has all kinds of flaws?” Should museums remove paintings by famous artists if racist or sexist views come to light? Should individuals boycott books, songs, and video games created (or inspired) by artists who have made harmful statements toward individuals or groups of people? How should college classes address works by immoral artists?

Matthes says the term “immoral artists” in his book is intentionally provocative. “I don’t actually think it’s productive” to think of people as good or bad, moral or immoral, he says. “There’s a huge range” in the morality or lack thereof in artists’ actions, and Matthes believes there should also be a range in our responses, but he doesn’t believe that “great art can ever just excuse immorality.” He wants to reject the idea that “artists need to be a little inhuman” and “outside the norms of society.” He thinks that mindset encourages us to think of artists as not subject to the same rules. They should not be “immune to moral criticism,” he says.

Rankin agrees: “I do balk a little bit at having to be the one to decide who’s bad and who’s good,” but at the same time, he believes that “artists make work in response to who they are.” So “What do we confront first? The life of the artist or the work itself? It’s not one or the other,” he says.

Both speakers believe that context is often key to interpreting and evaluating art. Matthes says that it might be “really obscene” to choose Michael Jackson music at your wedding if you know one of your guests has experienced child abuse, given the child sexual assault allegations against Jackson. However, Matthes doesn’t believe that completely “cancelling” Jackson’s music is the solution, either.

Similarly, Matthes doesn’t believe that “we should necessarily continue with big exhibitions honoring Paul Gauguin,” a painter who had sexual relationships with young girls and employed racist terminology. According to Matthes, Gauguin “represents a paternalistic energy of a particular time” that we should “interrogate.” As for the notion that we should extend a degree of lenience to historical artists and view them as a product of their times, Matthes is “disinclined” to think of morality as relative to time period. The time when a work of art was created might affect how we engage with it or assign blame, but “Gauguin did a lot of morally horrific things, and the fact that it was in a different time and place doesn’t change that.”

Nevertheless, Matthes thinks we can and should still engage with and respond to the work of “immoral artists.” His concern, he says, is that taking art off of walls and bookshelves and not talking about it “isn’t reckoning with the legacy.” He also doesn’t “see a reason to put certain types of art on a pedestal and treat them differently…. Artistic expression is a fundamental part of human life.”

What if an individual doesn’t want to engage with such art at all? What if the actions of an artist, dead or alive, are so objectionable to someone that they want nothing to do with it? Matthes is okay with that attitude, though he does think it’s “missing an opportunity.”

Completely disengaging from art on account of its creator’s moral life “feels like a way of not taking the moral criticism seriously,” Matthes says. “It’s not something you would be wrong to fail to do,” but he believes in engaging with moral issues, even those that “it would be easier to just ignore.”

Michael Jackson’s album Thriller sold 32 million copies in 1983.

But he acknowledges that personal identities can play a role in how or whether we engage with the work of immoral artists. Matthes believes it’s important to consider “the position you’re coming from” when you read or think about these issues. On the other hand, people and groups who may be more directly impacted by an artist’s problematic views “also have really thoughtful, nuanced ways” of engaging—or not engaging—with the art.

Matthes believes that “we have a lot of moral latitude when it comes to our individual engagement” with art. He finds it difficult to make the argument that reading, listening to, or viewing art in your own home is directly harmful to others, even if the artist in question is still alive.

Summers, meanwhile, points out that if someone is upset by an artist, there could be cases where “you’re taking it out on your friends… when you should be taking it out on the band.”

Institutions like universities, however, might need to take further considerations. “Different moral norms might apply,” Matthes suggests, “based on the positions of power we occupy.” Classrooms, for instance, are a “semi-public” space. They can help provide context in conversations about “morally problematic art” and encourage people to “think really carefully and critically.” If a class is going to engage with such topics, though, Matthes thinks it’s important to spell that out to students beforehand.

Powerful conversations can take place outside of classrooms, too — in book clubs and even informal conversations with friends. “You don’t want to let the moral concerns completely drive the bus” when engaging with art, Matthes says, “but I think it’s important not to ignore them.”

Rankin concludes by reminding us that it isn’t just artists who face decisions about how to respond to the world. For instance, even among those who don’t think of themselves as photographers, anyone who carries a cell phone is making choices every time they take a photo — about what they’re presenting and why.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

How Concerned Should You Be About AirTags?

Photograph of an AirTag from Wikimedia Commons. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Creator: KKPCW.

I didn’t even know what an AirTag was until I attended a cybersecurity talk by Nick Tripp, senior manager of Duke’s IT Security Office, but according to Tripp, AirTag technology is “something that the entire Duke community probably needs to be aware of.”

An AirTag is a small tracking device that can connect to any nearby Apple device using Bluetooth. AirTags were released by Apple in April 2021 and are designed to help users keep track of items like keys and luggage. Tripp himself has one attached to his keys. If he loses them, he can open the “Find My” app on his phone (installed by default on Apple devices), and if anyone else with an Apple device has been near his keys since he lost them, the Bluetooth technology will let him see where his keys were when the Apple device user passed them—or took them.

According to Tripp, AirTags have two distinct advantages over earlier tracking devices. First, they use technology that lets the “Find My” app provide “precise location tracking”—within an inch of the AirTag’s location. Second, because AirTags use the existing Apple network, “every iPhone and iPad in the world becomes a listening device.”

You can probably guess where this is going. Unfortunately, the very features that make AirTags so useful for finding lost or stolen items also make them susceptible to abuse. There are numerous reports of AirTags being used to stalk people. Tripp has seen that problem on Duke’s campus, too. He gives the example of someone going to a bar and later finding an AirTag in their bag or jacket without knowing who put it there. The IT Security Office at Duke sees about 2-3 suspected cyberstalking incidents per month, with 1-2 confirmed each year. Cyberstalking, Tripp emphasizes, isn’t confined to the internet. It “straddles the internet and the real world.” Not all of the cyberstalking reports Duke deals with involve tracking devices, but “the availability of low-cost tracking technology” is a concern. In the wrong hands, AirTags can enable dangerous stalking behavior.

As part of his IT security work, and with his wife’s permission, Tripp dropped an AirTag into his wife’s bag to better understand the potential for nefarious use of AirTags by attackers. Concerningly, he found that he was able to track her movement using the app on his phone—not constantly, but about every five minutes, and if a criminal is trying to stalk someone, knowing their location every five minutes is more than enough.

Fortunately, Apple has created certain safety features to help prevent the malicious use of AirTags. For instance, if someone has been near the same AirTag for several hours (such as Tripp’s wife while there was an AirTag in her bag), they’ll get a pop-up notification on their phone after a random period of time between eight and twenty-four hours warning them that “Your current location can be seen by the owner of this AirTag.” Also, an AirTag will start making a particular sound if it has been away from its owner for eight to twenty-four hours. (It will emit a different sound if the owner of the AirTag is nearby and actively trying to find their lost item using their app.) Finally, each AirTag broadcasts a certain Bluetooth signal, a “public key,” associated with the AirTag’s “private key.” To help thwart potential hackers, that public key changes every eight to twenty-four hours. (Are you wondering yet what’s special about the eight-to-twenty-four hour time period? Tripp says it’s meant to be “frequently enough that Apple can give some privacy to the owner of that AirTag” but “infrequently enough that they can establish a pattern of malicious activity.”)

But despite these safety features, a highly motivated criminal could get around them. Tripp and his team built a “DIY Stealth AirTag” in an attempt to anticipate what measures criminals might take to deactivate or counteract Apple’s built-in security features. (Except when he’s presenting to other IT professionals, Tripp makes a point of not revealing the exact process his team used to make their Stealth AirTag. He wants to inform the public about the potential dangers of tracking technology while avoiding giving would-be criminals any ideas.) Tripp’s wife again volunteered to be tracked, this time with a DIY Stealth AirTag that Tripp placed in her car. He found that the modified AirTag effectively and silently tracked his wife’s car. Unlike the original AirTag, their stealthy version could create a map of everywhere his wife had driven, complete with red markers showing the date, time, and coordinates of each location. An AirTag that has been modified by a skilled hacker could let attackers see “not just where a potential victim is going but when they go there and how often.”

“The AirTag cat is out of the bag, so to speak,” Tripp says. He believes Apple should update their AirTag design to make the safety features harder to circumvent. Nonetheless, “it is far more likely that someone will experience abuse of a retail AirTag” than one modified by a hacker to be stealthier. So how can you protect yourself? Tripp has several suggestions.

  1. Know the AirTag beep indicating that an AirTag without its owner is nearby, potentially in your belongings.
  2. If you have an iPhone, watch for AirTag alerts. If you receive a notification warning you about a nearby AirTag, don’t ignore it.
  3. If you have an Android, Tripp recommends installing the “Tracker Detect” app from Apple because unlike iPhone users, Android users don’t get automatic pop-up notifications if an AirTag has been near them for several hours. The “Tracker Detect” Android app isn’t a perfect solution—you still won’t get automatic notifications; you’ll have to manually open the app to check for nearby trackers. But Tripp still considers it worthwhile.
  4. For iPhone users, make sure you have tracking notifications configured in the “Find My” app. You can go into the app and click “Me,” then “Customize Tracking Notifications.” Make sure the app has permission to send you notifications.
  5. Know how to identify an AirTag if you find one. If you find an AirTag that isn’t yours, and you have an iPhone, go into the “Find My” app, click “Items,” and then swipe up until you see the “Identify Found Item” option. That tool lets you scan the AirTag by holding it near your phone. It will then show the AirTag’s serial number and the last four digits of the owner’s phone number, which can be useful for the police. “If I found one,” Tripp says, “I think it’s worth making a police report.”

It’s worth noting that owning an AirTag does not put you at higher risk of stalking or other malicious behavior. The concern, whether or not you personally use AirTags, is that attackers can buy AirTags themselves and use them maliciously. Choosing to use AirTags to keep track of important items, meanwhile, won’t hurt you and may be worth considering, especially if you travel often or are prone to misplacing things. Not all news about AirTags is bad. They’ve helped people recover lost items, from luggage and wallets to photography gear and an electric scooter.

“I actually think this technology is extremely useful,” Tripp says. It’s the potential for abuse by attackers that’s the problem.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Library Shakedowns: Book Bans and Censorship

“I started thinking about how I might be different, how my life might be different, how my conversations might be different, if [‘To Kill a Mockingbird’] had not been a book that I was able to read in the 8th grade… to keep reading and reading again,” recounted Professor Kisha Daniels in her opening remarks of last month’s “Policing Pages” panel. 

Professor Kisha Daniels is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Education at Duke University and the moderator of Duke Alumni Lifelong Learning “Policing Pages: The American Classics” event.

What truly is more formative in the awkward, acned stretch of middle school than Lip-Smackered gossip and English class? Yellow page paperbacks, palimpsests of doodles and students from years past. Purchased on teacher budget scraps and booster club wrapping paper sales, Shakespeare, Orwell, a hundred used copies of “Tuck Everlasting”: stained, dog-eared, and coverless

Psychology and neuroscience researchers agree that reading (and, thus, books like “To Kill a Mockingbird”) weaves tapestries of yarny neurons and synapses, beneficial for the development of social-emotional skills, empathy, and creativity during childhood and adolescence. 

Yet, America has recently witnessed persistent efforts to ban certain titles from K12 schools. In 2004 and 2005, for example, Stanford Middle (here in Durham) challenged the inclusion of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in its own library, citing the novel’s use of racial slurs.

It ultimately was not removed from the shelves, but the book remains one of the most challenged/banned titles in U.S. school history.

Professor Sarah Ludington, a Duke Law faculty member and director of the First Amendment Clinic

In 2021, the American Library Association reported an unprecedented 729 book challenges. So why, Daniels prompted, are we seeing such a high number of banned books? And why now?

Before answering this, Professor Sarah Ludington clarified some of the misleading rhetoric propagated by the popular media. “’Banned books’ is more of a slogan,” she explained. More accurate is the idea of challenging a book, whether in a library or on the class curriculum. This does not necessarily mean the book will be outright banned or even removed from the shelf or, if it is banned, permanently. In fact, books can be reinstated, even after their removal, back to their shelf and the occasional dust bunny.

In North Carolina, such a statute exists in state law that bars an individual, like a single librarian, teacher, or parent, from undemocratically removing or banning a book. Instead, local administrative boards must take a vote.

PBS’s “Books Behind Bars”
Illustration by: Jane Mount

University Librarian Joseph Salem argued that social media platforms, like Facebook, and online groups, like Moms for Liberty, create tectonic shocks that trigger tidal waves of book challenges. They’re echo chambers: amplifying calls to remove specific books from school libraries, ping-ponging literary “hit-lists” through cyberspace with titles such as: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (you can take a look at the full list here).

Joseph Salem is Duke’s newest University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs

These books disproportionately feature marginalized voices and are often “charged and sentenced” for containing “LGBTQ content, profanity, and/or sexual references.”

As we’re all aware, what once was local news can quickly leach into national discourse. A book ban in a rural Ohio county, for example, can be picked up by the local media, trend on Twitter, disseminate through Facebook until someone, say, in Texas or Arkansas or North Carolina decides they too want to challenge said book in their own school district.

This book-banning rhetoric and its implications are present elsewhere in education-related conversations. Take, for example, Florida’s dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bill. In March, lawmakers in the Sunshine State argued that merely mentioning sexual orientation/gender identity in primary school settings is grounds for a lawsuit on the basis that such content is innately “sexually explicit,” no matter its context.

However, challenging certain books and even passing certain laws are usually not intentionally malicious acts. It is indisputable that some books simply do not belong on school bookshelves. A medical textbook, Ludington analogized, wouldn’t make sense in a library for children just learning how to read. But, in a high school with a more mature student body, its inclusion wouldn’t bat an eye. Further, in the U.S. more generally, First Amendment rights do not extend to all forms of speech anyways, including but not limited to “obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, and the advocacy of imminent lawless action.”

And though societal concern over the well-being of children is well-intentioned, it can often be misguided or out-of-proportion.

I don’t think it’s too outrageous to consider children as sentient and receptive, whether to new ideas, new perspectives, and/or new people.

Still, in the United States, a number of moral panics, concerning everything from poisoned Halloween candy to “Dungeons & Dragons” to subliminal messaging in rock music to Tide Pods, have been cause for parental concern.

In 1985, for example, Tipper Gore bought Prince’s “Purple Rain” album for her 11-year-old daughter and was shocked by its age-inappropriate lyrics. She took her concern to the Senate in a series of Congressional hearings which, though largely mocked, called for a music rating system like the kind adopted by Hollywood for movies. 

In 1985, Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver (from left to right respectively) testified before the Senate against music censorship and the Parents Music Resource Center (P.M.R.C.). Notably, John Denver advocated for his song “Rocky Mountain High.

Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver somehow managed to assemble into the eclectic “primary counsel” for the musical defense and eloquently argued that labeling and banning albums is akin to censorship.

Gore’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.

But, it’s not difficult to see how censorship concerns voiced in the Senate in the 80s mirror the ones voiced today.

Ludington, a self-proclaimed First Amendment enthusiast, added that “…inherent in our idea of freedom of speech is this notion that truth emerges from robust dialogue… The best way to counteract whatever pernicious effect there might be, say from a book that you wanted to ban, is actually to read the book and reason against it.” 

This kind of civil discourse is an idealism baked into the “apple pie” of American democracy. Quite arguably the Golden Delicious themselves. Over the course of U.S. history, there have been just and unjust efforts to suppress individuals’ freedom of speech. Take the infamous “yelling FIRE in a crowded theater” anecdote. 

Experts concur, however, that most censorship is unproductive and often does little to actually stymie the ideas it so desperately wants to quash. In fact, as Daniels pointed out, banning books from school libraries typically does not decrease their readership and can actually drive their sales up. 

But the implications of book banning run deep, implying that, as a society, there is little value in responsibly harboring and learning from certain (and often difficult) materials. 

Salem described a collection on hate groups, gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and possessed by the Duke University library. He said, “If we take a step back for a moment and think that everything in the Duke University library… is something we endorse without understanding the complexity of why we might have it, either to learn from it as a good or bad example… one might say that owning or stewarding means that we support what’s in that collection. I would push back on that vehemently. It doesn’t comport with our values at all.” 

After book banning efforts in school libraries reached an all time high in 2021, 2022 is trending to exceed last year’s figure.

Instead of arguing with disgruntled parents and Facebook groups, many underpaid librarians and teachers, Salem described, choose to self-censor, quietly removing contentious titles from their shelves to avoid unfair accusations lobbied at them in heated PTO meetings, over angry phone calls, or during school board votes. 

To oppose this form of censorship, Daniels, Ludington, and Salem agreed: Read the books! Parents, Facebook group members, and legislatures alike, read before challenging, before banning, and then after banning. Reading is really the preeminent way to avoid unnecessarily suppressing free speech in schools; to introduce yourself to new ideas, to new discourse, and to new perspectives. Daniels put it best, “The book is innocent until proven guilty.”

Give it a fair trial.  

In Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus describes empathy to Scout in a way which resonates with many of the “Policing Pages” talking points, saying: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

If interested in the “Policing Pages: The American Classics” discussion, click here to watch.

If interested in resources on book banning, check out the American Library Association for more information.

By Alex Clifford, class of 2024
By Alex Clifford, class of 2024

Is it Time to Decolonize Global Health Data?

In the digital age, we are well-acquainted with “data,” a crouton-esque word tossed into conversations, ingrained in the morning rush like half-caf cappuccinos and spreadsheets. Conceptually, data feels benign, necessary, and totally absorbed into the zeitgeist of the 21st century (alongside Survivor, smartphones, and Bitcoin). Data conjures up the census; white-coat scientists and their clinical trials; suits and ties; NGO board meetings; pearled strings of binary code; bar graphs, pie charts, scatter plots, pictographs, endless excel rows and columns, and more rows and more columns.

However, within the conversation of global health, researchers and laymen alike would more often than not describe data collection, use, and sharing as critical for resource mobilization, disease monitoring, surveillance prevention, treatment, etc. (Look at measles eradication! Polio! Malaria! Line graphs A, B, and C!)

Thanks to the internet, extracting health data is also faster, easier, and more widespread than ever . We have grown increasingly concerned, and rightfully so, about data ownership and data sovereignty.

Who is privy to data? Who can possess it? Can you possess it? As you can see, the conversation quickly becomes convoluted, philosophical even.

Dr. Wendy Prudhomme O’Meara is an associate professor at Duke University Medical School in the Division of Infectious Diseases, visiting professor at Moi University, and the Co-Field Director of Research for AMPATH. Her research focuses on malaria. 

Dr. Wendy Prudhomme O’Meara, moderator of the Data as a Commodity seminar on Sept. 29 and associate professor at Duke University Medical School in the Division of Infectious Diseases, discussed bioethical complexities of data creation and ownership within global health partnerships.

“We can see that activities—where data is being collected in one place, removed from the context, and value being extracted from it for personal or financial benefit — has very strong parallels to the kind of resource extraction and exploitation that characterized colonization,” she said in her introductory remarks.

Data, like other raw materials (i.e. coffee, sugar, tobacco, etc.), can be extracted, often disproportionately, from lower-middle income countries (LMICs) at the expense of the local populations. This reinforces unequal power dynamics and harkens to the tenets of colonialism and imperialism.

This observation is exemplified by panelist Thiago Hernandes Rocha’s research which focuses on public policy evaluation and data mining. He acknowledges that global health research, in general, should prioritize the health improvements of the studied community rather than publications or grant funding. This may seem somewhat obvious to you; however, though academic competition often fosters nuances in the field, it also contributes to the commercialization of global health. Don’t be shy, everyone point your finger at Big Pharma!

Though Dr. Rocha’s data mining technique refers to “pattern-searching” and analysis of dense data sets, I find “mining” to be an apt analogy for the exploitative potential of data extraction and research partnerships between higher income countries and LMICs.

Dr. Thiago Hernandes Rocha joins the discussion via Zoom. He is an advisor on health data analysis for the Pan American Health Organization.

Consider the British diamond industry in Cape Colony, South Africa, and the parallels between past colonial mineral extraction and current global health data extraction. Imagine taking a pickaxe to the earth.

Now consider the environmental ramifications of mining, and who they disproportionately affect. Consider the lingering social and economic inequalities. Of course, data is not a mine of diamonds (as your Hay Day farm might suggest) nor is it ivory or rubber or timber. It’s less tangible (you can’t necessarily hold it or physically possess it) and, therefore, its extraction also feels less tangible, even though this process can have very concrete consequences.

Data as a power dynamic is a rather recent characterization in academic discourse. Researchers and companies alike have pushed the “open data” movement to increase data availability to all people for all uses. You can see how, in a utopian society, this would be fantastic. Think of the transparency! I’m sure you can also see how, in our non-utopian society, this can be exploited.

Dr. Bethany Hedt-Gauthier, a Harvard University biostatistician and seminar speaker, described herself as “pro ‘open data’ … in a world without power dynamics” — an amendment critical to understanding research as a commodity itself.

She justified her stance by referencing the systematic review of authorship in collaborative health research in Africa that she conducted in collaboration with others in the field. They found that even when sub-Saharan African populations were the main sites of study, when partnered with high-income, elite institutions (like Duke or Harvard), the African authors were significantly less likely to be first or senior authors despite the comparable number of academics on both sides of the partnership. To what can we attribute this discrepancy?

Dr. Bethany Hedt-Gauthier is a biostatistician in health systems research that focuses on the optimization of care and health outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Hedt-Gauthier describes forms of capital that contribute to this issue, from cultural capital (i.e. credentials) to symbolic capital (i.e. legitimacy) to financial capital; however, she poses colonialism (and its continuity in socioeconomic and political power dynamics today) as the root of this incongruity from which the aforementioned forms of capital bud and flower like poisonous oleander. In recent years, institutions, including Duke, have increased efforts to “decolonize” global health to achieve greater equity, equal participation, and better health outcomes overall. 

Dr. Hedt-Gauthier briefly chronicled some of her own research in Rwanda at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within her research partnerships, she recollected slowing down, thoughtfully engaging in two-way dialogue, and posing questions like the following: “Who is involved [in the partnership]?” “Are all parties equally represented in paper authorship?” “If not, how can we share resources to ensure this?” “How can we assure that the people involved in the generation of data are also involved in the interpretation of its results?” “Who has access to data?” “What does co-authorship look like?”

Investing time and energy into multi-country databases, funding collaborative research infrastructures, removing barriers within academia, and training researchers are just some of the methods proposed by the speakers to facilitate equitable partnerships, data sharing and use, and continued global health decolonization.

Dr. Osondu Ogbuoji is an Assistant Research Professor at Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) and Deputy Director at the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health at DGHI.

Dr. Osondu Ogbuoji, the final panelist, puts it best: “… We should ensure that the people in the room having the discussion about what values the data has should be as diverse as possible and ideally should have all the stakeholders. In our own research, sometimes we think we have an idea of what data to collect, but then we talk to the country partners and they have a totally different idea.”

Though the question of data ownership may feel lofty or intangible, though data legality is confusing, though you may feel yourself adrift in the debate of commodity and capital, the speakers have thrown you a buoy, grab on, and understand that generally:

It is necessary to engage with “data” in a communicative and critical manner; it is necessary to build research partnerships that are synergistic and reciprocal; and, finally, it is necessary to approach global health via these partnerships to advance the field towards greater equity.

Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024

Watch the recorded seminar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRmFzif8a1c

Banned Books Then and Now

With the never-ending news of schools banning books, one has to ask about the history and effectiveness of banned books. Fortunately, the Duke Forever Learning Institute hosted a seminar on the history of banned books in late September and provided examples that showed the ineffectiveness of banned books throughout time.

There was one particular story, however, that caught my eye, and that was the retelling of the history behind a banned book written by a man named Gottschalk. Clare Woods, an associate professor of Classical Studies at Duke, delineated the narrative of Gottschalk’s life from birth to prisoner.

A map containing the monasteries Gottschalk visited. (provided by Dr. Clare Woods)

Gottschalk was born to an aristocratic family around 803 AD and started his academic career when he moved into Fulda, a monastery, to become a monk. However, in 829 AD, Gottschalk left Fulda for reasons based either on the loss of his older brother or the enlightenment he received from the monastery he attended while studying abroad.

Upon leaving Fulda, Gottschalk studied at the monasteries of Corbie and then moved to northern Italy after he received his orientation as a priest. Gottschalk was unusual because monks tended not to move around that much, and monks also tended not to speak about their studies on heretical doctrine. Unfortunately for Gottschalk, he ignored the criticisms from other monks and instead grew confident in his studies to the point where he wrote a book about them.

While receiving hate for his ideas from multiple people, one man from Gottschalk’s past was truly adamant about having Gottschalk punished. This man was named Rabanus (Hrabanus), and he was accused by Gottschalk of coercing Gottschalk’s earlier career as a monk. From that, and with Gottschalk leaving the Fulda, Rabanus developed a personal vendetta against Gottschalk.

This is an excerpt from Gottschalk’s confession, which was provided by Dr. Clare Woods.

Gottschalk, the confident man he was, decided to defend himself at a Synod in Mainz, but it proved unsuccessful because he was condemned by the Synod and banned from the Kingdom of Louis. From there on, things did not improve for Gottschalk because, in the following year, he was brought to a second Synod that was attended by King Charles, who was the brother of King Louis the German. By the end of this Synod, Gottschalk was stripped of his priesthood, sentenced to silence, and imprisoned.

However, even with the punishments Gottschalk personally received and his books being burned, his books were still preserved and influential on others.

This influence seen with Gottschalk’s books after being banned was not an anomaly because that was seen with all banned books throughout history.

Another example was given by Lauren Ginsberg, an associate professor of classical studies, who presented Permussius Cordis, an author who lived under the Roman emperor Tiberius in the 1st century AD.

His story ended in tragedy since his books were included in a mass book burning and he was sentenced to death. However, his book still was able to influence the Roman population due to his daughter Marsha’s vigilance in keeping her father’s book alive.

While I only provided two examples, this pattern of books withstanding their ban is throughout time, and it is being repeated in the present. Across this country, book banning is back in style. In 2018, there were only 347 books that schools formally challenged, but in 2021 it became 1,500.

An example of books that have been banned in multiple schools (Freedman)

While this does put light on our current education system in this country, this is simply a gesture. It does make us think about what children will be learning in schools, but because the books are banned in schools does not mean the information within those books will not reach their target demographic. As seen in history, knowledge always finds a way of spreading, but of course, that is dependent on those who want to expand that knowledge.

At the end of this article, I hope you are reassured that seeing a banned book does not mean it is forever silenced. Instead, I hope that by reading this, you understand that you have all the power to ensure that the words within a book can withstand anything, including time.

Post by Jakaiyah Franklin, Class of 2025

Citation: Freedman, Samuel G. “A Display of Banned or Censored Books at a Bookstore Last October. Over a Recent 9 Month Period More than 1,500 Books Have Been Banned in Schools, Most Featuring Nonwhite Protagonists, Dealing with Racism, or Addressing the LGBTQ Experience.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 27 June 2022, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-06-27/book-bans-critical-race-theory-wisconsin. Accessed 10 Oct. 2022.

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