The Brights' Bulletin


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Issue #205

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BRIGHTS BULLETIN -- SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2021 


 
 

Splintering Trends (USA)

Early this calendar year, the Pew Research Center offered a report on how Americans had fared during the year a novel coronavirus entered the scene and instigated a global pandemic of Covid-19. The largest takeaway (stated at that time, 03/2021) was the extent to which the decidedly nonpartisan virus had been “met with an increasingly partisan response.”

Pew’s looking-back report showed how the nation became ever-more divided, depending in large part on where the population was looking for information.

Now, six months past that Pew report, its concise look at the fracturing trends taking place within that first year (03/2020 – 03/2021) usefully show us not only the widening political divisions over the threat to public health but also, the Pew report opined, “a sign of things to come.”

What happens when a part of the public is utilizing conspiracy theories and social media to garner their information?  What takes place as America’s many-complicated divides of geography, party, class, religion, race and ideology coalesce into a far simpler but much more polarizing situation?

When there is no agreement on facts in the face of what needs to be a unifying response to a viral pandemic, how can science find its way into a public policy that optimally benefits everyone in the population at large? 

The evolving nature of the scientific information - along with the mutating virus itself – would seem to already present quite enough challenges to communicating useful public health information. The contemporary U.S. divisions seem no longer due simply to its long-noted scientific illiteracy (a drawback bemoaned publicly by Isaac Asimov over three decades ago). Nor is it merely a failure of the scientific experts to communicate more clearly to their nonscientific public and its political leaders what science is learning. Instead, the situation seems even worse now. Has Americans’ information universe itself been tribalized?

A second-year account may be forthcoming from Pew researchers, but even now, in light of 2021 events following that aforementioned report, the trends it revealed seem, at least on the surface, to endure and are perhaps magnified. (That is, it appears that a division has hardened even further and is gaining force.) 

A nation’s abysmal failure to make a cohesive response to the virus (as has been the case in the United States) indicates that an information siloing may have taken hold to an alarming extent, and to an extent much more so than in other nations.

 

In a Tribal Response – Who/What Suffers?

Some nations have performed better than others at responding productively to the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the many geographical and economic reasons for disparities, political leadership has been mentioned as crucial to success. A nation’s cultural norms also appear to play a significant role, with “tight nations” (abiding by strict norms) responding better than “looser nations” due to their historical experiences with social and ecological threats. Nations that contain a virus and keep the public trust rely on clear messaging (absent false hope or misinformation). They also exhibit “prioritization of science over politics.” 

But what if cultural tribalism operating within a nation is sufficient to present a “trust divide” regarding science?

Polling reporting and commentary have found cultural tribalism itself to be well established in areas like sports and music and ethnicity. A general concern about its power has been expressed, particularly that it may become hardened and emotionally intense, turning rival tribes into enemies and overriding civility in society. “Then it becomes a vulnerability and may begin “to tear at the fabric of liberal democracies in the developed world and even at the postwar liberal international order.” (Chua, in Foreign Affairs, 2018).

The U.S. as a whole is experiencing more than just growing political division and public confusion. The many shards and splinters of social, educational and political identity have merged into what is a largely political public response, hardened into partisan tribes. Much of the public is not just misunderstanding of scientific process; it is dismissive and mistrustful of the available and evolving information science produces. This situation (my side “good” – yours “bad) is pernicious. Has a science-trust-guided policy become unattainable?

Furthermore (and something that would likely be of great concern to Brights), the question arises as to how, as a part of society, the institutions of science themselves are being undermined by a degree of tribalism that can elevate a “my side’s stance” above the facts that could buttress everyone’s welfare.

 

A Fracturing Future?  Or, Something Better?

In light of the global challenge wrought all across humanity by the arrival on the scene of the novel Sars-CoV-2, compounded by the burgeoning solid evidence of our changing climate’s power to wreak havoc, we might well wonder what is “built into” our own human species that may come into play. (Does anything about us offer hope for humanity’s response?)

At Brights Central (BC), we have found some hope (as well as trepidation) in what has been learned by researchers busy deciphering the makeup of human nature and the evolution of human morality.

>> What We Already Know about Ourselves

 The neurobiologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky addressed the value of humanity’s accumulated knowledge for humanity’s overall prospects in his 2017 book, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst”. (To put human behavior into broader perspective, the author applied, among other knowledge, what he had gained from his work directly studying primates.) A New York Times reviewer at the time of publication (2017) had phrased Sapolsky’s “burning issue” like this: “If physics can take us to the moon, genetics give us the Green Revolution, and medicine conquer polio, can neurobiology help us all get along?”

When the notorious 2020 virus year began, Brights’ January bulletin had reminded readers of that previously published book and we do so again for those seeking hope for the future, yet also willing to face reality. Sapolsky has written broadly about “why we engage in tribalism, nationalism, and scapegoating.” The italicized text here was the title of a brief interview article the year following the author having published his truly hefty tome, 790-pages. (The interview is a nice toe-in-the-water glimpse of the biologist’s take.)

>> Can We Cooperate?

As Sapolsky admitted when describing humanity’s evolutionary legacy and why we do the things we do, having us all “get along” to accomplish common purpose is certainly a challenge. And yet, according to morality researchers, it is cooperation that likely underpinned our species evolving from ancestors into who we are today. As one article based on an evolutionary view has put it: “Converging lines of evidence – from game theory, ethology, psychology, and anthropology – suggest that morality is a collection of tools for promoting cooperation.” If natural selection has equipped humans with adaptations for realizing the benefits of cooperation, then maybe we have the “benevolent biological foundations” that will bolster the cooperation that we do so desperately need.

 

That Continuing “Just a Theory” Problem

Adam Manning (UK) is an environmentalist and political person, who occasionally contributes posts to the Brights’ Facebook page and tweets his ideas more frequently (@AdamManning). He has in the past blogged a bit within “The Science-Minded Citizen” category on our website. (Previous topics include “Rocket Science,” “The Solar Eclipse,” and “Sexual Selection.”)

This time Adam came back to the blog with an issue that has been bugging him. He had posted his piece in FB initially but is hoping for a broader audience in order so as to re-emphasize what a scientific theory is! 

Is he just “preaching to the choir”? Maybe so. But he really wants to point out just how badly people do misinterpret the concept in such a lazy and distorted way.

Evolution “just a theory”?  Climate change “just a theory”? Gravity?  Actually, the problem is not a new one, and he’s really hoping for more help in making the distinction when grumbling about this issue with other Brights. That distinction about “theory” does have bearing on many crucial contemporary issues.

You can read and comment on Adam’s ideas in “The Facts about Theories.”

 

Morality Stalwart Copiously Rewarded

Princeton University’s noted “trendy” public philosopher Peter Singer has been named recipient of the 2021 Berggruen Prize. The Berggruen Institute awards this one-million-dollar award annually to a thinker whose ideas have “profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world.” Congratulations, Mr. Singer!

Mr. Singer is widely known for discomfiting better-off persons by contending their moral obligation to those less fortunate (e.g., we should all be sacrificing far more than we feel obligatory). He has received worldwide notice for his provocative positions regarding the cruelty of factory farming and, more recently, for his expansive utilitarian notions, some of which have stirred controversy (e.g., from the disabled). As for Mr. Singer’s current monetary windfall, he will be sharing, giving half (enough?) to the philanthropic organization that he founded. The Life You Can Save nonprofit identifies ways to channel one’s own philanthropy toward the poor to yield the most human benefit (lives per dollar).

Peter Singer was one of several VIPs involved in the Brights’ own effort to shape human self-understanding. Our project sought to identify what scientists actually know about the origins of human morality and then communicate that to the general public. With Mr. Singer and eight other distinguished morality researchers giving input to the work of our own team of volunteers, our project culminated in BC’s publishing an extensive segment on the website under the topic, “Reality about Morality.” It includes an infographic presentation of scientifically supported statements in 15 languages and supportive explanatory material. The Web portal suggests readings and also eases access to open-source peer-reviewed scientific studies. As a package, it does, as intended, further public understanding of the natural foundation of human morality; no supernaturalism ever necessitated or invoked.

 

The “Two Brights” Debate Continues

The March 2021 Brights’ Bulletin gave mention to a then-just-released book by two philosophers, Just Deserts: Debating Free Will. As its title foretells, the book features their wrangling over that “most discussed ever” philosophical problem. (The book was their expansion of a lengthy essay they had previously written).

Beyond any debating the existence of free will, how free will is interpreted has implications for choice, moral responsibility and legal punishment.  And these two philosophers also “have at” that broader domain in their different interpretations. (A naturalistic worldview leaves plenty of room for debate on matters that have relevance to the rearing of children, making of laws, etc.)

When their book was released, our bulletin readers who acquired and read it were invited to weigh in on a website with their personal opinions as to the differing views of the two philosophers (both are registered Brights).

Although few among us may be “up” for a book on philosophy, many probably wouldn’t mind accessing an easier route to the gist of how these two Brights present their ideas. One way is to access (online) the original essay that led to the book. And now, luckily for we who might just wish to dip a toe into the issues, there’s an even easier way. One can briefly sample the similar and differing notions brought to bear by Dennett and Caruso in an interview-style format. That gloss is also readily available online, thanks to a Tufts University’s posting. If the back and forth of that discussion whets your appetite for more, then the book and website options are still there for you.

 
 

Another Book by Controversial Bright

Just how many books has evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins produced during his 80 trips around the sun?  Whatever the number, here comes one more!

As notable for writing about science and atheism as the prolific Isaac Asimov once was for his science and science fiction, Dawkins’ books span a broad swath of many Brights’ shelves. (Many newer Brights report when registering having discovered the constituency by way of Dawkins’ blockbuster, The God Delusion.)

And now, following his 80th birthday, this well-known “New Atheist” has produced Books Do Furnish a Life. As a collection of shorter pieces, this book is a highly appealing and readable book for nonscientists, even at times somewhat poetically stirring and [non?]soulful. In it, the author becomes contemplative about those dual concepts (life and books). Per usual, he rarely holds back provocative opinion. As one reviewer puts it in The Spectator (“[he] delights in his own invective”), and so it is that in this volume Dr. Dawkins seems to take much pleasure in providing readers “…some of his most negative and sarcastic reviews.”

Dawkins’ harsh view of religion is widely known (“an organized license to be acceptably stupid”) and so is his concern about young children being indoctrinated with “your dopey unsubstantiated superstitions.” His candor, perhaps made more incendiary within the confines of Twitter, has concerned some colleagues. For example, a fellow Bright, philosopher Daniel Dennett, reportedly once fretted that his friend may “be seriously damaging his long-term legacy.” Quite recently (April, 2021) in fact, the American Humanist Association in Washington, D.C. withdrew the “Humanist of the Year” award it had bestowed on Dawkins in 1996. Dawkins was reportedly dismissive about the AHA’s “cancellation.”

 

Last Call for Brights’ Bits of Wisdom

Clearly, living with a naturalistic worldview (bright) view of life doesn’t negate having been exposed to, taken in, and marked as memorable some pretty useful guidance for navigating our times alive on the planet.

We needn’t be holding onto any notions whatsoever that some supernatural entities or mystical agency may be at large or calling any shots. We can persevere productively without looking to faith or trusting to any such beings or intervention.

Thanks to all Brights who have sent in to Brights Central what they keep topmost in their minds as they live life. It appears that there are plenty of sayings or mottos or maxims that help to frame any “just-one-life-to-live” mindset. Among the tidbits of philosophy recently tendered as personal favorites were the three “best quotes” reproduced here:

“My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”

By Thomas Paine (contributed by three different Brights – USA, UK, UK)

 “Friendship ain't jus' claspin' hands and saying "Howdy-do".  Friendship grips a feller's heart - An' warms it through an' through.”

From the writings of Lawrence Hawthorne, 1926 (contributed by Elwin, NSW Australia)

 “In our amazing universe, the supernatural is superfluous.”

(Personal philosophy contributed by Scott, Georgia, USA)

This is BC’s last call for submitting your own “Best Quote” for possible placement on the website. As before, please email your nomination to the-brights@the-brights.net with BEST QUOTE in your subject line (using all caps helps with our inbox sorting). Besides the quote wording and authorship, provide your name and your country (or state, if USA). Please check the accuracy of your source attribution! If we publicize contributions, we will use only your first name and location (country or US state). Thanks!

The offer of a free Brights’ “Awesome! bumper sticker” for the first hundred submissions has expired. But they really aren’t that expensive if you want to buy one to show on your auto bumper or just an office cubicle or schoolhouse binder, and they’re easily available for purchase using PayPal. Just go to the website’s merchandise page for instructions.

 

Okay - Have It Your Way

According to its Wikipedia entry, the song “My Way” (generally associated with Frank Sinatra) is a karaoke and funeral favorite. Whatever the reason for that particular form of popularity, what probably makes the song so prevalent a choice are those (“I did it my way”) English lyrics by Paul Anka.

Without their waiting to life’s end, the “I’ll do it my way” approach is also prevalent among Brights. At least it is among those who respond whenever BC sends out a request for contributions with some stipulation guiding the manner of response. For example, to ask for just ONE  “best quote” is simply ignored by folks who will not abide such a limitation. They simply “did it their own way” and BC ended up receiving as many as four separate emails from the same person(!), with each nomination sent in as a particular single quote nomination uppermost in their philosophy. It’s okay – all were read and enjoyed!

More difficult timewise, was when folks wrote in having composed a treatise of personal philosophy!  Yikes. 

An example of one of the shortest of those essay departures from the actual request is included here in the bulletin because it seems rather pertinent to today’s challenges, and we would like to thank the author (Jim, in the UK) for having things his way.

1. I believe that people must always be considered as individuals, never by way of stereotypes.

2. I believe, more or less with John Stuart Mill "On Liberty" (1859), that each being should be free to do whatever he wishes in so far as this does not (significantly) impinge directly on the freedom or welfare of others, or inflict unnecessary suffering on any other sentient being, and this consideration should at all times be paramount.

3. I believe that it is the duty of a civilised society to so organise and conduct itself that the strong are constrained to observe the above principles in their dealings with the weak.

4. I believe it is the further duty of a civilised society to provide protection and support to those unable to provide for themselves the necessary conditions for a healthy and pleasant life, in so far as this is possible.

His #2 touches on personally maneuvering through a global pandemic, and for that his view seems refreshingly on point. Many of us have found our tolerance of others sorely tested of late.

 

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