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BRIGHTS BULLETIN -- JUNE 2016 


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Biology Instructors Reticent

An exploratory study by researchers at Arizona State University has disclosed how biology instructors at the state’s collegiate institutions perceive their role in helping students “accept evolution.” (The study was published in May in the scientific journal CBE—Life Sciences Education. An accessible article reporting the study sheds light on the issues.)

Despite evolution being such a unifying idea in biology education, the researchers uncovered instructor discomfort with the subject matter as it relates to religion or to students’ personal beliefs. The study found that a majority of the college professors do not consider helping students accept the theory of evolution to be an instructional goal. They stick to asking that their students learn “just the facts” of evolution and avoid addressing the topic in broader contexts, which they consider “hot button.”

The study drew its instructor participants from three Arizona universities and ten community colleges.  In planning to investigate this issue on a national level, the researchers pose a need to address “emotional components and religious beliefs” that the students have, not just their intellectual grasp. 

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Evolution: Learn It? Accept It? Use It?

Students can succeed in their college biology coursework (“absorb the course content”) without “buying into” the evolutionary explanation they are presented. (They “know it” but may not "trust it.") That is, they can exit a course with an intellectual grasp of evolution, even as that explanation remains discordant with their worldview.

Is “acceptance of evolution” the goal of biology education? 
Should it be?

Elizabeth Barnes, co-author of the Arizona study mentioned above, has remarked about the educational goal of teaching about evolutionary change:

"Whether acceptance of evolution is the goal may depend on what you define acceptance to be.”

The study’s lead author, Sara Brownell, is quoted as having answered the question about “acceptance” this way:

“Why would we want to teach evolution, if we don't want our students to accept it? We teach them that cells have membranes and we expect them to accept that. Why should evolution be any different?”

Her study’s results indicated that evolution is indeed different, at least in terms of instructors’ attitudes, which are leading them to constrain their teaching approaches.

Paul Geisert, co-founder of The Brights’ Net, took a different approach to the “acceptance” issue. He would tell his zoology students (for a bit of shock value):

“I don’t believe in evolution.”

After noting their accumulating puzzlement/agitation, he would explain further (paraphrasing the gist):

There’s a better word to apply. Scientists use evolution. Evolution through natural selection is a powerful theory that explains so much of what we observe about the natural world. Should a more formidable explanation come along, then scientists would move to using that one.
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Brights Project Ready for More Teachers!

A new stack of evolution wall posters has arrived at Brights Central!! Kelly at BC is excited to once again be equipped with posters and mailing tubes, and she is once again dispensing these 5½ foot images (“Earth and Life: changes over time”) to the qualified high school teachers on BC’s waiting list.

The teacher applicants are already committed, and their teaching positions and levels have been validated.  The timing is such that most have a new school school year ahead in which to incorporate the new information they can now access so readily. (The timeline is updated and now has QR coding leading to online resources. The image is unique in that it combines physical and life science events on the same time scale, permitting connections to be seen not available on other timelines of evolutionary change.)

Many thanks to those of you who have shown by your donations that you care about how your fellow citizens understand the natural basis of life. We really appreciate your ongoing support of this project.  If the pattern of usage continues, this batch alone will engage on average almost a hundred thousand students in hundreds of classrooms. These future citizens will depart their classes really understanding the story of evolutionary change.

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Easy Brights Activism

Would you like to be an activist for the evolution poster project?

A high school in your own geographical area may benefit if you inform the science department head of this project! Start with the high school nearest you.

Most schools now have a website that provides contact information for faculty. You can access the school's site and identify the department chair or lead teacher for science. (If the website does not list faculty, then inquire of the name and email address using the phone contact for the school. Most schools' staff are very helpful if they understand you are not "selling". The teacher comments link on the Brights' site is helpful to dispelling any doubts that this free resource is worth acquiring.)

You can also help The Brights' Net to broaden this project by donating for postage to help with dissemination to specific nations/situations of interest to you. (Whereas domestic postage in the USA is merely $2.61, international is usually $22.75). Remember that the sophistication level of the information and cost of the resource means that posters go only to committed teachers who teach about evolution in secondary level science programs.

  
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Reason Rally Energizes, But Not As Many

Despite the sunshine that greeted this year’s Reason Rally 2016 (the event 4 years ago was an all-day drizzle), the secular crowd rallying on the national mall June 4 was not what the rally organizers had anticipated. No firm count yet, but the hoped-for 30,000 clearly did not make the journey to Washington, DC.

In a “Where was the Crowd…?” post mortem, Hemant Mehta, a noted atheist blogger (the “Friendly Atheist”) and also a Bright, posed 6 factors as likely influencing the low turnout but concluded:  “If the people who showed up had a good time and left the event energized and committed to activism back home, that’s a better gauge of success than some arbitrary attendance figure.”

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American Seculars Yet to Roar (USA)

The secular voice lags far behind national demographics, and politicians have yet to hear it. The population of atheists, humanists, agnostics, and other nonreligious citizens continues to grow, but their political influence has not kept pace. In fact, it essentially doesn't exist. At least... not yet.

In his Reason Rally preview published (by Religion News Service just in advance of the Saturday June 4 DC gathering), Tom Krattenmaker said of the expected rally participants:

“They’re part of a population riding a demographic tsunami that has made it, by some reckonings, the largest “religious” category in the country. You’d expect politicians to be salivating for the chance to address this crowd.”

Taking note of the absence of any big-name office holders or candidates lined up, however, he concluded:

“Apparently the secular voting bloc, if we can call it a ‘bloc,’ is far too toxic to attract any big-name officeholders or candidates.”

In his further exploration of the contemporary political context, Krattenmaker quoted Lyz Liddell, executive director of Reason Rally, on the issue. Said Ms. Lyddell:

“The secular demographic is still seen as anathema to politicians. It’s certainly disappointing to approach potential speakers and be told ‘no’ because the individual doesn’t want to be associated with our group. We’re pushed out of a number of places — political coalitions, interfaith collaborations, service projects — because of ‘the optics.’ But it’s not limited to just politics. The ingrained anti-atheist sentiment in our country is still very strong.”

Check out the full article for a more detailed look at the “clout discrepancy” the author identifies.

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Latest in the Brights Blog

Adam Manning (U.K.) offers a different role for “A Science-minded Citizen”.


Lab Assistant to My Eight Year Old Daughter

Elizabeth is “learning about a subject in a way that is entirely unconnected to school and the formal education system. There are no deadlines, no tests and no homework – just fun.”

See more.

LadyJulBug (USA) explains why we must go beyond understanding and accepting climate change to feeling it.

The Climate Is Changing!

“I discovered that it’s the indigenous communities all over this planet who have often been on the frontline, propelling serious issues into the mainstream consciousness. In America, it’s our Natives who have fought hardest, becoming the most devoted activists. Environmental desecration impacts their communities at higher rates, often more drastically, than it does for the general population.”

See more

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Essays in the Brights Blog are yours to read… and to share with your friends if you think that the messages bear repeating.

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Label Positions as “Moral”?

A new study out of The Ohio State University indicates that morality carries an impact that exceeds such values as tradition, or practicality, or equality. It appears that individuals are more likely to “stick with” an attitude/opinion when they believe it is grounded in morality.

Jeff Grabmeier in phys.org (May 31) offers a brief accessible online look at the findings and implications of the researchers’ experiments with college students. (The study itself to be published in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.)

The findings suggest that politicians and advocacy groups are not clueless when they label a position as “the moral one.”  What astonished the researchers in the study was how easy it was to lead individuals into thinking that their opinions are based in moral principles.

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International Forums

A bright from Germany posted an amazing 360-degree video of Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland, the longest and deepest tunnel in the world.  This tunnel is quite an amazing achievement! Video here.

Local radio in Boise, Idaho, USA featured an interview with James Barrat, author of an intriguing new book on artificial intelligence:  Will it really be “Our Final Invention”?  Listen to find out, and post your thoughts here.

Anyone can view the Forums; registration to comment is fast and easy.  Welcome!

Image: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

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Atheism Garners Academic Chair

A wealthy atheist who wants to make atheism an acceptable stance has, with his $2.2 million dollar donation, negotiated the establishment of an academic position for study of the subject at The University of Miami. In addition to atheism, the new position includes humanism and secular ethics.

The motivation of Floridian Louis Appignani, age 83, was reported in the New York Times (May 21st) as follows: 

“I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists. So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate.”
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“Religion Is Good for You” Research

This month saw another in an accumulation of research studies reporting that religion has value for health. For example, past research has indicated that older women tend to take on more of a social role in religious activities and perhaps gain from that.

In this latest study, the connection pointed to once again: “frequency of attendance at religious services is associated with lower risk of mortality.” Delving into the specific of such studies generally raises one’s skeptical eyebrow.

In the current study, the researchers have sought to create methodology that addresses such problems as "reverse causation"—that attendance isn't necessarily influencing health since only those who are healthy can attend services.


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