The Brights' Bulletin


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Issue #197

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BRIGHTS BULLETIN -- JANUARY 2020 


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Constructive Human Encounters

In communications with others, especially on prickly topics (or with those whose beliefs do not align with your own), certain social habits come into play. It may be that “treading lightly” is just as important as “standing your ground.”

Courtesy and social graces can be helpful in making an encounter with someone else mutually satisfying.

Another factor is this:  On what “playing field” are you holding the interaction?  Certain discussion domains simply are less conducive than others to fruitful communications. Noted for producing large difficulties are “religion” and “politics.” Hoping to maintain civility, some people will simply avoid those topics entirely, in favor of perhaps “discussing the weather.” (Even in some locales that topic, if tied to climate change, is nowadays proving rough ground to tread.) A playing field that fosters dissent is wisely avoided if one’s interest is giving at least civil consideration to others.

As regards stark differences in worldview (the general subject domain of “religion and beliefs”), a strategy of the Brights has been one of shifting discussion toward a different playing field. Wherever religion and faith tend to “own the language,” that linguistic possession alone can carry participants into oppositional stances. The linguistic privilege for those whose beliefs fall within the language domain is hardly helpful to a person with a naturalistic worldview expressing ideas that fall outside the favored lingo.

The Brights’ website suggests that when interacting with those whose beliefs about nature and purpose and meaning and “the workings of the world” depart significantly from one’s own, it can be helpful to ground the discussion in broader arenas!

Moving to civics, for example, can be preferential to lingering in the religion domain. Such civic values as equality, fairness, and so on will make available some “common ground” for use of both participants. By conversing in broader humanity concepts and civics language, you have a better location on which both participants can “stand ground,” and even perhaps have a shot at making progress on issues.

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When Neurology Underpins Human Behavior

About this time last year, Foreign Affairs magazine published an easy-to-read article by Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University neuroscientist who had spent much of his career studying primates (especially baboons) and who had earlier authored a best-selling book discussing the biological basis of human behavior, both good qualities and bad.

Sapolsky’s 790-page tome, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, had already been recapped in a March 2018 essay by Tom Jacobs: “Why we engage in tribalism, nationalism, and scapegoating.”

An even earlier, and not entirely positive, New York Times review of Behave was published when the book was released, written by Richard Wrangham in July 2017.

But it was the more recent Foreign Affairs article, “This Is Your Brain on Nationalism: The Biology of Us and Them” that was of interest at Brights Central because of its succinct presentation of the us/them topic, along with its contemporary relevance to the recent rise in nationalism and autocratic leaders across the globe. BC had hoped to share a link to enable Brights easy access to that one.

In the FA article, Sapolsky asks whether humans can overcome the neurological, hormonal, and developmental underpinnings of their tribalism and offers a rather depressing take on nationalism’s cognitive enablers.

“When it comes to group belonging, humans don’t seem too far from chimpanzees: people are comfortable with the familiar and bristle at the unfamiliar. Taming our aggressive tendencies requires swimming upstream.”

The essay surveys elements of human behavior that underpin the tendency to stereotype, to divide into “us/them” categories, and to form “tribes” that thenceforth override other considerations. It's not full-on determinism, however.  Sapolsky does offer some prospect that change is possible.

BC had hoped that the FA article would become more accessible (in full, and without a wall) so that we could invite readers to it via the bulletin. To no avail.  However, if you are interested in the topic, a short video interview with the professor is available online, touching very briefly (and all too sketchily) on some of the same material. 

In such politically divisive times, it can be enlightening to take a hard look at our own biology. It is what we humans are “up against.” In confronting our unhelpful traits, the two aforementioned essay and review articles and the video are places to start.

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Feedback (Blossom and Thorn)

Early portions of December’s Brights Bulletin conveyed to readers some environmental news that Brights Central had labeled “worrisome.” (The text had referenced a recent global conference and two formal scientific reports.)

That concentrated focus on the topic of climate change drew to BC a rather unexpected burst of emailed feedback, both positive and negative.

BC was cautioned by Richard (South Africa): “I would suggest a thorough, honest look at the climate deniers[sic] case before making conclusions! … [C]omments from other scientists should be carefully considered before jumping on the bandwagon of popular sentiment.”

The remarks of another Richard (this one, in Arizona, USA) were more reproachful: “This newsletter makes it look like the Brights have changed into Chicken Littles… Very disappointing.”

Note: For those unfamiliar with the European folktale, it describes someone who warns hysterically of calamity, especially without justification. The character, Chicken Little (variously Henny Penny et al.), exhibits an overly emotional but mistaken belief that catastrophe is imminent.

Not everyone who emailed feedback was complaining, though. For example, Don (Utah, USA) went just as far in the opposite direction. He sent in these plaudits: “Awesome writing here.  It's always excellent -- It just stood out in this very difficult issue.  Thank you.”

The intent of the climate change emphasis at BC was (and remains) to enable Brights to more easily ascertain what contemporary scientific efforts are revealing about the changing earth.

In BC’s defense: It would seem that provision of ready access to a “NOAA Arctic Report Card 2019” from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce or the annual international “Emissions Gap Report 2019” should not count as jumping on any “bandwagon” of popular sentiment.

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Speaking of / for “the Brights”

This may be a good time to remind readers of the monthly bulletins that these emailed dispatches from Brights Central neither determine nor signal what Brights themselves think!” That is, to indict "the Brights” as having “changed into Chicken Littles” is fallacious.

“The Brights” is simply a widely dispersed global constituency of individuals. Brights Central does not, and cannot, speak for them.  This initiative has no manifesto or dogma to proclaim. In fact, Principle 1 of the initiative is, and has always been, that Brights decide and speak for themselves on issues. 

For registered Brights, there is only this one commonality among these individuals: all have signed up as Brights saying that they fit the definition provided them on the home page and that they agree to the overall egalitarian civic vision offered on the website. That’s it!

There is, of course, an editorial bent involved in BC’s dispatching information to subscribing Brights. Of necessity, BC must be choosing from the huge universe of information a few subjects to highlight. We at BC try to select material we deem of likely interest to subscribers and consistent with the overall stated aims of the Brights initiative. That selection is, without doubt, a subjective endeavor.

Yet, bringing certain information to the attention and consideration of Brights does not mean that BC is conveying a consensus voice or collective opinion of Brights. Such a unified voice just does not exist. (Principle 1, again!)  On the reality or gravity of climate change, each Bright is already reaching, and perhaps voicing, his/her own personal appraisal.

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Credulity Lives - Hokum on the Rebound?

Brights are generally alert to unscientific views held by fellow citizens.

Occasionally in this bulletin, BC will draw attention to some groundless belief that is prevalent. The intent in doing so is that any concerned activists among us can consider how they might counteract these fictions within their varied spheres of influence. (The science-leaning Brights among us are as well-positioned as any citizens to explore and engage disquieting topics in their locales.)

>> Vaccination Antipathy

One issue of recent concern and previous mention in the bulletin has been the explosion of the “vaccine recalcitrant” within the global population. Even in the face of data showing high vaccine safety, global noncompliance has reached notably high levels in both the developed and developing worlds. Refractory levels and case numbers for several diseases rose to the point of putting the vaccine hesitancy problem among the "Top Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019” as identified by the World Health Organization.

The year became particularly notable for its outbreaks of such easily preventable diseases as polio and measles, and not just in regions of conflict and deprivation. Measles, for example, which had almost vanished by 2000, saw a 30% overall increase. Even in Europe and the United States, places where vaccines are widely available, immunizations and protection levels declined to such low points that risks of disease incidence were mounting unforeseen. The majority of cases in the U.S. were among people who were not vaccinated against measles.

Education (about the protections of herd immunity for diseases like measles) can be effective, but rising incidences of a disease itself also change the situation for the better, as has been shown in the United States in recent status reporting.

>> Is Astrology Making a Comeback?

And what about a return of pseudoscience to human decision making?

Supposing that there actually is such a resurgent trend, would it also be of some concern to the Brights who tend to see great value in scientific method for policy and planning?

Anyone who recalls the high popularity of biorhythms (and the efforts in the 1980s of so many scientists to educate the public out of that pseudoscience) may want to take into consideration reports of the revival of astrology.

Astrology is that “systematic irrationalism” whose appeal seemingly exploded in the youth movements of the 1960s and gained even more popularity in the 1970s. Astrology seemingly offered to us earthlings a means for divining information about terrestrial events and human affairs from the positioning and movements of sky objects. Despite its popularity, none of the premises or purported effects outlined in astrological traditions were shown to be supported by evidence, and despite horoscopes retaining allotted positioning in the entertainment sections of many newspapers, actual practitioners and believers in astrology seemingly faded away from the real world news…

…until, that is, a possible turning point in 2012, when the National Science Foundation reported a two-year drop in the proportion of Americans saying that "astrology is not at all scientific.”  Fewer Americans rejecting astrology would seem to indicate more Americans giving it credence.  And now, one can easily locate in the popular press many (not too empirical) reports of astrology’s seeming revival, particularly as regards Generation Y.

One such essay (2019) asks: “Why are millennials replacing religion with astrology?”  2019 offers still another: “[Sigh] Why is astrology coming back?” Another (2018) asks: “Is astrology religion for those of us with no religion?” which had spurred the follow-up (2018) Neurologica essay “New York Times and the Return of Astrology.”

There’s more, but that sampling is adequate to incite one’s hope that it’s all just “signs of our uncertain times. Maybe it will prove but a flash in the pan, a soft-news distraction from contemporary political news rather than an indicator of weakening scientific literacy.

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Desert Living “Rescue Service”

Just what is a prey species (herbivorous ant) to do about the silken traps constructed by its predators (spiders)?

This month's wee science story looks to research indicating that ants can identify and dismantle those traps.  While foraging, ants can even try to rescue nest mates that they happen to find ensnared in a spider web.

If successful in untangling a victim, ant rescuers can then transport the released ant back to the nest for cleanup. It’s risky business, though, as a liberator may become trapped in the web or captured by a spider. Fascinating!

You can read an English or Danish version of the little story that is frequently supplied to Brights bulletins by a Danish Bright.

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“Brighten” This Year…Personally!

As with this New Year you look toward this planet’s journey around our star, take some time to consider how you personally might fortify efforts to “illuminate and elevate the naturalistic worldview” in 2020.   Please use this year to put your influence into that goal within your own sphere of influence.

Registered Brights are scattered across 184 different nations, but we do act collectively when we maintain our central website and communicate to others about the overall thrust of the Brights initiative, which underpins all Brights’ Net activities at Brights Central. 

Thus, if you are able to do so, please share a bit of your personal “Brightness” this year by fortifying communications and undertakings of “the Brights” that emanate from BC, some of which are featured on the home page of the website. We all are together in efforts to personally make “brightness” visible across the planet. And we are grateful to all the supporters of last year’s journey around the closest star!


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