The Brights' Bulletin

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Issue #199

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Virus Roiling World

Suppose we were to say that a brief “Pandemic-Free Zone” begins now, and there will be no further mention of it here! In other words, while you are reading this bulletin, you’ll get a refreshing reprieve from that ubiquitous topic.

Sorry. We really cannot say that, considering how consequential and unfortunate for humankind has been the entry onto the scene of the SARS-CoV-2 entity.

As we have moved along in this year 2020, the new virus has turned so much of human habitation upside down. In fact, seldom heretofore has any topic inhabited so many spoken words, or been addressed by such a mass of video creations, punditry, newsprint columns and all types of digital media communications.  Significant, too, has been this virus’s exposing so many weaknesses in the organization and functioning of our diverse societies.

This novel coronavirus’s expansion across the globe, with its invisibility and uniqueness and rapaciousness, has triggered much fear, action, and death.  However, thankfully, there’s also been much newly collaborative research going on to learn about and address it. The Covid-19 illness that the virus produces has been everywhere “the topic”.


And Yet, Even More Has Shaken Societies

The coronavirus whirlwind was soon joined by another topic, also overwhelming many populations and much of the news globally.

The publicly observed killing of George Floyd has kindled widespread pain and outrage, and a tsunami of response activism has followed in its wake.

Thanks to the broad availability today of pictorial evidence heretofore not as available, the impact has taken hold not only in the United States, where the triggering moral atrocity originated, but across much of the globe. It too has been exposing some of the cultural weaknesses in our societies.

New communications technology has brought powerful camerawork into the hands of millions. This has enabled public light to be shed, making many cruelties more visible, opening longstanding painful wounds, and inspiring actions that can hardly be ignored. The visuals across the past few months have propelled a high level of public action in many places, in response to the accumulated social injustices grounded in racial disparity.

Few Brights are untouched by the permeating presence of the newest coronavirus and its ensuing pandemic threat to public health. It has most Brights of every stripe looking rather deeply into their minds and hearts.

We, too, have observed a seeming cultural shift taking place due to the Minnesota murder. In the face of the new virus-caused disease to which no one had immunity, it can be said that Brights overall will have honed to the general rule that useful response action requires putting science front and center. As regards consideration of both personal and public safety, this means acting on the knowledge that scientific enterprise has delivered so far and on whatever evidence-based counsel it continues to provide.

As more is learned and communicated about the virus itself and about its medical effects, increasingly sensible and efficacious will be the guidance to appropriate medical and social conduct. In other words, the greater the number of people who do listen to the scientists, the more human lives are likely to be saved from Covid-19.


Doing One’s Best to Stay Safe

Guiding children in responding to their newer reality has challenged many parents. As time goes on, they may need to bolster the children’s adherence to admonitions.

If you are a parent of young children, we will draw attention here to a resource that may be of some interest in reinforcing what you have been telling your children regarding safer conduct. The storybook is available in different formats and numerous languages.  It offers parents a way to fortify the guidance they have been providing to their children all along.

This make-believe story was created by an international collaboration of agencies and NGOs, and it was produced to help families cope with the many challenges presented by the invisibility of the novel coronavirus. The fictional book for children is called My Hero is You.  Although itself a fantasy tale, children can learn from the story how they should strategically be protecting themselves from acquiring the Covid-19 disease or transmitting the coronavirus to others.

Additionally, a brief booklet written for children explains Why We Stay Home and is available free for viewing or PDF download.


Solid Footing or Magical Thinking?

Fantasy, when purposefully constructed from evidence as was the My Hero children’s book, offers a roundabout route to reaching young ones with useful guidance about personal safety and common good.

The adult, however, is in need of straightforward and well-grounded guidance.  In a pandemic, to proceed with fantastical actions that fail to correspond to acknowledged facts or criteria is counterproductive to the welfare of everyone.

Still, there appears no guarantee that arriving at adulthood or even having completed higher education, to say nothing of one’s current societal and political status, will prevent a departure from fact and grasping at wishful thinking. 

Little, in fact, actually gives assurance that persons will even be proceeding rationally in confronting this new Covid-19 disease. Sadly, there is accumulating evidence to the contrary.  Even a powerful political leader can engage in baseless thinking when it comes to adopting personal conduct or recommending strategy to others. Some news organizations’ efforts have gone into fact checking some of the wide claims that are issued over how to stay safe. 


Who Needs Experts, Anyway?!

Alongside the proliferation of disinformation in society, some people have been turning away from expertise in general. The U.S., for example, has especially experienced the burgeoning of a cultural shift away from giving credentialed proficiency its due. Whole segments of the citizenry “pooh-pooh the academics” as elitists, with even politicians preferring to rely on their own cultural impulses or “common sense” in making crucial decisions.

When a virus to which humans have no immunity enters the scene, this DIY approach has huge ramifications for the handling of information and pointing out strategy for the welfare of society.  In the middle of a pandemic, scientific expertise is actually useful.  It is simply a fact that an adequate awareness of relevant chemistry, physics and biology lies outside the reach of many citizens. As Brights generally know, Nature is following its rules of replication quite impervious to personal or political opinion. 

One may ask: “What has been leading some in society to believe nonetheless that they simply don’t need to look to specialists for their expertise?” (That is, individuals think that they know enough already, thank you very much, and particularly don’t want to be told what to do?) They seem primed to doubt or reject the information that experts would provide.

For a gloss of pertinent factors underlying the particular situation of American society, you might welcome a 17-minute interview with the author of The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols, who touches on some of the changes that have come about recently and are quite pertinent to the handling of the pandemic by political leaders.


When There’s Failure to Coordinate a Response

Too many persons seem to be driven by false hopes or guided by firmly-held assumptions not grounded in evidence.

For some citizens – political leaders as well – skills of thinking critically and competently weighing available scientific evidence appear to lie wholly outside their realm of capacity. Some do not even seek good evidence. Rather, they attend only to information that supports or strengthens their already fixed ideas.

Some leaders not only fail to look to the science, they actually downplay or sideline it for ideological or political reasons. Their failure to coordinate a rational approach will of course produce counterproductive conduct and outcomes. Consequently, a nation’s conduct can be radically out of synch with the reality with which the citizenry must cope!

What politicians may deem politically advantageous will often come into serious conflict with the science. As has been mentioned in a previous Brights’ bulletin under “Anti-Science Thwarting Knowledge,” this is particularly the case in some countries, where a considerable cultural distaste for scientific expertise has developed within a significant portion of the population.


Conspiracy Compounds Failures

Brights should also take notice that the expansion and reliance on high-tech communication methods surrounding the pandemic has been accompanied by corresponding escalation of conspiratorial thinking.

As generally science-leaning persons, we can be stunned by the dynamic and powerful proliferation of conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus. (Example: Plandemic, a video that accuses public health officials of having nefarious purposes, fact checked.) There have been some efforts to describe and counter the current situations.

Simply amazing is the extent to which disinformation has permeated all forms of communications.  Many people are receptive - and susceptible – to the kinds of disinformation messages that proliferate on social media platforms. Sad to say, they are so much so that there are very high-stakes implications for the safety of the general population. The stakes are high when the citizenry is drawn away from following the kind of sound public health guidelines that are intended to protect overall health: more people get sick; more people die.

As our March bulletin strove to highlight, the widespread transmission of distinctly erroneous information can prove highly problematic for general health and welfare.

To Review:  Health “News” Miseducating Society 


Public Health Communications

It is obvious to many that politicians generally like to stay in front of cameras and “show their stuff.” Nonetheless, when societies are coping with the natural phenomena underpinning a pandemic, there’s a huge difference between leadership that is actually addressing the problem by way of a data-driven/scientific approach and one relying more on an emotional/ political approach. Frankly, it is insufficient to simply say “we are following the science” even as the speaker is driven by political positioning and desirous of suppressing bad news.

The path of “following science,” however, is not always so clear cut, even in the best of times. Consequently, failure to do so “in the time of Covid-19" is not always the fault of political leaders. The nature of scientific enterprise itself presents challenges to how the public can best be informed.  The manner by which data and tentative conclusions are circulated within the scientific field can generate confusion both for media and for the general public. (Common media practices further complicate.)

Furthermore, scientists themselves haven’t been known to be the best communicators of their expertise, and many have been unwilling to even engage directly with the public. What they know and what they don’t know must be made visible as simply and clearly as possible. And it must be communicated in ways that really “connect”!  (Science communication to the public has been so substandard that even academic study programs have been established in an attempt to address the problem.)

Some public health authorities who have garnered extensive experience in communicating to the public (polio, H1N1, Ebola) have produced a compendium of best practices, a literal playbook of “Do’s and Don’ts” of pandemic notifications. In general, communication is aided when there is a single health objective. The spokesperson makes it clear (says it, and communicates that same point again and again; at the start, in the middle, and at the end.)

One problem that leaders hoping to dampen coronaviral spread in society have had to face is that even when they are committed to look seriously to science, “what science has to say” is itself evolving. Scientists are, across time, continuously learning more about the new virus and the medical complications of Covid-19.


About “Following” the Science

Today’s changed circumstances offer an opportune time for each of us to think through the basis of our assurance that our leaders – and we ourselves – should indeed be paying attention to what science has to say, even when observing that others do not.

On what basis should the public and its leadership be “following science” in planning strategy that will successfully confront a pandemic?

Clearly, Brights are individuals, and making generalization about what Brights think is rather impossible. Hence, there are surely many degrees and types of assurance that we might draw upon. Still, it’s probably safe to say that, lacking supernatural elements in our worldview, we are a pretty science-leaning bunch. The willingness to follow the science is there.  So much so, perhaps, that we Brights are sometimes accused of having faith in it, much as if science were merely another religion and we its followers. Perhaps even graver, we have recently been reproached for having an exaggerated assurance that “science is the way” (in other words, we are faulted for scientism).

But is that an accurate interpretation for how persons who have a naturalistic worldview generally view science?

There may be a somewhat shared etymology of “faith” (of the religious type) and “confidence,” and the terms are frequently used interchangeably. Still, there is a distinction worth noting. It relates to justification, and it must be remembered that faith as commonly employed seems to require none whatsoever. With faith, evidence is simply not necessary. One can simply “leap” to any position. 

So, in general, what Brights have is probably more akin to confidence in science than faith in science. Science has performed well so far in providing humans with accurate understanding of how the natural world works. It has done much better than any other available tools of humanity.

Trust, belief, faith, confidence, credence, conviction, dependence, reliance. These are all related words, but it appears that the most widespread in popular usage continues to be “faith.” The social conditions of a highly transmissible and rapidly spreading virus (and its multifaceted perils) would appear to call for Brights to be specific, and to be consistently applying the sounder terminology.

The situation calls for each of us to point out that our confidence in science is based on its record. We can be clearer that it is not on the basis of faith that we look to the science.


Evolution Belief?

The faith/confidence distinction may bring to mind the example of conceptual confusion that has, to some degree, given fuel to the accusation that brights of all stripes have faith in science in a way that is analogous to religious belief.

Do you recall those ichthys bumper stickers that became so ubiquitous in the closing decades of the 20th century? As those “Jesus fish” symbols multiplied on car bumpers, they generated a comparable multitude of “Darwin fish” responses.

The fish image allowed many fundamentalist followers of Christianity to exhibit their belief in creationist explanations (and a marked nonbelief in evolutionary theory). The addition of legs to the fish emblem enabled others to show their clear opposition to creationism (and firm support for evolutionary explanations). Both symbols achieved a high degree of visibility across recent decades and remain prevalent even today. 

This oppositional tit-for-tat set up an unfortunate dualism, because there is really no equivalence between the evolutionary account and a creationist narrative. Still, the assertion/rejoinder pairing reinforced a “faith” type of impression in the public mind. The “evolutionists” were responding as the "Darwinist" faithful.

As Paul Geisert, co-founder of the Brights, liked to say about evolutionary theory: 

“I don’t believe in evolution!”  … (always a pause, while amusingly absorbing the astonishment of most who heard such a statement from a zoologist and science educator) … “I use it. And, if anything better were to come about and be available, I would use that.”


“Moral Animal” Story Time

A Danish Bright has contributed for use in our bulletins a long line of similarly conceived narratives featuring a creature “talking” to a “hotline” operator. The exchanges bring to light some of the fascinating neurological aptitudes of non-human wildlife!

After locating a piece of fascinating peer-reviewed research, he fashions it to make a little Aesop-like tale, each of which is available in both English and Danish versions and of interest to science-leaning adults as well as children.

>>Not So Scary When We’re Together!

When threatened by some aversive situation, zebrafish tend to stop swimming normally. The story illustrates their “freezing in place” response behavior. It's a behavior that proves handy for scientific investigations.

One recent study looks at whether a social group offers a seemingly safer environment in the presence of threat.

Is it better to be alone?  Or will there be social buffering of the fear?  The zebrafish research provides the ingredients of a good story!  (And curious comparisons with human behavior might follow quite naturally.)

>>Hey, I Remember That!

When the giant land tortoises make their appearance in this bulletin, the issue of scientific interest is their cognition.

They live an enormously long time. That much is known. However, not much investigation has yet gone into how easily they learn and how long they might remember.

Today’s invented tortoise story offers a glimpse of early inquiry into the learning and memory of this fascinating and long-lived reptile. The research employs operant conditioning and color discrimination tasks. 

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