The Brights' Bulletin


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Issue #200

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BRIGHTS BULLETIN -- DECEMBER 2020 


 

Baloney and Balderdash

Bertrand Russell never met the social media phenomenon. The communications technology so prevalent in today’s world was yet to be. Nonetheless, even in his day he did seem to sense how much of humanity behaves.

We are living in a whirlwind of falsehoods. Far and wide, from the bogus and bizarre e.g., Qanon to those mendacious and malicious power-hungry politicos, and with an abundance of the fictional and the fabricated in between, there surely hasn’t been so much nonsense in circulation… ever.

Nor has the nonsense, due to transmission technology, ever exhibited so much influence over human conduct.

What is the truth?  How does one untangle all of the schemes?

Brights who have long bemoaned the prevalence of absurdity and who look to science for accurate information about how the world works can’t help but experience huge frustration with the contemporary circumstance. But what can we do?

As is stated on the website, “we each must start from where we are and within whatever circumstances we live” to confront the prevalence of nonsensical ideas. So, let’s perk up and go get about it!

 
 

One Doggone Amazing Bright

Among the many persons of great stature and brilliance who joined the constituency of Brights, the “Amazing Randi,” who died recently, was truly one of the topmost amazing. 

Not only that, but Randi was one of the very first in the handful of persons who initially registered into the constituency. He signed up as “a Bright” before there was even a website on which to register individuals who declared their worldview to be naturalistic, and free of supernatural and mystical elements.

At that time, all that existed was the idea and a simple definition of “a Bright,” and Randi stepped forward immediately to indicate that he definitely did “fit the bill.” (He was, at the time, in Florida at an Atheist Alliance International conference, and in the process of being honored as the first recipient of its annual Richard Dawkins Award. (The award at the time was offered through the AAI, next the Atheist Alliance of America, and is now sponsored by the Center for Inquiry.)

Randi was a highly accomplished magician and a champion of scientific skepticism whose undertakings involved him in publicly exhibiting his trickery and in extensively investigating “woo.” (That is, he used the methods of science to challenge all those pseudoscientific and paranormal claims so popular among the general public).

The history of Randi’s public education efforts is fascinating to read, and aspects of his work continue via the grant-making of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).

 
 

Mask Up… Quite Brightly!

Want to expand your current mask wardrobe? 

You can add another design and help to spread word of the international constituency of Brights.

Check out the Brights’ kiosk at Zazzle.com for the mask with its design (illustrated here), which features the standard logo superimposed over an outer space type of background.

There’s just enough of a contrast to arouse a bit of curiosity, even at appropriate physical distance.  “What’s that on your mask?” is the question. And then you have your opportunity to say.

 
 

Scientists and Philosophers More Vocally Political? (USA)

American Brights are probably aware that, for the first time in its 175-year history, the journal Scientific American endorsed a candidate in an upcoming presidential election. For any concerned about what the last few years have meant for the standing of science amongst the citizenry, the journal's editors’ explanation of its stance proved encouraging reading!

Notable Brights, too, came out strongly this election time around, noting, as Daniel C. Dennett explains of his own position: “[Donald Trump’s presidency] has consistently proved to be worse than I could have imagined it would be.”  In sync with philosopher Dennett, we at BC were also struck by how horrific it has been that “…so many of my fellow citizens have been so easily and firmly duped into his delusional world.”

As post-election happenings have made even clearer, Dennett’s pre-election warning appears prescient, as the delusions have become ever more robust and normative.

More from Dr. Dennett: “George Orwell warned us that the Ministry of Truth in a totalitarian state could brainwash the citizenry with a heavy-handed onslaught of propaganda and torture, but it turns out that even in an apparent democracy, using methods that all can see (no secret torture chambers, no burning of books and newspapers) people can be put into a dreamlike state of misinformation from which they cannot readily be aroused by the most evidence-rich and eloquently posed alarms. Wake up, wake up, my fellow Americans! Can you not see what these people are doing to our precious and fragile democracy?”

A “dreamlike state” may not be the worst result of what has recently come about.

 
 

Such Popular but Baseless Notions

From black cats to lucky clovers to knocking on wood, there are plenty of groundless ideas housed under the skulls of many of our fellow citizens (perhaps even in our own?).

One example of the ubiquity of superstition is to be evidenced in the many high-rise buildings in the U.S. that “seemingly” have no 13th floor but extend upward to dramatic heights!  The missing number is particularly notable in high rise hotels. (Perhaps the folks there on “the 14th” are sleeping more soundly?)

Avoiding the number 13 – deemed unlucky - is more common than one might think. Such superstitions as this one are hardly uniquely American. It has been widely reported (even on Wikipedia) that the Otis elevator company leaves Floor 13 off of 85% of their elevators. That assertion may itself be folklore, of course. Still, one must ask how a nation that ranks highly worldwide for the scientific expertise of its research in universities can be one producing overall a rather credulous citizenry, even one that acknowledges its own credulity (see next item).

 
 

Surveying Superstitions / Making Money

Even private businesses can draw in dollars by exploring for clients the degree to which surveyed persons “buy into” various unjustifiable beliefs.

Take the work of the “Statista” company which in 2019 performed a survey on superstition and fear and found it more pronounced among Americans than Canadians. The company reported that “27 percent of respondents stated they believe finding a four-leaf clover means luck, while 18 percent believed that opening an umbrella indoors brings bad luck.” (Have a look at the graph to examine the relative strength of various superstitions.) 

The company’s overview of “Beliefs and Conspiracy Theories in the U.S.­–Statistics & Facts” offers lots of links for anyone wishing to explore topics ranging from spirits to fake news and politics (some available only for a pretty penny, of course.)

A YouGov survey (2019) offers some indication that superstitions generally decline with age, a conclusion recently reported in AARP’s “The Magazine” regarding a prior (2014) YouGov effort. If interested in the subject as it pertains to the U.K, one can for no cost at all read an earlier University of Hertfordshire professor’s summary in which he elaborates on the results from a 2003 National Science Week effort.

 
 

Information Tracking

The Tough (to Take) News

The freshly released 2020 report on climate from the World Meteorological Organization offers another in a line of wake-up calls to humanity from a United Nations agency. This WMO report notes that 2020 is lined up to be one of the three warmest years on record. (The period of 2011 through 2020 has been the warmest decade on record.)

The December 16 report offers an educational overview of the complex situation (e.g., greenhouse gases, ocean acidification, sea level rise, temperature, extreme events, glacial mass, sea ice) for any who would like to have a summary look at our current situation along with some explanations of “why we should care” about the various factors.  It is well-illustrated and easy to read, with some interactive charts for data explorations.

So Much False News – Blame Facebook?

Of great concern so many months into the worst pandemic of our lifetimes is the crushing awareness that, while the coronavirus spreads, so does so much false information about it. The disinformation is amplified by politicians and social media. It’s a full-on “infodemic” as was discussed previously in our March bulletin.

A study published by a nonprofit advocacy organization that tracks false information, Avaaz, fingers Facebook as a huge purveyor of health hoaxes and medical myths, analyzes its influence, and suggests remedies. The extensive report, published in August, is available online.

 
 

Poster Project on Pause

The school closings due to the coronavirus pandemic occasioned Brights Central to declare a hiatus on distribution of the actual materials in the Brights’ Evolution Poster Project.

Naturally, since so much secondary level instruction is now taking place virtually, our teacher requests rapidly diminished to a bare trickle. (We are looking to resume distribution when in 2021 when teachers previously in line for posters are actually conducting instruction in classrooms.)

 
 

Way Back before The Brights

Before the idea of “The Brights” came about, there was a “Godless Americans March on Washington.” The rally organized by American Atheists was in response to the huge groundswell of religiosity in the U.S. that had arisen in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Secular people took note of the heavily religious character that had taken hold and blossomed within the civic square. Public commemorations were imbued with prayer. Community memorial events embodied a diversity of religious representation but lacked any acknowledgement of the comparable distress of nonreligious citizens, and that pain of exclusion was a factor leading “nonbelievers” to organize the rally in Washington. They sought to draw attention both to the secular nature of the nation and to their own presence within the citizenry.

The GAMOW event took place on the national mall and drew thousands of interested “nonbelievers,” all seeking acknowledgement and a place for secular persons at the civic table.

Somewhat stunned by the organizer’s use of a maligning term like “godless” in their attempt to draw together “nonbelievers” for civic inclusion, some participants began searching for a more positive way by which to present broadly shared grounds for civic activism, and one that could be set entirely apart from the religion domain.

 
 

Beyond Being Godless Only

After seriously considering many terms for uniting the wide “godless array” of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and miscellaneous identities in attendance at GAMOW, one attendee proposed making reference to the Enlightenment’s “brightness” with its promise of science and reason holding great hope for the future.

A positive noun like “a bright” could serve as common grounds not only for those who had no deity belief, but also for those without notions of supernaturalism in all forms. That concept was first presented to a gathering of secular humanist leaders and then publicly presented at a national atheist conference.

The “Bright idea” was saddled early on with widely published presumptions that it was merely a substitute term for atheism (which it wasn’t) and by so many (mostly English speakers) for a presumed suggestion of exceptional intellectual aptitude. The notion of cerebral snobbishness (touted by Richard Dawkins) was only partially countered by Daniel C. Dennett’s proposal of “supers” as a counterpart identity (for those do hold supernatural/mystical notions in their worldview).

The term has never become a highly serviceable meme for a social movement, but neither have several proposed replacements. Consequently, the idea of being a bright has been sustained mostly to the satisfaction those who do like their worldview framed as naturalistic. That framing has proved most attractive for its separation from any reference whatsoever to religion.

Also appealing to many is its being a broader notion even than naturalism, since a mere absence of supernatural beliefs within one’s worldview is not an affirmative philosophical position. And, of course, registered Brights favor the types of educational messages and projects they support via their nonprofit organization, The Brights’ Net.

 
 

Coronavirus Extinguishes Bright #1

We at Brights Central are saddened by the death of Paul Geisert, co-founder of The Brights’ Net, who succumbed to Covid-19 due to an outbreak in the congregate living community near Sacramento California where he had resided the past year.

We should note that Dr. Geisert (we call him, Paul, who teasingly called himself “Bright #1), was indeed the person who established The Brights’ Network as an online constituency of individuals holding a naturalistic worldview and the person who originated the noun identity term (“a bright”) as a positive way of presenting one’s all-encompassing outlook

Paul, an Ohio native, pursued undergraduate studies in biology at the University of Toledo, did master’s level graduate work in biology at the University of Michigan, and received his Ph.D. in Instructional Systems at Florida State University, under Robert Gagne.

Formerly on the faculty of the University of Wyoming and an innovative member of its Science and Mathematics Teaching Center, Paul unpredictably departed academia after publicly making news by turning down[!] a promotion, choosing to pursue his own pathway as a freelance instructional developer instead. Paul co-authored with his wife two college textbooks on instructional uses of computers.

 

Besides his career… 

Living in 11 states across his lifetime and running two businesses related to his field, Paul was drawn to unconventional activities and unorthodox thinking. He co-produced a “Different Drummers” unit of instructional materials on the topic of nonconforming thinkers in history that California approved for classroom use in Grades 6-8. He also lobbied the state’s Department of Education to press for inclusivity of nonreligious persons and points of view in its curricular standards for social studies teaching. Paul became active in several freethought endeavors as well. The local freethought group he co-founded in 1993 continues to be active today, as do others nonprofits he helped to get going, such as Reason Center and The Brights’ Net.

Frankly, many who knew Paul personally – whether here at BC in recent years or through local activities before - considered him something of “a Renaissance Man.” He was savvy in the kitchen and at the sewing machine; just as handy under the hood of his two cars as in the bowels of an “old house renewal” (Paul accomplished two renovations and one restoration, doing all the electrical, plumbing, tiling, framing, locksmith, etc. himself.) Among his many building projects, Paul constructed two boats, and he ground the lens for that telescope he built.


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