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BRIGHTS BULLETIN -- MAY–JUNE 2021 


 

Misinformation Affliction

Four years ago, in their eighth “Future of the Internet” joint collaboration, Elon University and the Pew Research Center produced a report focusing on the problem of extensive “fake news” and “doctored narratives” then in online circulation.

The study behind the report involved canvassing over eight thousand persons, a broad array of communications and analysis experts as well as the public at large. The survey drew over a thousand respondents, each having been asked to address this issue: “What is the future of trusted, verified information online?

The replying technology leaders and scholars (the experts) split fairly evenly on whether the coming decade would yield a reduction or increase in the false and misleading narratives online. The optimists in the forecast placed “hope in technological fixes and in societal solutions.” The others thought “the dark side of human nature” would be aided more than stifled by technology. Since the publication of that 2017 report, internet codswallop has burgeoned, facilitated by the proliferation of social media use and revealing that human inclinations are not easily restrained.

Truthful information?  The internet actually is a superbly useful tool for locating the trustworthy and verifiable information (the type presumably more favored by brights). Unfortunately, the internet has become quite a notable supplier and speedy disseminator of misinformation as well.

 

Disinformation ▶ Damaging Deeds

Nowadays, a great many strong opinions are firmly held, and ensuing actions taken, on the basis of provably false information.

Provably false, that is, IF the assertions are subjected to standard (previously accepted) practices of investigation and evidence.

Conspiracy theories have been mushrooming, thanks in large part to communications across social media. This widespread malady gives credence to those varied old adages about the relative traveling speeds of falsehoods (fast!) and truths (forever trailing).

Brights interested in confronting the disinformation phenomenon may look to ally with existing efforts to support truth in society. For example, take the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute. NCRI’s stated mission is to “track, expose, and combat misinformation, deception, manipulation, and hate across social media channels.” Or perhaps the University of Washington’s nonpartisan Center for an Informed Public, with its “Misinfo Day” toolkit of activities helping youth learn to address the misinformation landscape.  CIP exists to “resist strategic misinformation, promote an informed society, and strengthen democratic discourse.”

Social media are not the only source for affronts to truth, of course. Large segments of general media are also potent players, and in their varied monetized and politicized forms, they operate at scale. Still, the speed at which falsehoods, fictions, and fabrications are disseminated via social media is genuinely astonishing.

 

Cultural Credulity & Consequence

It isn’t just media and technology. There’s another side. The societal prevalence of falsehoods and some consequential fruits of fabulation offer ample indication that far too many active media users/consumers simply do not  bring critical faculties to bear on “received information.” 

A prior Brights’ bulletin delved into this issue in hopes that brights everywhere will be leaning hard in the direction of verity. That is, they will be striving to separate the wheat from the chaff in the morass of online content they personally will encounter.

Over time, the best strategy for deciphering and countering online disinformation is to produce an informed society in which citizens are actually thinking critically. Habits of mind involving skepticism and rational thought are glaringly lacking within social media postings and website commentary. In fact, in some segments of civil society, acquiescence to blatant untruths (declarations verifiably untrue) has become not only acceptable, but even favored, with somber political consequences.

Scholars have for some time been warning that disinformation widely accepted can undermine a democratic society, rendering harsh political divisions within civil society and across the globe. There will be those who accept and use untruths and those who refuse this action, affirming instead the necessity of operating in an evidentially supported reality.

Brights, who readily identify themselves as persons “not buying into” supernatural explanations for observed phenomena, should generally be falling into that latter category. They can perhaps, and hopefully will, focus on ways they might personally help to fortify programs and advance skills and experiences that will produce a more well-rounded and critical-thinking citizenry.

 

A Morality Generality?

The Brights’ Net has previously given considerable attention to the concept of human morality.

By coordinating knowledgeable volunteers in a Brights’ “Morality Project,” we once pursued a broad review of multidisciplinary literature and worked with a panel of research scientists and ethicists to answer the question: “How did human morality come about?

Our project affirmed and substantiated that human morality arose without any supernatural intervention whatsoever. Rather, morality had its underpinnings in biological and cultural evolution, consistent with a naturalistic outlook. (The MP results were published on the website as four declarations and translated into 15 languages, along with substantiating open source, peer-reviewed research documentation made readily accessible.)

Research on the topic has of course continued apace. One area of interest is the possible universality of values (across humanity), and an Oxford researcher recently posted online regarding his evidence to that effect. The assertion tweaked interest at BC, thanks to notice drawn to it by Ruban Bala, who had previously led the Brights’ Morality Project. Also propelling interest was that the researcher making the bold assertion was familiar (he had served on the Brights’ original scientific panel).

Oliver Scott Curry’s article can be found in the online magazine This View of Life, which publishes from an evolutionary perspective. The article proclaims that science is getting answers to the question of whether there are any universal values. It offers up “Seven Moral Rules Found All Around the World” and lists as universal rules across cultures, the following:

  1. love your family
  2. help your group
  3. return favors
  4. be brave
  5. defer to authority
  6. be fair
  7. respect others’ property

After examining ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, the researcher identified these seven cooperative behaviors to be considered as morally good throughout. An array of other researchers’ reactions to his conclusions are to be found in the comments section following the article.

 

Got a “Best Quote” Nomination?

Brights Central is hoping once again to hear what Brights have to say when challenged to a new topic.

It has been a good while since BC has invited content contributions from constituents under a specific new classification.  Prior constituent-generated material shows up on the website home page under a “The People” tab and include personal contributions in various categories (e.g., “Books by Brights” and “Expressions and Illuminations”). 

We’d like perhaps to create this additional category: “Living Life” (tentative title), giving opportunity to individual Brights to provide a tidbit of website content that (they think) will illuminate and elevate the naturalistic worldview. We are particularly seeking quotes that would be illustrative of a naturalistic worldview and/or particularly heartening from an ethical standpoint.

BC will just see what we get from this preliminary invitation (one item in this lengthy bulletin). We will follow up in the next Bulletin with a bit more emphasis (and perhaps, depending on the quality and quantity of this preliminary invitation, provide examples and further guidance as need be). The nature of responses that we receive at BC will determine any ultimate page launch.

For now:  This initial invite is a chance for you to ponder (and perhaps offer up) a specific piece of quoted wisdom for the website, so that others who arrive at the site may “delight in it” or just “soak it in.” Encountering such a collection of quotes would be instructive for newbies arriving at the site.

Do you have a cherished quote you carry in your mind as grounded in your naturalistic outlook on life?  If so, email your nomination for consideration to the-brights@the-brights.net with BEST QUOTE in your subject line (using all caps helps our inbox sorting). You need to send us the quote wording, cite the authorship, and provide your name and your country (or state, if USA). Please check your source attribution so that, if we do publish it, BC will not receive flack (we will have to presume you have done so!). If your quote is selected for placement on the website, we will use only your first name and location (country or US state). Thanks!

PS. - Be selective; be thoughtful. Send only your priority nomination, please!  (We cannot handle multiples or fat paragraphs.) What fairly brief saying do you applaud that would likely help the Brights to illuminate and elevate the naturalistic worldview?

 

Illustration by Cara Bahniuk (The Pew Charitable Trusts)

“Science Matters” Redux – A Virtual Discussion

In a prior bulletin, Brights Central pointed your attention to the 2021 issue of Trend (an annual magazine product of the Pew Research Center). The entire issue had been made available online under the title, “Science Matters.”

As we stated then, the content of that particular issue, taken as a whole, stood both as a tribute to science itself and as an earnest consideration of the pivotal role science plays as a tool in modern life. In observing how the coronavirus pandemic exposed fragility in many societies, its data charts and essays explored public attitudes about science and how science can inform public policy. They also reported on a weakened public confidence in scientific enterprise.

In the interim since publication, Pew conducted an hourlong panel discussion with some of those authors, which had included leaders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and National Academy of Science, as well as its own director of science and research. Happily, the event has been recorded and the discussion made available.

As the text preface to the panel states: “COVID-19 has created challenges that the world has not seen in more than a century and thrust science itself under the microscope. Vaccines, therapeutics, and epidemiology are now topics of conversation in the public square, and the need for researchers to effectively communicate about their work has never been more essential… [We] explore how scientists can build trust with the public and how the lessons from the pandemic can change the practice of science for the better.”

For anyone interested, the virtual panel discussion serves as an excellent overview of topics presented in the Trend issue and a good launchpad for viewers to read some of the articles themselves. As BC stated previously, “Any Brights who detect and are troubled by a diminishing of public trust in science in recent years will find much of interest.”

 

Will Public Trust in Science Survive? (USA)

Proving that Pew is not alone in questioning how science is doing amid current pandemic stresses, this “trust survival” question was also addressed in a recent essay by Ryan Cross in C&EN titled, “Will public trust in science survive the pandemic?”
(Chemical & Engineering News is affiliated with the American Chemical Society.)

The C&EN piece was concerned that COVID-19, with its confluence of rapidly evolving science, mixed messaging from leaders, a torrent of misinformation, the flagrant political interference in federal science agencies and political polarization seen in the U.S., just might have created a “perfect storm for eroding trust in science.”

A Scientific American article citing trends since 1975 had only in September 2020 reported on continuing high levels of vouched trust while also asking, due to nation’s astonishingly high virus levels, “then why don’t we act like it?”

A brief item from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health entitled, “How the pandemic has hurt public trust in science” mentioned Cross' C&EN article. When doing so, it quoted its own professor of Health Communication on how the urgency of the pandemic has put the scientific process itself on display: “All of the sudden everyone is watching scientists, and they are seeing all the messiness of how science happens. People are seeing the sausage being made, and they don’t like what they see.”

 

Illustration Credit: Doug Chayka (in Chemical and Engineering News)

Trust Erosion and Vaccine Hesitancy

American Brights may find the C&EN article's extensive discussion of particular interest, as it explores some political aspects of this issue of public trust in science.

Its author drew on Pew’s prior reporting of a high public confidence level. (The public was generally crediting scientists with acting in the public’s best interests.) Still, Pew had also reported on the “growing political divides over trust in scientists since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.”

Of late, more attention has gone into linking the high level of public vaccine hesitancy with trust. It remains to be seen what further investigations will reveal.

 

The Changing Religious Landscape (USA)

Twice a year, using a battery of questions, Gallup surveys Americans about their religious attitudes and practices.

The March 2021 report, based on 6000 respondents, not only reports a notable decline in church membership but attributes that decline primarily to “the increasing number of Americans who have no religious preference.” (According to Gallup, there’s “a nearly perfect alignment” between not having a religious preference and attending a house of worship, be it church, synagogue or mosque.)

Although the U.S. remains a religious nation (more than seven in ten people do affiliate with some type of organized religion), it has been becoming less so. Gallup now reports that membership in houses of worship in the U.S. has dropped below half of the population for the first time since World War 2. That is, less than half of Americans have a formal membership with any specific house of worship.

A Continuing Religious Decline with “The Nones” on the Rise

Gallup’s line graph (above) shows that church membership was 73% when first measured in in 1937 and stayed near 70% through 2000 before beginning to decline, to 61% in 2010 and 47% in 2020. It could be that the dip in religiosity observed last year will prove temporary and related to the pandemic. Still, an overall trend toward lower levels of religiosity and affiliation can clearly be seen in comparing younger and older generations of adults.

Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years. Each generation has seen an increase in its proportion with no religious preference.  Today, 31% of millennials have no religious affiliation, up from 22 percent a decade ago.

 

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