Bright and Wrong

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Aug. 17 2005 9:19 PM

Bright and Wrong

Note: this entry is based on a post I made on James Randi's bulletin board. The idea has been expanded here.

Have you heard of the "Bright" movement? It's an idea dreamed up by some skeptics. The basic thought is that most people don't really understand what it means to be a skeptic. They think it means someone who denies everything, a nay-sayer, a cynic. It brings to mind a curmudgeon, someone who is, well, a jerk.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Advertisement

But in reality, it means someone who demands evidence for a claim. That's all. That's not so terrible, is it? But the word is so twisted by others, the real connotation lost, that a lot of skeptics don't like to use the word anymore. So some folks tried to think up a new word. Lots were tried, but none stuck.

Then came the term "Brights". They felt that this connoted a cheery mien, and took it to mean someone who has a naturalistic view of the world, unfettered by superstition.

I find this ironic, since the people who dreamed it up are pretty smart, and the people who signed onto it are pretty smart as well. Yet, somehow, they missed the idea that this word is really pretty awful.

I laughed the first time I heard it. I knew right away it was a terrible choice. For one thing, the word already has a meaning in the context of thought. It means someone who is smart, someone who is clever. If you're not bright, then, well... you're dim. Dumb. Doofus.

So it's a pretty bad idea to give yourself a name that implies pretty strongly that anyone who disagrees with you is an idiot. It's divisive. Skepticism thrives on debate, and it doesn't help to say that your opponent is stupid.

It also comes across as arrogant. Sure, you're not supposed to say "I'm bright," but instead say "I'm a Bright," but that very subtle difference is understandably lost on most people. Skeptics face an uphill battle against a lot of folks who already find them arrogant (and many skeptics are notably anti-religious, making debate a whole lot harder too). This name ain't helping.

Skeptics want people to think critically. An "us versus them" term is not inclusive. It may be great for rallying the troops, but it's not so hot for convincing others. Why would any fence-sitter want to be in a group that sounds elitist?

But there's a final irony that I find humorous. The term was dreamed up as an alternative to the word "skeptic", which has bad connotations to people outside of the skeptics' circles. So someone came up with an even worse term, which is more divisive. The irony is that "Bright" was the best thing they could come up with. The others were a lot worse (read Michael Shermer's book "Science Friction" for the list, and more background on this topic).

The solution is rather simple, and right in front of us. What we need to do is take back the word "skeptic". Gays have done it for the word, well, "gay", as well as "queer". Certainly they are a group that's suffered at least as much as skeptics.

When I give talks, I use the word, and define it clearly for everyone: I am a skeptic, which means I take nothing on faith. You want me to take your idea seriously? Back it up with facts. That's the difference between science and fantasy.

I'm a skeptic. What are you?