Science called into question: attacks on scientific evidence seek to destroy confidence in institutions

Publicação: 9 de May de 2020

Science is also a victim of false information disseminated as if they were true

Denying science, which is ultimately the final frontier for the defense of socially vulnerable citizens, is to accept chaos

Ironically, in the midst of the information age, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories spread and amplified by social networks and distrust and contempt for scientific thought are increasingly common. The proliferation of theories and the denial of topics such as vaccine efficiency, the origin of HIV, the shape of the Earth, the evolution of species and climate change are examples of how, in some groups, personal beliefs and convictions have more importance than the evidence presented by scientists. The recent attacks on science that we are experiencing try to put doubt and fake news are published almost on a daily basis. It is true that false information has always existed, but with the internet, it started to be shared at a speed, pace and scale never seen before. In Athens, Socrates died for his belief in the truth. In medieval centuries, Galileo was repressed. At present, many scientists, intellectuals, politicians, regret the movements that reject scientific evidence. So, how is it possible to make citizens have confidence in science? The validation of knowledge is essential to create effective solutions in the face of new challenges, and with an ethical commitment.

Professor Dr. Henry Burnett, from the School of Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), points out that the opposition science vs. anti-science is strictly false, because it is based on a principle of ignorance that can have two sources: ignorance in the sense of ignorance, low literacy, and ignorance in the gross sense of authoritarianism. “The difference is subtle, but decisive. Denying science because its fundamentals are unknown is one thing, denying science to impose an exception regime is quite another”, the first is an educational problem, the second an ethical problem, he highlights, and adds that it is not the known opposition between Science and Religion, of another order, where the second “dispenses experiments, because it is based on faith”. Still according to him, this movement is due to the institutional framework in which we are inserted. “The international shame is not just that we democratically elected an inexpressive politician, but because this apparent insignificance of Bolsonaro as an individual can lead us to an irreversible setback, which can launch Brazil into yet another long period of institutionalized violence, as already we are experiencing, especially against the black community, indigenous people and the poor, but everything can always become even worse”, he points out. For Dr. Burnett, to deny science, which is ultimately the final frontier for the defense of socially vulnerable citizens, is to accept chaos.

Regarding the movements that reject scientific evidence, the professor at the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the School of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), who also holds a Pysics degree from the Università degli Studi La Sapienza, Rome, Italy, and Master in Science Communication from the International School for Advanced Studies, Trieste, Italy, Dr. Yurij Castelfranchi, is categorical in saying that the anti-science movement does not exist. He explains that the “anti-science” manifestations are not scientific questions per se, but a clear effort to discursively deconstruct scientific credibility in order to defend their own economic, political or even religious positions. Thus, any attempt to bring the scientific method to this debate into debate is harmless. “Groups that do not accept certain evidences, data, scientific facts or theories, are groups that reject, in the great majority, scientific evidence, that is, it is not a single and coherent movement that rejects science as a whole, on the contrary, it is in general, quite recognized even within these groups. According to the professor, the big problem is that organized groups act to create mistrust in science, which reduces scientific consensus and builds controversy where it does not exist.

PhD in Logic & Philosophy of Science, author of five books, Professor of the postgraduate program in Philosophy at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Dr. Gustavo Andrés Caponi, admits that attacking science is, of course, something very regrettable and dangerous. In his opinion, the crudest manifestations of contemporary irrationalism are driven by a radicalization of conservative thinking and the growth of religious fundamentalism. In particular: the neo-Pentecostal. “In Brazil, given the weakness of secularism and given the strong roots of religion in its culture, this attack on science will continue to bother”, he justifies. Professor Burnett agrees and adds that we can expect the worst. For him, at the same time that we are facing a ridiculous moment, such as the ‘thesis’ about the round Earth, we cannot laugh, because negationism has antecedents in the recent history of Europe, and the consequences are abundantly known. “Disregarding the backward movement that affects Universities, the legal system, the distribution of income, the recognition of the excluded, is to pave the way for its establishment as an organizing principle of our political life”, explains Professor Burnett.

Previously irrelevant, groups gain strength

The presence of these groups among leaders in different countries has been increasing. They are people who value a political system that is not based on scientific evidence. This is not a homogeneous movement, but a complex relationship of intense disputes over information, in which science has been one of the main targets of attacks. So it makes perfect sense to question where it comes from, why these previously irrelevant groups ended up gaining so much strength, to a point that it affected public policies and public health, as in the case of anti-vaccine and climate-denial groups. Why these instances, against the acceptance of certain scientific evidence, are getting stronger and stronger, although they are not aggregated in a more general idea of generalized irrationality. We have organized groups that are so dangerous that they attack scientific evidence and as a consequence they threaten important bases of Democracy, public policies, health security, among others. And when scientific results do not support their interests, they put science in disrepute.

The strength of these organized groups does not come from people’s ignorance, irrationality, it is not the cause, it is the objective, the product, the effect. It is not ignorance that generates hatred against science, on the contrary, it is the organized movements that create dissent, which attack social life. This is the desired effect. They build ignorance. “The strength of these groups does not come from scientific illiteracy, from lack of education, on the contrary, since these groups can be very strong in countries where scientific literacy is higher. The lack of information or the lack of knowledge is not the main cause, it is one of the effects”, reinforces Dr. Castelfranchi. Where does it come from? Mainly a broader crisis, which is not about public confidence in science, but a crisis in the functioning of the pillars of democratic social life. The crisis comes from an attack on democracy.

These groups are organized and articulated and know that an important tactic to weaken democracy is to create doubt, to invent controversy. And what is the goal? Groups of digital neopopulism, for example, want to create a feeling of generalized distrust, whether for political or economic interests. The purpose is to weaken the fabric of civil society, the public sphere, the quality of the debate, to weaken the strength of the common bases of democratic civil coexistence, to attack the pillars of Democracy. The main attacks of these groups are due to the breach of people’s confidence in politics, in the possibility of making politics democratically, therefore, in the institutions of Democracy. They mainly attack politicians to create hatred and distrust and then attack the other pillars of a democracy, such as the Justice system and then science – when scientific evidence is placed as an impartial, objective way of making decisions. And, finally, journalism. Science and the media are the pillars of civil society that believe in the possibility of common knowledge of something that is not polarized.

Some leaders who deny scientific knowledge and propagate global conspiracy theories are collaborating to advance folly and misinformation. And it is not just the lack of information that is at stake, it is beliefs and values that conflict with a certain aspect, theory, evidence or science field, because scientific evidence would force them to give up their values and political choices. Professor Castelfranchi brings attention to fake news and the urgency to invest in studies about them and disputes over information, especially scientific information. To him, it is not literacy that makes us immune to fake news if we share what we like and want to believe. In his opinion, fake check or The Bank platforms are necessary, but not enough. “People will access or check content coming from the ‘enemy’, but when the news, fact, or rumor comforts our own moral-political position, we certainly will not verify it”, he explains by reinforcing that checking sites are indispensable, but they are not enough.

How to act in the face of the attack on science

According to Dr. Burnett, it doesn’t seem that we are simply facing a political problem, an opposition between right and left, we are facing an unparalleled setback in the history of Brazil, a movement that, for example, may abolish the political game and what what will happen from now on depends on the capacity for cohesion between opposing ideological strands. For him, many of the small achievements that we conquored after redemocratization have already been destroyed, but, in his view, society still has the necessary conditions to react. “However, the Brazilian elite is one of the most disconnected from the country’s social problems; they simply look at their acquired privileges, as if there were nothing else”, he regrets by emphasizing that he does not see how the elite and scientists could equation their needs and responsibilities in a harmonious way. This is the great knot of our present. The professor is emphatic in concluding that unfortunately it is not just an external movement, that also plagues other countries. “We are facing a problem of our own, that is, Brazil needs to face one of its most complex characteristics, which is not simply about deficient public education, but about the perennial legacy of slavery. The cry of a significant portion of society for the end of democracy is a wound of a country adrift”, he acknowledges. For Professor Caponi, the best way to deal with this wave would be to defend secularism, the other would be to improve scientific education in all its forms.