The war against science

Image: Anselmo Pessoa


The current government, in its war against science for the sake of disinformation, seems to suffer from a kind of “Simão Bacamarte complex”.

The election of Jair Bolsonaro raised the level of tension between the executive branch and the Brazilian scientific community. With a public trajectory averse to evidence-based decision-making and with an electoral campaign heavily leveraged by the production of fake news, promises harmful to public education, the environment and human rights, the rise of the extreme right indicates an unpromising future. for relations between science and society, especially in the field of climate change and health. The effects are multiple and intentionally coordinated by a government team that established a cultural crusade against the scientific community by creating false controversies and a political environment based on disinformation.

A sample of what the scientific community is currently facing had already been given in 2015, when Jair Bolsonaro, federal deputy at the time, coordinated the creation of the bill PL 3454/2015 that provided for the manufacture, production and distribution of Synthetic Phosphoethanolamine to patients with cancer. Without dialoguing with the Brazilian medical and scientific community, these parliamentarians intended to legislate on the use of a substance with no evidence of efficacy in the treatment of malignant neoplasia. This continues to be the tone of the policies adopted by Bolsonaro and his supporters, especially in the areas of health and the environment: for them, health regulatory agencies have autonomy, but they are not sovereign in decision-making on issues that involve medical treatments and/or technical decisions. Gradually, an anti-scientific infrastructure was being structured in Brazil that institutionalized an ecosystem of disinformation, in a process of alignment between the Brazilian extreme right and the global extreme right. The typical model of culture war based on conspiracy theories began to merge with Brazilian particularities, given that this infrastructure of thought and political action preserved local principles in what seems to be an expansion movement of the militia mode of action.

The disastrous scenario actually came true and in a much more powerful way than imagined. The actions taken by the government team during the Sars-Cov pandemic, when Bolsonaro defended the use, manufacture and indication of the hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin cocktail in the preventive and clinical treatment of mild and severe cases of Covid-19, contrary to scientific information and protocols global physicians, can be cited as another example. Bolsonaro exonerated Henrique Mandetta, minister of health, for his public non-alignment in defending the use of hydroxychloroquine as a safe and efficient way to treat Covid-19. A second minister, Nelson Teich, would leave the government for the same reason, that is, not defending the adoption of sanitary measures of social distance. After the two replacements, the health ministry would be led by an interim military officer, Eduardo Pazuello, who maintained alignment with Bolsonaro's ideas, contradicting basic scientific evidence in an increasing escalation of lack of transparency in the conduct of the pandemic in territory Brazilian. As is to be expected, the obscurantist responses to the pandemic were not the only anti-scientific reactions taken by the Bolsonaro government, as the war against evidence and information became the basic foundation of the governance developed by his team. The government's reactions to the increase in deforestation in the Amazon, in turn, demonstrate the existence of this articulated and meticulously built system to delegitimize the scientific institution and its form of knowledge.

The Amazon plays a fundamental role in regulating the global climate. According to Carlos Nobre, there are at least five essential functions performed by the forest: moisture recycling, cloud nucleation, biotic pump, aerial rivers and a brake on winds. Together, these five factors create the necessary conditions for a large-scale climate balance, not just for Brazil, but for the planet as a whole. The protection of the forest is of fundamental importance for maintaining the basic functioning of the planetary climate and requires, as Nobre points out, a set of actions that make the existence of the forest possible: popularizing the science of the forest, ending deforestation, putting an end to fire, the smoke and soot, recovering the liability of deforestation and engagement and commitment in climate governance in the region by public and private entities. This protection system was gradually being built in Brazil with the help of national and international public and private institutions, a scientific-political effort that has increased the stock of knowledge about the region, with special emphasis on the control and monitoring of deforestation, fires and consequent control of the advance of the agricultural and livestock frontier over the forest. In this regard, the performance of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) stands out. Under the government of the Brazilian extreme right, the techno-scientific infrastructure for monitoring the Amazon carried out by INPE has been the target of constant coordinated attacks.

INPE has been monitoring deforestation in the Amazon rainforest since the 1970s. The current Monitoring Program for the Amazon and Other Biomes (PAMZ+) has three complementary data mapping systems through remote sensing, the Forest Monitoring Program Brazilian Amazon by Satellite (PRODES), the Deforestation Detection System in Real Time (DETER) and the land use and occupation mapping system, TerraClass. Attacks on this system began at the end of the first half of 2019, when INPE released a report that pointed to an 88% increase in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest compared to the same period in the previous year. The publication caught the attention of the international scientific community and sectors committed to the global environmental balance for highlighting the neglect of Bolsonarist management with the goals of reducing deforestation in the region. The reaction of Bolsonaro and his government team, especially the Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles, was i) to disqualify the data produced by Prodes and Deter, ii) to censor the publication of statistical information, transforming them into confidential data ( controlled by the ministry) and iii) create an ecosystem of disinformation based on false numerical controversies over deforestation data Ricardo Salles stated that INPE data were inaccurate, but offered no evidence of this inaccuracy. He therefore suggested that INPE's monitoring be replaced by private surveillance systems through the purchase of confidential service packages by the federal government. The Minister of the Institutional Security Office (GSI), General Augusto Heleno, stated that INPE's information was manipulated, without providing evidence of this. Bolsonaro said it was about “an absurd number like the one that I deforested 88% of the Amazon. I am the 'chainsaw captain'. If you disclose it, é pégreat for us". Ricardo Galvão, director of INPE at the time, was exonerated from his position for defending the quality of the information produced by INPE and the transparency and publicity of data on deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The resignation of Ricardo Galvão was announced at the beginning of August 2019 by Marcos Pontes, former astronaut and Bolsonaro's Minister of Science and Technology, confirming the existence of an intentional system of production of scientific information and counter-information. This war against science has been perfected in recent months with the increasingly effective participation of the executive branch and the Brazilian armed forces – the fires in the Amazon region and in the Pantanal have become the main arena of disinformation for the Bolsonaro government.

The setbacks in controlling and monitoring deforestation in the Amazon, revealed in the crisis between the Bolsonaro government and INPE, immediately reverberated in the global media. O The Economist, highlighted the increase in deforestation, relating it to the amnesty granted by Ricardo Salles and Jair Bolsonaro and the increase in impunity for environmental crimes; The New York Times published an article that warned about the reduction of efforts to combat illegal logging, cattle ranching and mining in the Amazon region under the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro; the magazine Science emphasized Bolsonaro's statements, describing the data published by INPE as lying; the magazine Nature pointed out the tensions between science and politics in Brazil promoted by the “Tropical Trump” administration, an allusion to the similarities between Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro; The British The Guardian highlighted the increase in fires and the alarming pace of deforestation as the government of Jair Bolsonaro seeks to reinvent data rather than deal with the culprits. Also in August 2019, Norway and Germany suspended transfers to the Amazon Fund, a fund created in 2008 to finance projects aimed at reducing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Jair Bolsonaro's reaction to the criticisms made by Angela Merkel and Manuel Makron to the increase in deforestation and burning in the Amazon caused diplomatic tension between the countries. On the night of 14/09/2019, Bolsonaro made the following statement: “I would even like to send a message to dear lady Angela Merkel, who suspended US$ 80 million for the Amazon. Take that money and reforest Germany, ok? There is much more need than here”.

INPE, since the departure of Ricardo Galvão, has been directed by Darcton Policarpo Damião, an air force with no experience in scientific management and with insignificant academic production. The change of direction modified the institute's form of governance, with greater concentration of decision-making power and reduced dialogue between the different administrative levels. According to open letters released by INPE scientists, the current management created strongly hierarchical parallel structures similar to those adopted by Brazilian military bodies. The federal budget policy for science and technology is also noteworthy for its regular cuts, especially in areas sensitive to the Amazon and climate change in Brazil. According to the Comptroller General of the Union (CGU), only 13% of the budget available for the area of ​​climate change was used in 2019. A similar situation is observed in the allocation of funds available in the National Fund on Climate Change ( FMNC), with only 9% of the available capital being invested, and in the allocation of funds for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity program, in which 14% of the available capital was used. INPE, which has its activities funded by the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), will again suffer from cuts, according to its budget forecast for 2021. Facing cuts since 2016, the situation of the INPE in 2021 will be critical, as the AEB reduced the transfer of funds by 49% while the MCTI reduced the transfer by 14%, totaling a budget of 79.7 million reais. This amount eliminates the budget allocation for carrying out research and investments in permanent material, such as laboratory equipment, inputs and scientific publications, maintaining only the payment of salaries for the scientists who make up INPE's research teams. The possibility that the Brazilian scientific system will collapse in the coming years is therefore real.

With the dismantling of the monitoring infrastructure, the inspection bodies and the disqualification of the knowledge produced by the Brazilian scientific community by the government of Jair Bolsonaro, the result could not be different: since 2019, data on deforestation and fires in the Amazon region have shown growth. According to Raoni Rajao in an article recently published in Science, approximately 2% of rural properties located in the Brazilian Cerrado and Amazonia are responsible for 62% of all illegal deforestation in the region, which refutes the governmental thesis that deforestation and burnings are actions carried out by small producers and on small properties. The precariousness of the system for monitoring and punishing deforesters, routine since the rise of the Brazilian extreme right, has increasingly exposed the intentionality and robustness of the disinformation ecosystem produced by Jair Bolsonaro’s government team. An example of this was the war strategy created in Operation Verde Brasil 2, under the command of vice president and reserve general Hamilton Mourão. The purpose of the operation was to respond to national and international criticism regarding impunity and the possible alignment between the federal government, deforesters and miners. The deforestation hotspots selected by the army command through the Deter-INPE system saved, according to inspectors from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Resources (IBAMA), regions in which logging companies and mining operations that use heavy machinery for its operations. The Ministry of Defense still intends to acquire a microsatellite to “improve” the monitoring carried out by INPE, expanding what they defend to be the search for Brazilian sovereignty in the Amazon. The technical implementation behind the acquisition will create a gap in the territorial coverage of the Amazon, as the new satellite takes 66 days to cover the entire Amazonian territory while the satellites used by INPE in the DETER system do the same remote monitoring in just 2 days.

Many other examples could be cited, such as the conflicts against federal universities led by former Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub, the attacks made by former Minister of Citizenship Osmar Terra on the scientific validity of the 3rd National Survey on the Use of Drugs by the Population Brasileira, carried out by Fiocruz, among others. Although the cases are different in their conception, the argument used by the government is standardized and directed towards the creation of false ideological clashes: the controversies would occur due to the undue presence of “left-wing ideologies” supported by scientists, thus compromising objectivity scientific studies. Apparently, the current government, in its war against science in favor of disinformation, seems to suffer from a kind of “Simão Bacamarte complex”, a character by Machado de Assis in the work “O Alienista”. As the days go by, the current government will become radicalized to the point of considering itself the only entity in society devoid of “ideological bias”, which will cause serious damage to Brazilian democracy.

*Marcelo Fetz Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES).

* Luiz Enrique Vieira de Souza is professor of sociology at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA).

* Bruna Pastro Zagatto is a postdoctoral researcher in political ecology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

* Nataly Sousa Pinho is a graduate student in Social Sciences at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA).



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