Antiscience, inequality and liberalism

Image: Pieter Bruegel
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By ADRIANO LUIZ DUARTE

Disbelief in democratic values ​​is expressed in discrediting science

Disbelief in democratic values ​​is expressed in discrediting Science. Organized groups, websites, blogs and videos proliferate in defense of the argument that the earth is flat. The anti-vaccination movement grows, with the disclosure that the attenuated virus can lead to autism. The Theory of Evolution starts to be contested and the design intelligent, the new guise of creationism, would explain the origin of the species. Global warming is seen as mere propaganda by critics who ignore the benefits of industrial development, therefore a simple conspiracy theory.

This distorted view also unfolds in the denial of germs and, more recently, in the denial of the existence of covid-19 and, consequently, in its verified forms of dissemination. However, the attack on Science is not a contemporary phenomenon, nor does it seem to have a clear unity or objective. The most surprising thing is that these attacks have not been simple assaults on reason, on research and teaching centers — they are often orchestrated in the name of “reason and science”, coming from research and teaching centers (EPSTEIN, 1998).

But as science is not a unitary entity, thinking of these movements as a simple opposition between Science versus Antiscience is simplifying the problem. This poses an important question: what is the specificity that, today, connects these disparate and apparently disconnected elements? It is possible to suggest that the anti-science elements are found when questioning the positivity of some of the values ​​commonly attributed to the sciences – less the ontological, epistemological values ​​and more the political or social ones. Science seems to be experiencing a crisis of confidence; however, it is not a simple task to understand whether this crisis comes from a polarized society, or gives rise to it.

In July 2019, the Gallup Institute conducted a survey on the degree of trust in Science with more than 140 people in 144 countries. The survey, commissioned by the British organization Wellcome Trust, showed that, in Brazil, 73% of respondents distrusted science and 23% considered that scientific production contributes little to the social and economic development of the country. But Brazil was not an isolated case, in countries like France and Japan, distrust rates reached 77% of respondents (ANDRADE, 2019). On the relationship between science and religion, the report Wellcome Global Monitor showed that 64% of people, faced with a conflict that opposes them, said they trust religion more. It is important to highlight that the higher the social inequality index, the greater the distrust in relation to science. More than that, this stance seems directly related to distrust of social institutions in general. Disbelief in science seems to express a generalized suspicion in all the power structures of so-called democratic societies – governments, justice, press, political representation, etc. – and seems to answer an unavoidable empirical question: in fact, the benefits of science and technology have not been able to improve the lives of most people, and this becomes even more manifest the greater the degree of social inequality experienced by them. .

It has already been suggested that there is also a deeper and more permanent current of anti-intellectualism in Western culture, especially in the American tradition, driven, above all, by the convergence between religious thought, conservative political discourse and the influence of businessmen on society and the State, with its fear of social contestation (HOFSTADTER, 1963). According to Hofstadter, anti-intellectualism is associated with an overvaluation of practical knowledge to the detriment of speculative knowledge. The Cold War would have accentuated these traits even more and highlighted the fear that humanist content could inspire a politically critical and defiant posture. Since the 1970th century, science has been increasingly perceived as an engine of progress and a central vehicle for promoting quality of life. Even when this principle faced challenges, especially from the socialist left, this occurred within the framework of science itself, more to highlight its inability to reach everyone than to disqualify it as a vector of progress. However, this picture began to change at some point in the XNUMXs. From then on, the belief that science was driven by private interests at the service of capital accumulation and, therefore, not serving the interests of of most people.

In Brazil, this was clear in the study Public perception of Science & Technology in Brazil 2019, carried out by the Center for Strategic Studies and Management (CGEE), at the request of the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications (MCTIC) — a survey that has been carried out periodically since 2006. This survey

(...) interviewed 2.200 people from all regions of the country and found a decrease in the percentage of individuals who consider that science and technology only bring benefits to humanity – from 54%, in 2015, to 31%, in 2019. growth of those who believe that science and technology produce both benefits and harm – from 12% in 2015 to 19% in 2019. There was also a reduction in the proportion of those who consider scientists to be people who do useful things for society. In 2010, this number was 55,5% of respondents, in 2015 it dropped to 52% and, in 2019, to 41%. (ANDRADE, 2019, sp)

Although the connection between distrust of science and the political situation in which we live seems evident, it is not always easy to show it clearly. A study published in 2017 by the Pew Research Center[I]about the usa, for example, it showed that Republican Party voters are the most distrustful of issues such as climate change, genetically modified agriculture, vaccine efficiency, etc. Such information may lead us to think that there is specific resistance here to themes and scientific evidence when these may imply an increase in state regulation. Between November 2017 and February 2018, the European Union promoted a survey among citizens and journalistic organizations, with the objective of evaluating the effectiveness of the actions of market agents regarding the fake news. The questionnaire received 2.986 responses, 2.784 from individuals and 202 from journalistic organizations (websites, newspapers, informative blogs, etc.), reaching, above all, countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and countries in the United Kingdom. 84% believed that the fake news they spread to guide the political debate; 65% that they were produced with the aim of generating income for companies and individuals; 88% agreed that misinformation on social media spread by tapping into the emotions of the population; and, finally, 50% pointed out that the simple verification after the dissemination of a fake news it would not be reasonable, given that the later correction would not reach the same audience as the original news. One of the research suggestions, according to, was the replacement of the expression fake news – because, in fact, it would not account for the political and market sense of the phenomenon – in the most precise word: misinformation. (Cazarré 2018)

It seems clear that this is not a “mere” challenge to make science establish a better dialogue with society. It is not simply a question of rebuilding a platform of social legitimacy or of absolute transparency for scientific procedures, nor of making science more open to social debates or bringing knowledge of its research closer to ordinary citizens; much less trying to convince those who deny its procedures or conclusions. These measures to increase transparency would not be able to combat collusion between Science, State and Business for the simple reason that the anti-science movement is at the service of a certain way to do politics. In summary, the defense of certain political positions would be based on the careful choice of some anti-science principles. It is necessary to recognize that the anti-science posture is not a simple irrationalism, but a politically instrumental and selective rationality, at the service of the market.

“The phenomenon is clear in discussions about climate change. The consensus among scientists about the increase in global temperature over the last 130 years and the weight of human activities in this process led to a more effective participation of governments in regulating the emission of greenhouse gases. “Various organizations funded by the fossil fuel industry attempted to undermine the public's understanding of the scientific consensus that had been reached on this issue, promoting 'skeptical' researchers, spreading doubt and controversy (…) This movement was so intense that, (…) , managed to make the media feel compelled to report the opinions of opposing groups” (ANDRADE, 2019, sp).

In antiscience movements, there is no simple ignorance or lack of knowledge of scientific principles or procedures per se. Therefore, it makes no sense to combat them by opposing truth to lies, as these movements are deeply ideological, not only express false ideas or values, but build a meaning and an interpretation of the world and science that mask or deny the conflicting and divided reality of the world.

You don't fight an ideology with the truth, because ideology is not the opposite or the denial of the truth, but it is another truth, which goes in the opposite direction, serving social values ​​and specific economic interests. Thus, in this historic period of neoliberal and globalized capitalism, disinformation – fake news, if you like – and the anti-science movement need to be dismantled as fundamental elements of the process of capital accumulation, because that is where it makes its appearance and acquires its meaning.

* Adriano Luiz Duarte is professor of history at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).

References


EPSTEIN, Isaac. “Science and Antiscience (notes for an entry)”. Communication & Society, n. 29, 1998.

ANDRADE, Rodrigo de Oliveira. “Resistance to science”. Fapesp Research, No. 284, October 2019.  https://revistapesquisa.fapesp.br/resistencia-a-ciencia/ Accessed on 14 Oct. of 2020

CAZARRÉ, Marieta. European countries fight misinformation on the web in different ways. Brazil Agency – Lisbon, 08 / 07 / 2018. https://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/internacional/noticia/2018-07/fake-news-paises-europeus-combatem-o-problema-de-formas-distintas.

HOFSTADTER, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.

Note


[I] Pew Research Center is an think tanks founded in 2004 in Washington DC. It produces information on the issues, attitudes, and trends that are shaping America and the world.

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