Science and denialism

Alison Saar, Snake Man, woodcut and lithograph, 71,1 x 94 cm, 1994.


Politics enters the scene in the choices made in the construction of frameworks where the validity of scientific knowledge is located 

“The Rio Doce, which we call Watu, our grandfather, is a person, not a resource, as economists say” – “Chloroquine cures COVID 19” – “The Earth is flat” – “Fossils (including fossils) dinosaurs) are animals that were unable to board Noah's Ark in time to save themselves from the flood.

In general, scientists recognize that Science results from constant debate, from well-defined questions and hypotheses, from the careful examination of the processes used, and that possibly new theories, facts and truths can replace and cause the abandonment of those already established. But almost every scientist continues the modern allegory that privileges Science as universal, neutral and objective, and therefore apolitical.

In the 1970s/80s, however, European and American researchers studied “laboratory life” to clarify how scientific knowledge and hard science facts such as physics and biology become part of the world, that is, how “they are discovered”. (Latour and Woolgar, 1979/1997), (Knorr-Cetina, 1981), (Lynch, 1985), (Traweek, 1988) In these studies, scientists were observed ethnographically, that is, with the same methods as from the XNUMXth century onwards. anthropologists developed to study the lives of so-called "primitive peoples". These researchers approached the laboratory world as, roughly speaking, their colleagues approached indigenous tribes since the last century.

This anthropological turn in the field of Social Studies of Science and Technology (STS Studies or simply Science Studies, as the field is called in English) showed that the knowledge produced in the laboratories studied was “situated”. That is, scientific truths are true and legitimate, but they are not universal and neutral because their domain of validity is limited to a “framework” (“framing”) in which the “attractors” that modern people call Nature and Society are inexorably intertwined. Nor are scientific truths “objective” in the privileged absolute sense that the positivist-biased epistemology granted them, since they mirror a preconceived version of reality and not Reality.

Undoing the modern allegory, laboratory studies and their successors in the field of STS Studies removed the epistemological privilege of Science, showing that politics enters the scene in the choices made in the construction of frameworks where the validity of scientific knowledge is located and, especially, the acceptance or not of them. Science lost the capital “C” of transcendence and gained the plural of human things – sciences.

By being situated, that is, by having revealed their frameworks and, from there, politics, values, affections, in short, the “modes of existence” that create and sustain them, scientific knowledge does not lose its value, but gain the historicity of human works, that is, they start to result from activities for which the questions where? when? why? by whom? for what? and for whom? need to be answered for and with cultural and geographic collectives composed in sorts of republics. The last decades of the 19th century distanced themselves from the epistemology of previous centuries and consolidated the realistic relativism of the sciences. Each scientific knowledge is valid within the framework in which it is made, redone and situated. The contemporary scientist is a worker in a much larger network than he is individually. And here we approach the X of the question of the authority of scientific knowledge in the face of assertions about COVID XNUMX and others that circulate in spaces where scientific knowledge also transits.

Ethically, the withdrawal of Science's epistemological privilege equates the knowledge and value of the white supremacist's mode of existence to those of any other people. If we adhere to a current of Western ethics itself, we can say that manufacturing weapons and modern goods does not give the white man, or whoever he knows, the right to tell others how they should live.

The way of existence of a Yanomami or a Berliner, ethically, is worth neither more nor less than the other. Neither has the right to tell the other how he should live. The withdrawal of the epistemological privilege of Science, the touchstone of the modern way of existence, fertilizes the dialogue between modes of existence, between different knowledges, different ways of living and dying in the world. One can imagine that more Berliners will be more open to listening to an Amerindian intellectual and agreeing with him. It no longer sounds so strange for Berliners to hear from an Amerindian that “[un]til the beginning of the 2020th century, the world of work and production (the world of the white man) lived with tools and means that did not have the power to exhausting the Earth's resources as it is today” (Krenak, 72:2019) This meeting point can lead to others. And, who knows, the assertion “rivers are people and not resources, as economists say” (Krenak, 40:XNUMX), translated / translated / negotiated in dialogue, one day become a fact for both?

On the other hand, by making them averse to dialogue, the epistemological privilege (cunningly) increased the authority of scientific knowledge and facilitated its naturalization. By keeping values, affections, politics, epistemological privilege invisible, scientific knowledge was kept as universal, neutral and objective, more difficult to be weakened. Once the epistemological privilege is withdrawn, the enemies of scientific knowledge are always epistemologically authorized and feel more confident in inspecting the frameworks for establishing controversies. The frameworks involve measurement conditions, inscription choices, definition of data and evidence, accounting, limits, as well as hypotheses, options and omissions, and there one can look for failures and errors that would be incorporated into scientific knowledge, now recognized as results of processes that begin and end at the human level and are therefore vulnerable. And, it must be made clear, there may be people who take advantage of the “situation”, execrable and even criminal voices. The right, the powerful, the white supremacists, whatever they are called, took advantage of the loss of the epistemological privilege of scientific knowledge, as we can see from the assertions about the qualities of chloroquine to those about what to do (or stop doing) do) about the limits of the planet. With resources, it will always be possible to open controversies and continue to doubt scientific knowledge and the scientists who produced it.

A modicum of doctors and scientists welcomes the assertion “chloroquine cures COVID 19” as a scientific fact, diverging from the majority. The assertion, however, was adopted by powerful actors who widely circulate it in Brazil as a scientific fact. And this leads us to another crucial result in the field of STS Studies: along the fact-science-fiction continuum, the fate of an assertion depends on what “others” do with it.

There is still astonishment and indignation because scientific knowledge cannot prevail over creationism, flat earthism, and the prescription of chloroquine. But wouldn't it be a case of changing the framing of the questions? Let's see, the loss of epistemological privilege grants scientific knowledge, now ontologically more modest, a space of tolerance and indifference. It is no longer (only) for scientific knowledge to decide on the fate of an assertion, it depends on the “others”, it depends on what they do with it. (Latour, 1987/1997)

For example, if asked, we will, simply and rightly, say that “the Earth is not flat”. And, if challenged, we will present the arguments and proofs of the Earth's roundness. The reason and logic of these arguments and proofs, however, adhere to a mode of existence and will convince precisely those who have the reasons and logic of the sciences incorporated into their modes of existence. They will convince those who, so to speak, are already convinced. However, it is precisely the affects of this mode of existence, of this reason and this logic, which is not unique, that are in question. This reason may not mobilize the “others” who think and live a different way of existence, accept and give destination to other assertions. For these “others”, maybe the experience of playing ball on a flat field is decisive for them.

If you are an engineer calculating the distances flown between two cities, you need to be convinced that the Earth is not flat. Or if you are startled when talking to a friend who has traveled to Lisbon and want to know why the time there is different from the time in Rio, it is quite possible that you will be more easily convinced that the Earth is not flat. But if none of that happens and you don't want to be an engineer, you can very well play football, drive a car and even take a plane without this conflict with other knowledge (the scientific one, stabilized in our frameworks, the knowledge that the Earth is round) crosses his path. Thus, the challenge here will be for scientific knowledge to abdicate its colonizing impulse (to say how others should live) and assert itself, or not, politically, case by case in the materiality and interest of each case.

But let's go a little further rehearsing the possible consequences of the loss of epistemological privilege. On the one hand, if we ethically seek a dialogue for the construction of a common world, we must start with humility, recognizing that scientific knowledge and our reason do not speak in the name of a transcendent Nature, but are human work comparable to an infinity of other possibilities. , given the open universe of modes of existence. But, on the other hand, to dialogue in an ethically legitimate way, without eliminating different modes of existence, does not mean forgetting that, just like scientific knowledge, any knowledge and the modes of existence themselves meet certain demands and mobilize certain interests. If the administration of chloroquine outside of scientific knowledge can kill, then the decision of where, when, to whom, and by whom chloroquine can be administered should not be just for scientists and doctors, but should be guided by a collective of humans and non-humans compounded into sorts of republics whose citizens would live out their decisions, whether on chloroquine or on vaccination. This would require building new frontiers and managing the contact zones between these republics.

This would be another framing of the issue of the loss of epistemological privilege, even if today more mirrored in socio-scientific fiction literature.[I] Diverse collectives would organize themselves and decide on what and how much to adopt when it comes to modes of existence based on their relationship with the propositions that circulate among scientific propositions. The same individual could be a citizen of more than one of these republics, which would not necessarily have geographic territorial continuity. Problems will arise acutely in the administration of the contact zones between these republics from pre-existing (not necessarily geographic) territories where the borders between the new republics would be to be built. But, it should be noted, we do not need to go into the fictional world to see trends and proto-negotiations at work. For example, in the US it is stipulated that only vaccinated people will have access to certain places such as cinemas, concerts, stadiums and schools. As far as I know, however, there is still no talk of separate public transport for those vaccinated and for those who make a conscious choice to refuse the vaccine, but the embryo of the construction of new borders between two republics, for this pandemic or for future classifications of people, it's there. Furthermore, returning to the imaginary, the new republics may multiply in large numbers, formed by collectives of people, things and ideas smaller than the current States we are used to, in self-fulfilling prophecies of socio-scientific fictions such as, for example, the ones from the novel infomocracy by Malka Older.[ii] I recognize that this may sound very strange and even meaningless, but it is necessary to remember that borders between the republics that we are used to today might not make sense in a world of relatively recent times.

*Ivan da Costa Marques He is a professor at the Graduate Program in the History of Sciences and Techniques and Epistemology (HCTE) at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Brazil and market opening (Counterpoint).

An abbreviated version of this article was published in the Bulletin CTS in focus of the Brazilian Association of Social Studies of Sciences and Technologies – ESOCITE.BR.


DA COSTA MARQUES, I. The authority of scientific knowledge, COVID-19 and other challenges. CTS in focus: Technoscience and democracy in times of pandemic (ESOCITE.BR Bulletin), v. 1, no. (Oct-Dec 2020) p. 17-21, 2020. ISSN 2675-9764.

KNORR-CETINA, K. The manufacture of knowledge: an essay on the constructivist and contextual nature of science. Oxford; New York: Pergamon Press, 1981. xiv, 189 p. ISBN 0080257771.

KRENAK, A. Ideas for postponing the end of the world. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019. 85 ISBN 978-85-359-3241-6.

______. life is not useful. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2020. 126 ISBN 978-85-359-3369-7.

LATOUR, b. Science in Action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. São Paulo: UNESP, 1987/1997. 439 ISBN 857139265X.

LATOUR, B.; WOOLGAR, S. Laboratory life: the production of scientific facts. Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumara, 1979/1997. 310 ISBN 857316123X.

LYNCH, M. Art and artifact in laboratory science: a study of shop work and shop talk in a research laboratory. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. xvi, 317 p. ISBN 0710097530.

OLDER, M. GAFA and states Entreprises et Histoire, v. 96, no. 3, p. 186-188 (Clin 2019. Available at: >.

TRAWEEK, S. Beamtimes and lifetimes: the world of high energy physicists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. xv, 187 p. ISBN 0674063473 (alk. paper).


[I] This is not the space to elaborate on the role of probabilities in the treatment of scientific truths after the loss of epistemological privilege.

[ii] About this novel, see (Older, 2019).

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