The denialist movement

Adrian Wiszniewski, The Sculptor's Nightmare, 1986


There is no denialist or obscurantist movement that is not a political movement

Science is not opposed to belief. The absolute majority of researchers keep their personal creeds, religious or ideological, apart from their scientific work. A belief system is a system without validating criteria. Thus, an observer in a belief system can only distinguish between believing or disbelieving a statement. Scientific knowledge is that which does not consider a system of beliefs as sufficient.

There is no consensus on what is or is not science. Philosopher Karl Popper called this question “the problem of demarcation”: where exactly to draw the boundary between a scientific and a non-scientific statement? Popper proposed that every scientific statement must be "falsifiable" by an experiment. This means that it must be, in principle, refutable by experiment. But then two problems appear: it is not always easy or possible to construct a refutation experiment; and even when refuted by unsuccessful experiments, it is rare that a hypothesis or a theory is abandoned just because the results were not as predicted. Almost always the blame is placed on the results themselves, or on the faulty execution of the experiment. Thomas Kuhn, another leading philosopher of science, skeptical of Popper's solution, asserted that no theory is abandoned, however refuted, until there is a more consistent one to put in its place.

The problem of contemporary denialism is serious, but it cannot really be faced by resorting to the infallibility of science. If Popper's criterion of “falsifiability” does not solve the problem of demarcation, it at least shows that every scientific statement must be potentially deniable. Science does not have the last word on the truth of a statement, not least because it does not guarantee this truth for itself. Therefore, it is better to replace the criterion of truth with that of validation. Any scientific statement must be validated by validation criteria shared by a community of experts.

The validation criterion imposes that science is methodical knowledge. A method is essential for proof of validation. Method means “with path” (methods). A researcher must present the statement and the results that validated it. But it is essential that he also present his method in detail, that is, the path he used to arrive at the results. Thus, another researcher can follow the same path and verify if he reaches similar results (not necessarily identical) to those presented. If there are relevant discrepancies, it is a sign that the statement should be reassessed. And if the results are similar, this is a sign of reinforcement of the validity of the statement, but, unfortunately, not of its proof. As Karl Popper himself observed, no matter how exhaustive the proof of the hypothesis is, there is always the possibility of it being shown to be false by other experiments, or by other applications.

Science must then be a practice of constant reassessment, of returning facts to theory and theory to facts. But it is important to say: if science presupposes method, there is not, however, a single method that can be called “scientific”. There are actually many possible methodologies. The construction of the most appropriate methodology for a problem is part of the research practice. The method is the construction of the path that goes from the hypothesis to the experiment. This means that there must be coherence (or adequacy) between the conceptual idea and the formal experiment that either validates it or not. This coherence is precisely provided by the method.

Therefore, findings (discoveries) that “come out of the hat” are not valid for science, those results for which the paths by which they were obtained are not clear. Here is a fundamental trait to differentiate between scientifically rigorous knowledge and pseudoscientific knowledge. Pseudoscientific results have unclear, or even obscure, methods of obtaining them. Therefore, more than denialists, antiscience movements are above all obscurantists. The concept of “obscurantism” seems to me more adequate to characterize these movements. They willfully obscure the means used to arrive at their "results". Thus, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to validate them.

The scientific environment is aware of certain “denial” movements that were reasonably rigorous. Since Descartes, who was one of the main formulators of the modern scientific method, there is a preponderant bias of skepticism in the practice of science. The first attitude, the healthiest, is to doubt this or that result, or that idea, putting its validation on hold. O I doubt comes before the cogito ergo sum. Doubt is the first step in putting the new candidate for “scientific truth” to the test.

However, skepticism is not necessarily denialism. Scientific practice has historically known cases of persistent denialism that used well-informed arguments. One of the most famous cases in recent decades was AIDS denialism (AIDS). There were, and still are, scientists who question whether the syndrome is caused by the HIV virus. This skepticism can take many forms. It can deny the existence of the virus, or it can deny that this virus, although existing and traceable in the bodies of patients, is the cause of the syndrome, or even that it is its main cause. The movement to challenge the viral cause of AIDS went from an initial movement of skepticism to later denialism and, currently, has become frankly obscurantist, giving way to a community of “unbelievers”, who are actually believers in reverse and spread throughout the world. internet prejudices of a sexual nature. One of the great evils of this movement was that it served as an argument for the South African government of Thabo Mbeki to reject the use of anti-HIV cocktails in the public network in South Africa, and to refrain from adopting safe sex policies, favoring a HIV epidemic in your country.

Another recent example is climate denialism. This too manifests itself in several different currents. There are those who deny warming itself because it is just a fluctuation in average temperature that can be reversed over a longer period; there are those who accept the fact of warming, but do not attribute it to anthropogenic causes, but natural ones; there are those who admit possible anthropogenic causes, but attenuate their importance, giving greater relevance to natural factors; or even those who discuss the relevance of CO2 concentration in the greenhouse effect, etc.

Although there are always arguments to contest a scientific fact, denialist movements take advantage of the Popperian evidence that a scientific fact can never be proven absolutely. It is currently known that there are research groups that are funded by large oil companies to challenge the results presented in favor of evidence of global warming. These groups act to launch scientific controversies and to generate distrust in research institutions. On the other hand, research on climate change, facing the challenge posed by the denialists, had to strengthen its measurement methods, increase the sampling of variables, amplify the complexity of the approach, introducing our factors. With this, it contributed to building a global consensus on the seriousness of the problem based on the strengthening of available data.

Thus, the negationist movement cannot be entirely eliminated from scientific practice, nor is it possible to accurately determine where legitimate scientific controversy lies and where simple bad faith lies. This problem has existed, however, since the beginning of the so-called Scientific Revolution. For example, in the historical debate between Galileo and the Jesuits about the Ptolemaic (geocentric) and Copernican (heliocentric) systems, the famous anecdote is that the religious refused to look through telescopes to witness the movement of the planets. This attitude seems to us today to be ridiculous denialism, but there were good reasons for the Jesuits to believe that those new optical devices, little understood, could distort the observation of reality. In addition, natural philosophy was thought at the time based on the evidence of naked observation of the senses and the use of technical equipment to confirm hypotheses was not admitted.[I].

Thus, the problem with denialism is not necessarily in the negative attitude, which overestimates the necessary skepticism for science, but in the fact that it is not enough to deny a hypothesis without having another one to replace it. As a rule, denialist movements do not present consistent or exhaustive results to propose an alternative hypothesis. Otherwise, we would not have a simple “denialism”, but a legitimate controversy. By the way, this was Galileo's position: in the face of the Church's ecclesiastical knowledge, he would then be the “denialist”. However, Galileo had a more consistent and convincing theory to replace the previous paradigm, based both on Aristotelian theory and on the holy scriptures. Galileo introduced mathematical language to replace sacred scripture, geometric demonstrations in place of metaphorical analogies, and logical reasoning in place of the principle of authority. And he exposed it in the form of controversy (which he called dialogue) through a convincing speech: he showed that mathematical language was as divine as the sacred scriptures, that geometric shapes more accurately reflected the harmonic beauty of the Cosmos (an argument similar to that of Kepler), and that logical reasoning did Aristotle more justice than the Church's principle of authority[ii].

Therefore, it is necessary to note that the anti-science movements that proliferate today are more obscurantist than denialist. Many of these movements do not even deny anything, but affirm evidence parallel to that scientifically acquired. We have seen in this pandemic the strident and contentious case of the use of hydroxychloroquine for the prophylaxis and treatment of coronavirus infection. At first, the adoption of this substance to treat the coronavirus, previously used to treat malaria, followed the common path of the scientific method: initially research vitro (outside the body), carried out in South Korea and China, showed positive results, but with high and possibly toxic dosages. Later, in March 2020, a Chinese study with only 30 patients, with a 1:1 randomized control group, showed that there were no qualitative differences between the group that took 400 mg of hydroxychloroquine and the one that took the placebo.[iii]. The study indicated the need for a larger sample. Also in March 2020, non-randomized studies in French hospitals, with concomitant application of azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine in 19 patients and with control groups of patients in other centers, showed a favorable evolution to treatment with doses of 600 mg daily[iv]. Finally, a study carried out in the United Kingdom, with a sample of 11.000 patients, did not find any benefit in the use of the substance.[v]. A lab study Cochrane involving simultaneous patients stated categorically not having found any benefit in the use of hydroxychloroquine. A famous French microbiologist, respected medical professor at the French Academy, was one of the biggest advocates of the use of chloroquine due to tests in early 2020 with only 42 patients. However, in January 2021, the same professor, whose research was internationally contested, signed a statement saying that the results he had obtained earlier were not absolutely conclusive.[vi].

That is, the use of hydroxychloroquine crossed the normal path through which a hypothesis (the favorable use for the recovery of patients with coronavirus) was tested, through which certain results gave favorable indications for the use, with a small sample and non-existent or restricted control, however later studies with larger samples and tighter controls showed no benefit. In this case, once again, skepticism was on the side of those who committed themselves to rigorous testing methods, even more so because they were dealing with a possible medicine that could help the recovery of patients, but which, if provided in inadequate doses, could have negative consequences for their health. So why, even after the conclusive studies, hydroxychloroquine continued to be defended, either by doctors who relied on unreliable studies, or political groups who defended its widespread application in hospitals, or even to healthy and asymptomatic people? This is evidence that we were no longer discussing science or the validity of the methods, but that we had fallen into the fields of opportunistic politics, the economy of laboratories interested in selling the substance and doctors without technical training who relied only on experiments practices of their professional “autonomy”.

In this case, therefore, we did not just have pseudoscience, which is not always based on bad faith, but quackery, which simply means lying about the validity of a method or a product just to profit economically, politically or symbolically from its commodification or adoption. Therefore, these supposedly scientific movements, often supported by politicians or corporate lobbyists, are not simply denialists, but obscurantists. What obscurantism tries to hide is precisely the fact that the results presented by them either do not have clear methods of obtaining them (which would allow testing them), or they do not have any method at all. Therefore, it is not enough to have evidence, often branded as supporting facts, it is also necessary to present methods. Facts are worthless by themselves.

Finally, as I stated above, pseudoscience is not always done malevolently, and although it often leads to false or harmless results, it does have its uses. It was precisely to combat pseudoscience that rigorous testing methods were and are proposed.[vii]. Thus, pseudoscience also functions as a form of “intellectual exercise” for science to build more robust methods of validation. Therefore, science must be skeptical, but without reaching simple denial. Certain hypotheses, which today are considered false, were once venerated by scientists. A famous example is that of caloric (a substance that was supposed to conduct heat from one body to another). Another hypothesis that took at least two millennia to be denied was that of the ether as a substance that covered the entire cosmos, a hypothesis that was only rejected at the end of the 1887th century. Interestingly, the experiment performed by physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley in XNUMX was not based on the scientists' skepticism. On the contrary, both were surprised that they could not detect traces of the aether in outer space. Thanks to the failure of his experiment, Albert Einstein felt encouraged to review the entire Newtonian paradigm of gravitation.[viii]. On the other hand, highly regarded scientific theories such as the multiverse hypothesis, string theory, or the “Theory of Everything” (ToE), although lacking definitive proof, receive substantial research funding for theoretical development.

In the XNUMXth century, the writer and poet Samuel Coleridge established the concept of “suspension of disbelief” to characterize literary aesthetic reception: we must temporarily suspend critical and logical thinking in order to accept fictional and poetic productions of the imagination, or aesthetic creations referring to the supernatural. . In the case of science, we must propose, on the contrary, the “suspension of belief”: skepticism must be assumed as an integral part of the scientific method. Curiously, the English writer assumed that unbelieving thought is precisely what comes before simple naive belief. A sign that, in his conception, to suspect “miraculous” results would not require a great effort, since our spontaneous reaction is to doubt rather than believe. Or, in other words, to really accept proposals that are inconsistent or poorly supported by the facts, it is not enough just to believe, but to “want to believe”. And that is why there is no denialist or obscurantist movement that is not a political movement.

* William Preger is an electrical engineer from FURNAS and a doctor in literary theory from UERJ. He is author of Fables of Science: scientific discourse and speculative fables (Ed. Gramma).



[I] I discuss this example of Galileo in my work Fables of Science: Scientific Discourse and Speculative Fabulation (PREGER, Guilherme. Gramma Publisher, 2021).

[ii] This comparison between paradigms is exposed in his great work Dialogue on the Two Great Systems of the Ptolemaic and Copernican Worlds (São Paulo: editora 34, 2011. Translated by Pablo Rubén Mariconda).





[vii] Precisely, the test with a control and randomized group was proposed to combat the hypotheses of the benefits of mesmerist (with magnetic waves) and homeopathic treatments. Watch the suggestive explanatory video by Sabine Hossenfeld

[viii] Incidentally, Isaac Newton himself, a well-known defender of empiricism and facts, never managed to experimentally prove the hypothesis of universal gravitation, the cornerstone of his own theory. Check PREGER, 2021, p. 369.

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