Denialism as a science

Bill Woodrow, Potassium, 1994.


To gain trust, Science must no longer be denialist and must be democratic

Denial behavior, especially refusal of vaccination, has been widely reported and denounced on television and in major Brazilian newspapers as “irrational” behavior that denies scientific knowledge or, as they say, denies Science. I addressed some types of denialism on other occasions (Da Costa Marques, 2021 ). This time I focus on denialism that has been recognized for decades by Science Studies, known in Brazil as part of the CTS Studies (Studies of Sciences-Technologies-Societies), and even before them, and already practiced for centuries by what today is heralded as a victim of denialism, that is, the denialism practiced by Science itself.

The CTS Studies showed that scientific knowledge validates its truth in a network and denies what is outside it, or rather, outside the network that configures it. If you are not a climatologist, what you say about the climate will always be belief and can never be considered knowledge. For Science, beliefs speak more about who has them than about the climate itself. For Science, beliefs are “subjective” while, by opposition, scientific truth or knowledge is “objective”. For example, Science intends to say nothing about climatologists and say everything possible about the climate.

Even if sometimes, by chance, beliefs are in line with knowledge, this is nothing more than an accident, which does not make them any less subjective. From the point of view of the people inside the network, the only way anyone can know about the climate and its evolution is to learn what climatologists have discovered. People who still hold climate beliefs will simply be ignorant. (Latour, 1987/1997:298)

It follows from this negationism that, however much one tries to create ties between it and democracy, it is necessary to recognize that Science only dialogues with itself. In order to doubt or disagree, in terms of Science, with a proposition that is circulating as scientific knowledge, it is no longer possible to “call God”, who to deal with this subject was replaced by the Reason of Man (white European) at the dawn of modernity, or at least so tells us European history. Nor is it possible to “call the Prince”, resort to the State, because the moderns have firmly established that decisions on questions of Science concern Nature (the world of “things-in-themselves”) that do not mix with Society ( the world of “humans-among-themselves”). And even less can one “call the People” since Science soon tried to convince (almost) everyone that common sense can easily deceive us. In fact, the proposal to hold a referendum to decide a scientific controversy would be ridiculous.

In order for a proposition of discordant knowledge not to be denied or simply ignored by Science, and to be scientifically discussed, it must come from a “counterlaboratory”. (Latour, 1987/1997:131) The cost is extremely high and the number of entities (individuals, companies, institutions or even countries) able to scientifically carry forward a scientific disagreement is small.

Until the middle of the XNUMXth century, the scientist answered the question “Why should we believe you, scientist?” without calling “God”, the “Prince” or the “People”, using the credit that the epistemological privilege granted him: “Because I, a scientist, produce universal, neutral and objective truths about Nature”. But in recent decades the universality, neutrality and objectivity of scientific truths have been problematized by Science Studies and Science has lost that epistemological privilege. The truths of Science did not cease to be true, but they became valid in the domain of specific references, that is, they are “situated”.[I] The scientists, as well as their results, became 100% human and the “eye of God” trick was removed from them.[ii]It is no longer so accepted that they/they practice denialism. And since then, more and more well-informed scientists have sought to base the solidity of their knowledge no longer on “truth” but on “trust”, without this rhetorical shift necessarily being accompanied by the epistemological shift that repositioned Science.[iii]

The passage from the search for support in the “truth” of formerly almost impregnable formalisms “to the surreptitious replacement of the real world by the world of idealizations of mathematizable substructures”[iv] for the search for support in institutions that transmit “trust” requires Science to make explicit the networks that configure its knowledge and itself in its new multiplicity. For scientific knowledge to gain “trust”, Science must show the laboratories in which experiments are carried out and discussed, the options present in negotiations and decisions taken throughout the creation of knowledge, what and who entered and who did not enter each decision, the quantification of all this showing the investments, training, the number of people, equipment and support activities involved in the process that, finally, brings certainty and security, making that scientific knowledge robust, “reliable”.

In this way, the shift from “truth” to “trust” does not prevent, but, by exposing the procedural details, it democratizes the discussion of the use of Science. To gain trust, Science must no longer be denialist and must be democratic. The scientist can no longer mobilize epistemological privilege and esoterically justify our good belief in Science by appealing to universality, neutrality and objectivity. Science starts to dispute the use (or not) of its knowledge on a case-by-case basis, politically, with other types of knowledge. Note that a “People”, or, more precisely in the terms of the Science Studies, a collective of people and things, is not authorized to decide on the scientific validity of scientific knowledge (this is up to those within the Science network), but it can no longer be accused of irrationality whenever it claims to be able to decide whether to accept or not the consequences that he understands to result from the adoption of this knowledge. And scientists found themselves (in both senses) approaching democracy because Science no longer reigns absolute and seeks support in institutions to gain the “trust” of those outside the Science network.

The accusation of “irrationality” to those who do not want to follow Science is linked to the “demands of universal reason”. A quick look at what is happening in the East is enough to suspect that our intelligentsia and our academy have not yet done their “homework” with regard to resisting or surrendering to the “demands of universal reason”. For example, the issue has been explicitly discussed in Japan since the XNUMXth century, according to what scholars of relations between that country and the West say:

It is precisely because the Japanese have not always accepted the Western whim of a privileged unilinear relation certifying a sequential and gradual development that [in Japan] the discourse about the modern has been able to provide a space of knowledges both to resist the demands of universal reason and to masks an imperial Western ethos about surrendering to them. (Miyoshi and Harootunian, 1989:xvii) (emphasis added)[v]

The withdrawal of epistemological privilege and the problematization of the epistemological frontier between the “inside” and the “outside” of Science that causes as much astonishment and disorientation at first as the perception of the fact that the escape from domination by Science cannot be found from the outside. “inside” side of Science.

The astonishment and disorientation come from the passage from a preconceived reality from a dissociated, double universe (Nature and Society that do not mix), to other realities proposed from a non-dissociated nature-society flow. It is precisely there, by denying reality to other conceptions of reality, that Science continues to practice its denialism.

But it is not precisely this passage that can lead to a relative escape from a (western white) Science previously considered neutral, universal, objective, and, therefore, with the right to impose itself on all particularisms without ever letting its particularisms appear own?

*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).

Modified version of article published in CTS in focus no. 5 of ESOCITE.BR (Brazilian Association of Social Studies of Sciences and Technologies).



DA COSTA MARQUES, I. Science and denialism. Science and denialism – THE EARTH IS REDONDA (

HARAWAY, D. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism as a Site of Discourse on the Priviledge of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, v. 14, no. 3, p. 575-599, 1988.

HUSSERL, E. The crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology; an introduction to phenomenological philosophy. Evanston,: Northwestern University Press, 1954/1970. xliii, 405 p. ISBN 0810102552.

______. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental FemenologyRio de Janeiro, RJ: University Forensics, 1954/2012. 232 ISBN 978-85-309-3509-2.

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

______. Investigation into the modes of existence – An anthropology of the moderns Petrópolis, RJ: Editora Vozes Ltda, 2012 / 2019. 404p. ISBN 978-85-326-6180-7.

MIYOSHI, M.; HAROOTUNIAN, HD Postmodernism and Japan. Durham: Duke University Press, 1989. xix, 302 p.ISBN 0822307790

SAKAI, N. Modernity and its critique: the problem of universalism and particularism. Zazie Editions, 2021. 67p. ISBN 978-87-93530-79-9.



[I] The notion of “situated knowledge”, which many confuse with relativism, was especially spread by Donna Haraway. (Haraway, 1988)

[ii] The metaphor of the “eye of God” indicates the scientist who could see everything without being seen by anyone.

[iii] See (Latour, 2012 / 2019:18-19)

[iv] (Husserl, 1954/1970:48-9). The famous book by Edmund Husserl is translated into Portuguese (Husserl, 1954/2012).

[v] On Japan's relations with modernity, see especially the classic article by Naoki Sakai, recently published as a book in Portuguese, with a preface by Pedro Erber: (Sakai, 2021).




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