Science & technology policy and elections

Bill Woodrow, Nickel, 1994.


Considerations about what knowledge is reliable  

During the last centuries, and until today, reinforced in large part by the popularization of science, science has spread the belief that scientific knowledge is universal, neutral and objective, and that scientific activity is intended to discover and improve knowledge about a nature that “ it is there” and that is independent of history, culture and even life.

We learn that Lavosier “discovered” oxygen in the XNUMXth century, but would anyone doubt that, many centuries earlier, the Phoenicians breathed the same oxygen we breathe today? Evidently, scientists argue, not only oxygen, but other molecules, atoms, bacteria, cells, etc., as well as gravity or Maxwell's equations, are exactly the same scientific entities, existing independently of place, time , and the society in which they were “discovered”.

Seen as accumulated universal knowledge, the expansion of scientific knowledge can only take place from the knowledge problems of science itself, which, it is understood, are the same in any part of the world. Elections, seen as choices among purely human entities, clearly cannot change those pure scientific entities that “are there” in nature. It is easy to think that the October 2022 elections could affect scientists' living, working and success conditions, but not the results of their work. The institutional representatives of science in Brazil, with some important exceptions, limit themselves to denouncing the decrease in funding and claiming more resources for science without ever leading the discussion of “which science?”[I] Or even, advancing the subject, “what reliable knowledge?”

Resonating with the international movement, I call pre-68 science this notion of science as an activity dedicated to unveiling a world of natural entities discovered or yet to be discovered, but already existing there independently of history, culture, values ​​and even life. From this follows a logical schematic conclusion, but almost never made explicit: the results of pre-68 science would be the same in a Brazil that wanted to be more unequal or in a Brazil that wanted to be more egalitarian, in a more fascist Brazil or in a more democratic Brazil. . Fortunately, this notion of pre-68 science, although still perhaps predominant among Brazilian scientists, is becoming increasingly anachronistic today. Let's see.

In the 1960s Thomas Kuhn shook the epistemological foundations of pre-68 science by proposing and popularizing the notion of “paradigm” to explain the “structure of scientific revolutions”. Arguments in your book bestseller made scientists see scientific knowledge as established and valid in the presence of a “paradigm”, loosely defined as an incomplete frame of reference adopted beforehand to a reality. For him, “normal” science has the task of detailing and articulating a paradigm, as if scientists were “completing a jigsaw puzzle”. And scientific revolutions are, for Thomas Kuhn, paradigm shifts such as, for example, the change from a (Ptolemaic) reality of the movement of the stars organized around the Earth to a (Copernican) reality organized around the sun.

But the great ontological shift, which takes us directly to questions of “S&T Politics and elections”, came in the 1970s/80s when, for the first time, anthropologically informed researchers entered the places where physicists, chemists , biologists and mathematicians and took “laboratory life” as an “object of study”. The same question asked the shamans since the XNUMXth century, “What are you doing?”, was asked of scientists. When answering, the scientist says, for example, “I am isolating the (still unknown) molecule of the hormone GRF”.[ii]

This response enunciates a proposition that, if the scientist is successful, will acquire the robustness of a scientific truth ("discovery"). Continuing there, the researcher who studies laboratory life begins to listen, observe and meticulously record both everything that is said and everything that is done in the laboratory. She/e notes that the scientist was initially very concerned about the genetic purity of a generation of mice he had ordered from a vivarium. Upon arrival at the laboratory, the mice were sacrificed and a liquid was carefully extracted from their pituitary glands, which underwent various mechanical processes and was also mixed and tested in combination with previously known molecules. In addition, parts of this liquid or derived from it were introduced into equipment that produced “inscriptions”, marks on paper or computer screens that were photographed, compared and combined with each other.

The results of these inscription combinations and comparisons involved sometimes very heated discussions about the next steps in the laboratory work. Discussions concluded that the next steps ranged from repeating procedures to resolve doubts to ways to obtain new inscriptions or measurements of new magnitudes, which could even demand the design and construction of new equipment.

She/he can observe that these discussions overflowed outside the laboratory to include “non-scientific” questions, such as the evaluation of the probability of success in the search for resources to finance them, of habits, values, customs and prejudices that would value or despise research, and the work of other laboratories, both potential allies and possible competitors, as a result obtained by one laboratory could close the paths of research by another. It is important to note that this entire external world is monitored and measured at all times with the same attention and obstinacy with which the behaviors of the fluid extracted from the hypophysis of mice are monitored and measured in the configuration of this something that will become the GRF molecule and its validity benchmarks.

The result of this construction that juxtaposes such heterogeneous elements, the “GRF molecule”, becomes reliable (scientific) knowledge for two reasons: (i) that purified liquid produces its own set (different from the sets of other known molecules in the laboratory ) of behaviors in the laboratory (registrations); (ii) no other “something” is known that presents the same inscriptions. It is then clear to the researcher that the GRF molecule is not something (a substance) universal, neutral and objective that was already part of nature, but something (an entity) that, although it had already received a name, was constructed, configured, constituted and defined by “what it does”, that is, by its relations with other entities in a chosen list (always finite) in a process in which fortuitous human elements interfere (culture, values, prejudices, competition , economics, etc.).

From these laboratory studies the Science Studies turned scientific work into a fully human activity by, without invalidating it, removing any transcendence from scientific knowledge, undoing its ontological pedestal, that is, its supposed capacity to make exist and access supposedly “non-human” beings such as oxygen. This ontological pedestal rendered pre-68 science universal, neutral, and objective. But the Science Studies showed that scientific knowledge is made by hardworking people like any other, human and vulnerable, marking the passage from pre-68 science to what I call “post-68 sciences”.

Undoing the pedestal of pre-68 science has immense consequences: (1) problematizing the belief in pre-68 science that proclaims as universal the colonizing separation between the world of “things-in-themselves” (stars, minerals, plants , cells, molecules, etc. – nature) and the world of “men among themselves” (values, the rule of law, democracy, the death penalty, etc. – society); (3) to undo the privilege previously enjoyed by scientific people as knowing “subjects” who could observe and study everything as “objects” to be known, without anyone studying them as human “objects”; (3) shifting the action from isolatable entities to entities that are configured and co-constructed in networks that: (a) are narrated, but are not just discourse; (b) they are collective, but they are not made only of the so-called “social” material; (c) they are natural, but do not have a defined form, that is, they are not “there” to be discovered, since they only acquire a form in proportion and as they are known.

In pre-68 science, “S&T Policy and Elections” refers to an almost contradiction in terms. Pre-68 science suggests that questions of science concern only scientists, since pre-68 science has nothing to do with politics. It is possible that this is an explanation for why the Brazilian academy is so resistant to discussions of its own actions in the field of S&T policy outside the limited perimeter of how much public money is allocated to scientific research. Perhaps it still seems strange to them the passage from the supposed absolute (transcendent) quality of the truth of pre-68 science to the relative (immanent) reliability of the truths of the post-68 sciences, which also need to assert themselves politically.

However, it is the post-68 sciences, with the “situated knowledge” they produce, that can recognize, dignify and make themselves compatible with the local Brazilian people as holders and producers of reliable knowledge and not mere beliefs, as until a few decades ago I thought without thinking. contestation of pre-68 science.

This text is a very modest contribution for Brazilian scientists to join lay people in local elections that put on the agenda the questions of “what reliable knowledge?”. As for the elections of October 2, 2022, the academy has happily expressed a majority of its rejection to the continuity of the fascist option of the current occupants of the government, although it does so still believing in the purity of pre-68 science.

*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).


[I] A text recently published by the SBPC exemplifies the limits of institutional claims within the scope of S&T Policy and elections. Available in

[ii] Latour, B. and S. Woolgar (1979/1997). Laboratory life – the production of scientific facts. Rio de Janeiro, Relume Dumara.

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