Portinari, science and CPI



Science is science; genocide is genocide.

Candido Portinari returned from Europe in 1931 and wanted to dedicate his time to recording things from his land on his canvases. In them he wanted to put the history, the people, the culture, the Brazilian nature. “Those people with that outfit and that color”, he said. The two years spent in France brought him even closer, and deeply, to Brazil. The result of this dedication is now widely recognized, both in the country and abroad. He is still today the Brazilian plastic artist with the greatest international projection.

In Paris, Portinari met Maria Martinelli, an Uruguayan with whom he would spend the rest of his life – and that probably led him, a few years later, to Montevideo, where he sought anonymity and tranquility to work. But the cisplatin option also had to do with the season of hunting communists, much intensified in Brazil after 1935. The communist Portinari never had peace of mind to work in Uruguay.

When it releasedThe Book of Hugs, in 1989, Eduardo Galeano dedicated one of the 191 chapters to Portinari. He said that when they knocked on the door of his house looking for him, he would answer it himself and say “Portinari has left”. He would wait a moment, slam the door and disappear. With this strategy, the Lord Candido escaped many people – except the Uruguayan communist intellectuals who, seeking to better understand what “socialist realism” was that had arrived from Moscow, wanted to know what the prestigious comrade thought about the subject.

Galeano says that, out of respect for the anonymity strategy adopted by the Brazilian, the Uruguayans argued that “we know you left, master”, but can we still “talk a little?”. On a certain day, Portinari answered them. It is said that he was very brief about the so-called socialist realism: “I don't know”, said the São Paulo de Brodowski, “the only thing I know is the following: art is art, or it's shit”.

Clear as the sun. More direct, impossible.

The message left no room for doubt: if what is intended as art has no quality, it is useless. (It should be noted, by the way, that in biochemical terms feces are good for many things. But that is another matter. Portinari was not concerned with biochemistry.)

I use the episode about Portinari, told by Galeano under the title definition of art, to draw a parallel between art and science. Yes, dear reader, I know that art is art and science is science and, certainly, I will not commit the folly of trying here something similar to a “definition of science”, or something like that, because I have good sense. My problem is the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) installed in the Federal Senate to investigate actions and omissions related to the lack of control of the covid-19 pandemic in Brazil.

I am referring to the “problem” because the CPI is giving enormous prominence to science in the conduct of its work. Between vows of unconditional affiliation “to science”, there is constant talk of “science”, of listening to the “opinions” (thus, in the plural) of “scientists” and, at every mention of these terms, it comes to mind. memory of the Portinari episode in Montevideo. It was about art. But, I think, it might as well be about science. Science is science, or it's useless.

in the classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Perspective), published in 1962, Thomas Kuhn, developed the concept of 'scientific paradigm', a kind of macrotheory, according to which, since science is a type of cumulative, provisional and perfectible knowledge, as it is necessarily open to questioning itself, it is endowed with historicity. Science evolves, negating itself and permanently preserving itself. It remains, remains, only the knowledge that still cannot be denied. This means that, in each historical context, science corresponds to a structured set of theoretical formulations and laws, whose validity is recognized by a given epistemic community – that is, members who mutually recognize each other as qualified interlocutors for dialogue under certain rules and conditions. accepted by everyone.

Under these conditions, science is characterized by a dynamic in which hypotheses, theses and antitheses are permanently posited, with scientific knowledge subject to denial and overcoming or reaffirmation, in terms of the paradigms accepted in each epistemic community. Nothing is therefore more alien to scientific thinking than dogmatic thinking. However, let no one be mistaken about this characteristic of science. Being cumulative means that, as long as it is not overcome, as it is open to questioning itself, scientific knowledge must be accepted as such by everyone in the scientific community. What makes airplanes fly, or keeps buildings standing, is a kind of cumulative and consolidated scientific knowledge, the routine use of which is as safe as it is necessary for its purposes.

Although “everything can change” (as an outcome of what Kuhn called the “paradigmatic crisis”), as happened when the geocentric theory (paradigm for centuries) was proving to be incapable of continuing to base the evolution of knowledge and gave way to the heliocentric theory, or when Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's theory of heredity, founded on the laws of "use and disuse" of organs and on the "transmission of acquired characters" gave way to the genetic paradigm proposed by Gregor Mendel, there is a relative permanence and constant improvement of science, within each paradigm – what Kuhn characterized as “normal science”. Thus, when in 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the double helix structure for DNA, they based their theory on what had been developed almost a century earlier by Mendel, in 1866, and the researchers who followed.

Nevertheless, Kuhn recognizes that science is not objective, in the sense of a supposed neutrality that would be inherent to it, since the choices that lead to its evolution, made by those who produce scientific knowledge, are subjective. Such recognition, however, should not lead anyone to inadvertently assume some “flexibility” of scientific knowledge, notably political party-type flexibility or that motivated by some overwhelming passion for something or someone. The fields of biology or physics, to name just two examples, are emblematic in this regard. It was useless for Mayor Odorico Paraguaçu, immortalized by the genius of Dias Gomes, to have the law of gravity revoked...

I dwell on these considerations on science to emphasize that it seems to me to be absolutely out of place, in the CPI, the perspective adopted by several senators, whether in the situation or in the opposition, of seeking to apply, to scientific topics, the journalistic approach of “listening to both sides”. It is assumed, according to this approach, that there are also different opinions for scientific matters, and that it would be up to the distinguished parliamentarians, putting themselves in a judgmental position, “listening to both sides”, arbitrating and, then, from the height of their stellar wisdom coming from votes (and who knows how many were obtained…), decide.

This was what was seen when the CPI summoned to give testimony, promising to tell “only the truth”, in addition to federal government authorities, some selected “personalities” from the field of “science” who, placed in conditions similar to that of celebrities, passed to issue their “scientific” verdicts, prophesying about various drugs and their publicized efficiency, efficacy and effectiveness.

But that is not how, under cameras and spotlights, scientific debate takes place. It develops routinely through scientific journals, with peer-reviewed publications, which observe compliance with rules and methods, with almost no fanfare and publicity. This is a very different debate from parliamentary clashes, as it is marked by effective respect between peers and motivated by the tacit commitment to “advance knowledge”. When these aspects are broken, it is usually a violation of the tacit commitment, motivated by extra-science factors.

In the case of the pandemic CPI, the testimonies of “scientists” showed, to public astonishment, how much it is possible to deform scientific language and, by appropriating a discursive style, falsify science – as not only “scientists”, but also some high and low leaders of the federal government, with responsibilities for the course of health in the country. Motivated by ideology and political reasons, they irresponsibly flirt with pseudoscience and thus become accomplices in genocide.

I heard from a friend that, in one of the CPI sessions, “it was as if they had put the expression 'scientific evidence' on a 'parrot stick', so much so that they tortured her”. Appropriated by common sense, and distorted by pseudoscience, the expression “scientific evidence” has been trivialized and made equivalent to “evidence of my results”, by many who use it. “We are producing evidence”, they say. They seem to believe that the results of one, or a few studies, are enough to form scientific evidence and that they would be, therefore, sufficient to “prove” something.

It remains, of course, to know what the epistemic community in which the “evidence” thus produced is inserted thinks about it. This is the case, for example, of the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, for the “treatment” of covid-19. Even if one argues with the precautionary principle for the hypothesis that, someday, it will be possible to “prove” something different from what is currently available about such drugs, the fact is that, today, there is no need to talk about “scientific evidence” of its effectiveness. One cannot elevate a drug to something equivalent to “treatment” (of which any drug is always a part, and can never be taken as the whole of therapy) and, even less, transform a drug into a public policy, prescribed for universal consumption.

It is also not enough, as a foundation of public policy, the argument of authority, based on someone's “clinical experience”. Incidentally, the advent of the concept of “scientific evidence” occurred, precisely, in open opposition to the “professor's opinion” and for decisions to be taken based on science and not just on the casuistry of some professional. Therefore, an “opinion” is not enough. One search is not enough. The “scientific evidence” is formed from a reasonable number of researches (number recognized as reasonable by an epistemic community, not by one or two people) and, as researches are carried out continuously, the scientific evidences are also changing continuously. For this reason, there are also, currently, limitations to the “freedom of prescription”, which is expressed in the supposed “physician's autonomy”, so vaunted in the CPI environment and in public opinion. Science, more exactly, “scientific evidence” is the limit for this freedom and for the supposed autonomy.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to collaborate with an entity in the health area on these topics (professional autonomy and freedom of prescription). I argued with this ethical-deontological limit imposed by “scientific evidence”, stating that by claiming it in absolute terms and without considering different contexts, those who do so against science end up “distorting this clinical principle, since such freedom is founded on scientific bases and due respect for the healing cultures of traditional peoples, such as indigenous peoples and quilombolas. Graduates of undergraduate courses in the health area do not enjoy the unrestricted right to prescribe and do 'whatever they want', as such rights are regulated and, therefore, updated by deontological codes and ethical principles, which, as is known, gradually incorporate the achievements of science and technology. If until the middle of the XNUMXth century it was understandable, for example, that some pulmonologists continued to recommend the practice of smoking as something valid and beneficial for the lungs, it is clear that, at the beginning of the XNUMXst century, such a recommendation is unacceptable. Its tolerance, in specific social contexts, does not correspond to recommending this practice”.

Indeed, if this “prescription relativism” prevails, in the name of professional autonomy, as a kind of cultural relativism, medical councils (such as CREMESP) should consider the immediate cessation of evaluation exams to qualify doctors for professional practice . After all, why do them if “everything is relative”, if “there are always two sides” and if everyone can “do what they want”?

Therefore, in this context, it is necessary to reaffirm that “normal science” affirms a truth, admitted as such, at a given moment, by peers in the epistemic community. It is a provisional truth, worth reiterating, and therefore changeable. But, while admitted as a scientific truth, it does not support “opinions”, nor does it require hearing the “contradictory”, as some senators with voices like an announcer want, grandiloquent statements and posing as innocent and pure saints, “in search of the truth”, but not convincing even a child. There is simply no “other side”.

The assumption is simple: dissatisfied with the status quo of scientific evidence must seek to transform this reality. With good research and appreciation of science, refusing denialism and mystification. Not to understand this, whether out of naivety or bad faith, is not to understand anything about scientific knowledge, its production, appropriation and use.

Allow me, by the way, to partially paraphrase Portinari and reiterate that what I know is the following: science is science; genocide is genocide.

*Paulo Capel Narvai is Senior Professor of Public Health at USP.


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