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MEMORY

Controversial Popularization

Publicizing scientific research sparked controversies among researchers as early as the 19th century.

The Zoological and Botanical Park at the Goeldi Museum at the end of the 19th century: the press ignored scientific work

Guilherme de la Penha archives/MPEG/MCTIThe Zoological and Botanical Park at the Goeldi Museum at the end of the 19th century: the press ignored scientific workGuilherme de la Penha archives/MPEG/MCTI

Criticism surrounding the inaccuracies and exaggerations that appeared in news reports about scientific studies and discoveries, almost always from researchers, are far from being an effect of modern mass communications or the result of an increase in the number of people writing in the press about science, technology, and innovation. Between 1896 and 1898, Belgian Luis Cruis, director of the Astronomical Observatory of Rio de Janeiro (now the National Observatory), regularly authored a column in Revista Brasileira [Brazilian Review] in which he commented on and explained scientific developments and, not infrequently, criticized the erroneous information that was circulating in the periodicals of the era. “It is remarkable how public opinion accepts, with extraordinary credulity, the most extravagant fantasies. Now we read about an optician who plans to build a lens that has a diameter of 30 meters…” he wrote in 1896, according to a study by Moema de Rezende Vergara, researcher at the Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences (Mast) and published in the book Ciência, história e historiografia [Science, History, and Historiography] (Via Lettera/Mast, 2008).

A year later, Cruis commented on the occasion of a certain meteor shower that had disappointed those who had their attention called to the upcoming phenomenon by French astronomer Camille Flammarion. “However, there were good reasons for their disappointment, given the articles by C. Flammarion who, in his customary poetic style, had described the announced shower of stars in colors so alluring that, in reality, their not happening [would be] grounds for attributing the failure to some mistake [by the astronomers],” Cruis complained. To him, most people had heard of astronomy only through the “sensationalized discoveries announced in the daily newspapers,” accounts that were often fanciful and dubious.

Luiz Cruis in his office during the 1890s: articles about scientific communication and criticism of “sensationalized discoveries”

National Observatory archivesLuiz Cruis in his office during the 1890s: articles about scientific communication and criticism of “sensationalized discoveries”National Observatory archives

In 1907, Swiss zoologist Emílio Goeldi, director of what would later be known as the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará (MPEG) in Belém, had other criticism for the press. “If there is anything I deplore, it’s that the press here in Pará has virtually abandoned this part of its public service duty. We were living in oblivion here, and I began to realize that in general in Brazil, scientific works impress journalists only after they find them in foreign sources. I didn’t attribute this to ill will, but rather to the meager attention they pay to local things,” he complained to reporter Manoel Lobato, in the March 8, 1907 issue of the newspaper Folha do Norte. Lobato had interviewed Goeldi on the occasion of his departure from the museum, as he returned to the University of Bern in Switzerland. The 1907 news item was found in 2012 by historian Anna Raquel de Matos Castro, of the MPEG.

“It’s good to remember those episodes. They show that the issues about publicizing developments in science that are being discussed today actually have a long history in Brazil,” Vergara says. “What is changing is the context. “At the end of the 19th century, the intellectual elite were concerned about building a nation, and the discussions about progress in science permeated that debate.”

Emílio Goeldi poses with his family and museum staff in March 1907, when he returned to Switzerland

Guilherme de la Penha archives/MPEG/MCTIEmílio Goeldi poses with his family and museum staff in March 1907, when he returned to SwitzerlandGuilherme de la Penha archives/MPEG/MCTI

At the time, the term used for introducing the lay public to discoveries that only specialists were familiar with was “scientific vulgarization,” a simple translation of the French term vulgarisation scientifique, still used in France today. It was no coincidence that O Vulgarizador – jornal dos conhecimentos úteis [The Vulgarizer – Journal of Useful Knowledge] circulated in Rio de Janeiro from 1877 to 1880. It was there that the translation was published of Flammarion’s article about the meteor shower that frustrated those who witnessed the phenomenon. A digitalized copy of the journal is available on the Mast website (www.mast.br).

According to Vergara’s study, the word “vulgarization” was used in Brazil by scientists and learned persons from 1870 to 1930. “In 1931, physician Miguel Ozório de Almeida published the book A vulgarização do saber [The Vulgarization of Knowledge] in which he writes of the importance of the public understanding, at least in general terms, the basics of scientific development,” says the researcher. The term divulgação científica (scientific communication) did not begin to appear in the press until much later. In the archives of the daily O Estado de São Paulo, for example, been digitized starting with the first issue dated 1875, this term cannot be found until 1941.

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