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The seeds of mistrust

A new dictionary focuses on the varieties of denialism that confuse public opinion in Brazil and around the world

Patricia Baik

“Denialism kills,” warned the statement released in March last year by the Pacto pela Vida e pelo Brasil (Pact for Life and Brazil), a group composed of six civil society entities, including the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC). The document called for the urgent adoption of Covid-19 containment measures by the federal government, which, among other things, had attacked World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for isolation and social distancing and minimized the consequences of Sars-CoV-2 virus infections, which have to date caused the deaths of nearly 700,000 people in Brazil. At the time, the academy also stated it was “against the use and promotion, including by medical associations, of treatments without scientific proof, and opposed to antivaccination initiatives in Brazil.” Thus writes researcher Dominichi Miranda de Sá, from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ), in the entry on academia that opens the recently released Dicionário dos negacionismos no Brasil (Dictionary of denialism in Brazil) (Cepe Editora).

With an emphasis on Brazil, but without overlooking the larger global context, the work brings together 112 entries from various authors covering mainly a variety of different types of denialism, from climate to statistics, and the topics that gravitate around the subject, such as conspiracy theories. “In general, denialism can be understood as collective processes that seek to disqualify science in an organized way, with interests that can be political, economic, and moral, for example. It’s far from being an innocent tactic,” says sociologist José Luiz Ratton, from the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), who edited the book in partnership with sociologist José Szwako, from the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ). “Over the last 15 years, denialism has been transported from the margins to the center of public discourse, which can be explained by various factors, including greater access to the internet. Currently, in addition to science, the role of the state and democracy are also in the crosshairs of this attack.”

Historian Simone Petraglia Kropf, from the Graduate Program in Science and Health History at FIOCRUZ, agrees. “There are certain doubts on the part of the lay public that are legitimate, not only because scientific knowledge changes, but also because science shouldn’t be immune to criticism. But denialism is a phenomenon from another sphere: it wants to erode the public’s confidence in the very authority of science and its institutions, confronting already established consensuses on certain subjects through lies and factual distortions,” observes Kropf, who authored the entry on scientific denialism.

The idea for the dictionary was born from debates conducted by Ratton and Szwako at meetings of the National Association of Graduate Studies and Research in Social Sciences (ANPOCS) and the Brazilian Society of Sociology, during the last two years. Some of the 104 authors responsible for the entries participated in these events. “Most of these professionals are linked to educational institutions, Brazilian and foreign, in fields such as law, journalism, anthropology, and healthcare. Denialism is a complex and multifactorial process, which impacts different fields of knowledge, serves a variety of agendas, and articulates disparate themes,” observes Szwako. Among them, anti-gender denialism stands out, characterized by opposition to discussions about gender and related activism, such as feminist and LGBTQIA+ movements. Another prominent type is globalism, a term appropriated by far-right ideologues to refer to a supposed project of power usurpation by the left, which purportedly has among its actors institutions such as the United Nations (UN). The “globalist objective” would be to destroy Christian values and implant socialism in the West.

The term negacionismo (denialism or negationism in English, depending on the context) was recognized last year by the Brazilian Academy of Letters, together with its incorporation into the Orthographic Vocabulary of the Portuguese Language. Despite the prominence gained during the pandemic, the term is not new. “It comes from the French négationisme and emerged after the Second World War [1939–1945] to characterize the discourse of those who denied the extermination of Jews and other groups during the Holocaust, despite the consensus and evidence accepted by most historians,” Kropf says.

The term denialism has been incorporated into the Orthographic Vocabulary of the Portuguese Language

According to historian Marcos Napolitano, from the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), the concept of historical denialism is intrinsically linked to the activities of organized groups, especially on the extreme right, and anti-Semites, in the United States and Europe. “Until the 2000s, these groups were built up through restricted networks with limited reach and conveyed their ideas mainly through books and articles. With the emergence of social networks, their message was amplified,” says the author of the dictionary entry on historical denialism (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 316).

Historical denialism, also called historical negationism, is relevant to historical episodes besides the Holocaust. In the case of Brazil, it includes the military dictatorship (1964–1985). “Almost always, historical denialism and ideological revisionism are actions that aim to erase or retell original events in order to diminish the responsibilities of the perpetrators and avoid reparation for the victims. This is a practice even adopted by governments, as is the case with the Armenian Genocide, which took place in the early twentieth century and is still unrecognized by Turkey,” explains Napolitano.

The researcher explains that historical denialism and ideological revisionism are not synonymous with historical revision, which seeks to update our views of the past based on research and scientific evidence. “Historical revision is welcome and necessary for the work of the historian because it is the result of the advancement of knowledge, changes in perspectives, of new questions that have arisen in society, and the emergence of new primary sources,” he observes. “Denialism and ideological revisionism, on the contrary, seek to create noise using preposterous ideas, and prevent debate, which is essential not only for science, but also for society.”

Repurposed strategies
In the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, American historians Erik Conway, from the California Institute of Technology, and Naomi Oreskes, from Harvard University, explain the deceptions used by the tobacco industry—beginning in the 1950s—to challenge the scientifically proven connection between smoking and diseases such as cancer. Launched in the US in 2010 by Bloomsbury Publishing, the work remains unpublished in Brazil.

Patricia Baik

“At the heart of this strategy, it’s possible to discern at least three important elements,” write Szwako and political scientist Luiz A. Campos, from IESP-UERJ, in the entry dedicated to Oreskes. The first is the co-opting of scientists who, even though they were not cancer specialists, lent their academic titles to initiatives that sowed doubts regarding the solid research and consensus in the field. “A second element is to gather these ‘experts’ into civil society organizations—the so-called think tanks—dedicated to contesting the most accepted theories and disseminating alternative interpretations.” Finally, the third feature is manipulating the media and producing false controversies in media spaces. “Journalists need to be careful when choosing sources. It’s not uncommon for newspapers, magazines, and more recently, websites, to bring into the public eye figures that were previously irrelevant or considered controversial within the expert debate. The practice of listening to both sides is essential to journalism, but in some cases, it can mean confronting positions that, in fact, aren’t at all equivalent,” says Szwako.

These strategies were adopted beginning in the late 1980s, primarily by the oil industry, to spread climate denialism, says political science professor Carlos Milani, director of the Interdisciplinary Observatory of Climate Change (OIMC) at IESP-UERJ. “Since its creation in 1988, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has maintained a broad consensus around the high probability that the roots of climate change lie in human activities. One of the villains is the release of CO2, the primary gas responsible for the increase in the greenhouse effect, caused—among other factors—by the burning of fossil fuels. This was a warning light for oil producers,” says Milani, author of the entry on climate denialism.

According to Milani, while in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, climate denialism is intertwined with the economy of combustion, in Brazil this lineage begins in the 2000s and is connected primarily with agribusiness. “A segment of the industry doesn’t want to give up part of its profits and thus adopts denialist practices. On the other hand, average citizens, who resist changing their habits, find a refuge in the denialist discourse,” he observes.

Combating denialism is not an easy task, especially in times of virtual reality, the experts say. “One option is for the judiciary to determine that platforms like YouTube must cut the revenue streams of channels that propagate misinformation and hate speech, but it’s difficult to carry out that kind of control in networks like WhatsApp and Telegram,” notes Szwako. Kropf, at FIOCRUZ, believes scientific institutions need to strengthen their ties with society, promoting inclusion and diversity in their staff. “When people realize the concrete benefits that science brings to their lives, they trust science and don’t engage in denialist discourse,” he concludes.