Institute Question of Science in Brazil: from fighting pseudoscience to advising governments Natália Pasternak The Skeptic

In January 2021, the then governor of the State of Sao Paulo – the wealthiest state in Brazil, and home of the country’s most prestigious universities – asked me to take part in an official presentation to reassure the public about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. A few months later, in July, I was deposing in the Brazilian Congress, explaining the logic of clinical trials to the Senate Investigating Committee who were trying to establish the culpability of then President Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian COVID-19 tragedy. And last November, I was invited to offer public policy proposals on science and health to the transition task force organising the new federal government, under President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

I have a PhD in Microbiology and I am an award-winning science writer, but in all of the above I was acting as founder and president of a skeptical organisation – the Instituto Questão de Ciência (IQC), or Question of Science Institute.

We – three friends and myself – created IQC in 2018, the year Jair Bolsonaro was elected President. Our goal was to inform the public and policy makers about the importance of making science-based decisions. We wanted to influence the public debate and help make science a general topic to be considered among those that usually figure in everyday conversations such as politics, education, and of course, in our country, football (soccer). We had some role models in mind, and CFI/CSI was on our list.

One of our founding partners, Carlos Orsi, was very familiar with CFI and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and wrote to the director, Barry Karr, asking for help. Barry couldn’t have been kinder and became a dear friend to all of us in IQC. We presented a paper on the Sunday Paper session of CSICON 2018, and had the privilege of having long conversations with Barry Karr, Ray Hall and Susan Gerbic, who gave us advice on how to run a Skeptic NGO. Professor Richard Dawkins recorded a video wishing us luck and expressing his hope that IQC became very influential, and James Randi did the same.

I wonder if Professor Dawkins knows just how prophetic he was. Maybe he is psychic. In four years’ time,  IQC went from a niche skeptic organisation to participating in hearings at the Congress, being a constant presence in the national and international media, partnering with international organisations, participating in a taskforce at the World Health Organization, exposing the growing antivax movement in Brazil (and getting sued for doing so), and, as Bolsonaro’s government finally comes to an end, getting called up to advise President-elect Lula’s transition team.

We launched IQC in November 2018, with Professor Edzard Ernst as our keynote speaker, and with the clear message that one of our main goals would be to fight pseudoscience and alternative medicine in Brazil’s public healthcare system. As of now, the Brazilian SUS – our homegrown version of the British NHS – pays for 29 different alternative practices, ranging from homeopathy and acupuncture to ones you probably never heard of, such as family constellation, circular dancing and mud therapy.

Our online magazine, launched in 2018, publishes an average of four articles a week, and has accumulated over 3.7 million readers since its inception. During the pandemic we reached a peak of 200 thousand readers per month, and 80 thousand in one single day. We were the first Brazilian publication to expose hydroxychloroquine as a hoax.

IQC began as a very “garden variety” skeptical organisation – a niche group, doing on-the-ground work to try to push against the waves of commercial propaganda, official endorsement (or complacency) and media sympathy for things like horoscopes and quantum healing. Besides sustaining our own online presence, we would do seminars, send letters to the newspapers, and offer training courses for science and health journalists.

Then the pandemic hit, and the federal government, taken by conspiracy-mongers and denialists, couldn’t be trusted. Suddenly we were the media’s go-to institution for clear, understandable and trustworthy information on the virus and its purported “cures”, like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. Our team worked non-stop producing pandemic-related content and debunking Covid myths. We started our own YouTube show, “The Plague Diaries”. As a result, we were sued for referring to President Bolsonaro as a “plague”. We also organised the Science “C” Day (C for Ciência in Portuguese), in response to the government’s “D Day”, when the Ministry of Health was supposed to hold an online press conference to promote miracle Covid cures. The “D Day” was cancelled after we announced that our “C Day” would present the opinions of seven former Health Ministers and several scientists.

The year of 2021 was marked by our first experience co-organising an international event, the Aspen Global Congress for Scientific Thinking and Action, in partnership with the Office for Science and Society of the Aspen Institute. One of the outcomes of this congress was the launch of the PBS documentary Infodemic, featuring many of our speakers. IQC was also hired to advise the office responsible for the national census on Covid safety.

In 2022, we launched our Observatory of Science Policies, to keep track of science, health and environmental-related legislation and public policies in Brazil.

The high point of this period came perhaps when we were called by the presidential transition team to present proposals in health and science. We suggested the creation of the post of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President, and changes in the structure of the National Vaccines Program to keep it free from ideological interference.

As the Covid emergency recedes, we see that our initial fight, the guerrilla war on pseudoscience and alternative medicine, still has to be fought. Some of the people who were our allies and cheerleaders against ivermectin seem to find it hard to sympathise with our criticism of homeopathy. We went from the margins to the mainstream, and now we try to find our proper place somewhere in between, while strengthening our position as advisors for science-based policy making. It’s going to be interesting.

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IQC – born in response to Bolsanaro and forged in the fight against COVID-19 pseudoscience – aims to establish its permanent place in post-Bolsanaro Brazil
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