Believing in Science Is Not Understanding the Science: Brazilian Surveys

Natalia Pasternak, Carlos Orsi

More Brazilians believe in the importance of vaccines than in the validity of so-called alternative therapies, and almost 90 percent of the adult population accepts—at least in part—the fact that climate change is real and caused by human activity. Nevertheless, almost half of Brazilian adults reject one of the fundamental principles of the theory of evolution: humans and other primates descend from a common ancestor. Moreover, almost 40 percent of the country’s adult population believes the government hides information about beings from other planets.

These are some of the results of a national survey on public understanding of science conducted by the Datafolha Institute, a respected polling organization, on behalf of Instituto Questão de Ciência (IQC, Question of Science Institute), where we are both founders and directors. More than 2,000 Brazilians aged sixteen and over were surveyed in March 2019 in 130 municipalities in all parts of the country. The margin of error of the results is plus or minus two percentage points.

The survey evaluated the degree of agreement of respondents with a series of statements that either reflect scientific consensus (e.g., “Getting vaccinated is important because it brings health benefits”; “The Earth revolves around the Sun”; “Global warming and climate change from human activities are a real problem that will have serious effects on society”) or pseudoscientific beliefs (“Spiritual energy can have the power of healing”; “Aliens have visited ancient civilizations on Earth”; “Genetically modified foods are harmful to health”).

A few months later, a comprehensive national survey on public perception of science was released by the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) in partnership with the Center for Management and Strategic Studies (CGEE), an office of the federal government.

The SBPC-CGEE survey shows that Brazilians are very optimistic and fond of science; 73 percent of the respondents believe that science brings “more good than harm” to society, the same number as the previous survey in 2015, and 86 percent think that science is important for industrial development. Sixty-six percent support science public funding, and 84 percent of Brazilians regard scientists as a reliable source of information. When this particular question is reversed, the result seems even more impressive: only 1 percent of the respondents consider scientists not trustworthy.

These figures have been explored by SBPC as a political tool to demand that science funding be restored. Brazilian science is now facing a major funding crisis. Our national science budget has been cut in half, funding agencies are unable to honor grants and scholarships and thus collapsing, and the country is suffering from a major brain drain.

However, no matter how noble the overall goal might be, when the survey probes deeper, all this national enthusiasm for science vanishes into thin air. On one hand scientists are seen as trustworthy, but, on the other, the number of respondents who define scientists as “clever people who do good deeds for humanity” has dropped from 52 percent in 2015 to 41 percent in 2019.

On top of that, 90 percent could not name a single Brazilian scientist, and 88 percent were unable to name a single research institution, even though in Brazil all federal and state level universities are also research centers. Among those who named a Brazilian scientist, most mentioned Marcos Pontes—our minister of science and technology, who is not a scientist but a former engineer trained as an astronaut. Pontes never pursued a career in science. Having returned from his one and only space trip, he moved on to work as a motivational coach and poster boy for assorted space-related products. As for science understanding, 74 percent are afraid of GMOs, and 78 percent believe antibiotics can kill viruses.

IQC’s survey assessed mainly science understanding and not perception or appreciation, and the result shows a multifaceted national profile in which 97 percent agree on the importance of vaccines, but 83 percent think alternative medicine is a “good option for treating diseases.” Sixty-six percent believe in the healing power of “the spiritual.” Moreover, the statement “Human beings and chimpanzees come from a species of common origin” is accepted by just over half of the sample (54 percent), while 73 percent think that consuming GMO food is bad for your health.

More people believe in conspiracy theories involving governments and aliens (38 percent) than in the safety of GMOs for human health (27 percent), despite the fact that the first statement is pseudoscientific and the second is a solid scientific consensus. A 2016 survey of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States found more than 1,500 studies confirming that the consumption of GMOs has no negative impact on human health.

On the plus side, so-called antiscientific denial—rejection of statements endorsed by the scientific community—seems to have very little penetration, except for evolutionary theory and the transgenics issue. Only 3 percent of people rebutted the importance of vaccines; 8 percent denied that Earth revolves around the Sun; and 10 percent rejected the reality and seriousness of climate change.

But it is a “half-full, half empty” kind of situation. The IQC-Datafolha survey found four different population profiles regarding scientific knowledge and beliefs among Brazilians. The “science-friendly” profile comprises 29 percent of Brazilians only, encompassing those who strongly agree with a majority of the scientific consensuses on so-called “controversial” topics (GMO safety, climate change, evolution, ancient aliens). Even within this already small group, 40 percent of the respondents believe that spiritual forces have healing powers.

Every two years, the U.S. National Science Foundation discloses its Science and Engineering Indicators, a thorough survey that includes questions about popular understanding of science. In its most recent edition, compiled in 2016, the statement “Human beings, in their current form, developed from other species of animal” was considered “true” by 52 percent of respondents.

Likewise, a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) points out that in addition to ignorance about scientific facts, the problem of public understanding of science also involves the lack of knowledge about the methods and processes of scientific activity.

It seems likely that a person who accepts the idea of common ancestry, for example—solely based on the words of some authority, having no idea what that actually means or where that conclusion comes from—leaves the door open for this belief to be replaced by another coming from a more charismatic authority.

In Brazil’s case, this seems like a good description, even for people who have higher educational levels, because 82 percent of respondents with university diplomas believe in the efficacy of alternative medicine, and 73 percent believe that GMOs are harmful. It suggests that “epistemic ignorance”—the ignorance of processes that generate and justify scientific knowledge—remains a blind spot in science education and communication efforts.

“Citizens can be misinformed and uninformed at the same time,” says the PNAS article, drawing the distinction between uninformed (i.e., ignorant of facts) and misinformed (i.e., believing in ideas and concepts that do not correspond to facts). “For example, citizens may be uninformed about how the processes of science work and are misinformed of the facts of some specific scientific issue.”

Altogether it suggests that providing information is just as important as making explicit the process of generating information. In other words, in addition to communicating data and results, “communicating science” should be, indeed, about communicating a way of thinking. 


Further Reading

Natalia Pasternak

Natalia Pasternak is a microbiologist with a PhD in bacterial genetics and a research fellow at the University of São Paulo. She’s founder and current president of Instituto Questão de Ciência (Question of Science Institute).

Carlos Orsi

Carlos Orsi is a journalist and science writer who also writes mystery and science fiction. He’s currently chief editor of Revista Questão de Ciência (Question of Science Magazine).