Brazil Launches Its First Institute for the Promotion of Skepticism

Natalia Pasternak, Carlos Orsi

Natalia Pasternak Taschner, Photo Credit: Karl Withakay

On November 22, 2018, Institute Question of Science (IQC), the first Brazilian institute for skepticism and rational thinking, was officially launched. We could not have done it without the kind help of dear Barry Karr, CSI executive director, who went out of his way to advise us on how to start the institute, on how to navigate the tricky points of balancing credibility with financial support, and on the importance of building a committed skeptic community.

Ray Hall, Susan Gerbic, Richard Dawkins, and the legendary James Randi also gave us their support. And it all happened during last year’s CSICon, when Barry mostly—but the others also—was up to his eyeballs with the quirks and complications of that great event.

We were there to present a paper at the Sunday paper session on Brazilian quackery and pseudoscience and, of course, to learn from more experienced fellow organized skeptics. Barry—and CFI in general—made us feel very welcome in the international skeptical community, and we left Vegas knowing exactly what we had to do.

The launch was a huge success! We had plenty of media coverage, and it seems we also started a kind of chain reaction. Other skeptics literally came out of hiding, and we are building a community. This sense of belonging in a place where people share your thoughts is crucial for the success of any organization, and, mostly thanks to the advice we got from the international skeptic community, we were able to do this. It worked. IQC filled a void and brought people together to speak up for science and rationality.

We brought Professor Edzard Ernst to be our keynote speaker. He gave a wonderful lecture on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) at the public healthcare system. He also gave a lecture for undergrad science majors at the University of Sao Paulo on “How to Become a Pseudoscientist.” They loved it! The audience even laughed when the German professor made a joke about a certain 7–1 soccer World Cup score…

We had quite a full house (450 people) at the launch, and our online magazine is doing very well, considering it’s exclusively online without a print counterpart and the themes are not exactly popular. In less than a month, we have had over 23,000 readers and 44,600 pageviews. Our bounce rate is

67 percent, meaning that 33 percent of the people who go to the magazine website end up reading more than one article. Our piece on John of God (a well-known Brazilian “medium” who had more than 200 women pressing charges of rape and sexual assault) was shared over 400 times on a few days.

We are already becoming a reference on pseudoscience, and people are coming to us with questions, suggestions, and demands. Professor Ernst also introduced us to other fellow skeptics around the world, and we feel that there is already an informal network of collaboration—perhaps because everyone who has tried to stand up for science and rational thinking knows how hard it can be and how important it is to have support and guidance.

Here in Brazil we can assure you IQC is up for the fight. Our first goal is to remove CAM from our public healthcare system. Practitioners of twenty-nine modalities of CAM, ranging from aromatherapy to homeopathy and from reiki to circular dance, can currently charge the federal government for their “services.”

It’s an ambitious goal in a country where CAM such as homeopathy and acupuncture are recognized by the Federal Council of Medicine.

The new government doesn’t help either, with a religious conservative serving as president, a Minister of Family and Human Rights that sees Jesus on top of a Guava tree and believes that women belong in the kitchen, and a chancellor who is a climate change denier. And if you think we hit rock bottom, it gets worse: the intellectual inspiration of the whole bunch comes from a philosopher/astrologist who disputes the central position of the sun in the solar system.

With a baseline like this, we are going to need all the help and friends we can get. We are grateful for the pointers and support we got from Barry and everyone else we met at CSICon.

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).