Natalia Pasternak showing off her Double-Helix hair, and Carlos Orsi with his cat, Violet.
Hello readers, I have a real treat for you all. I want to introduce you to two of my newest acquaintances who will be attending CSICon from Brazil: Carlos Orsi and Natália Pasternak. Their goals are to meet people in our community and learn what projects people are working on and how others are growing their local groups. They want to take these connections and ideas back to their community where they are hoping to start a local skeptic group.
Susan Gerbic: Olá Carlos and Natália! I was very happy to read the message on the CSICon Facebook Event page from organizer Barry Karr that you both would be joining us at the conference. I love to attend these conferences to reacquaint myself with old friends, but it is a special thrill to see that we are growing and including more people world-wide. Can you please tell readers more about yourselves?
Natália Pasternak and Carlos Orsi: Hi, Susan! We were thrilled when Barry posted about us on the event page, and even more when you asked us for this interview. Contact with other skeptics and organized groups that promote critical thinking and science-based approaches to social problems is very important to us.
About ourselves: Natalia has a PhD in Microbiology and is a research fellow and lecturer at the University of São Paulo (USP), the largest in Latin America and one of the top-ranked research and higher education institutions of the region. She is also the main director of the Brazilian editions of the Pint of Science Festivals.
Carlos is a science journalist, science popularization writer, and fiction writer. He was one of the first Brazilian journalists to create content about science specifically for the internet, beginning in 1996. He is the author of three books of science popularization with a skeptical bent—one about religious miracles, one about quantum quackery, and one about astrology.
We are working together with a group of friends and colleagues to establish in Brazil an institute for the promotion of skepticism, critical thinking, and science-based public policies. Our main role models are the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the British group Sense About Science.
Gerbic: In the intro to this interview, I said that you were coming to CSICon to meet people and to learn more about what others are doing to combat pseudoscience and grow local skeptic communities. Can you tell me what kinds of organized skeptic groups we might find in Brazil? São Paulo, as the biggest city, has a population of over 12 million people; we should have multiple large groups and CSICon held there every few years.
Pasternak and Orsi: Organized skepticism has quite a checkered history in Brazil, I’m afraid. Informal groups, such as Sociedade da Terra Redonda (Round Earth Society) or Sociedade Brasileira de Céticos Racionalistas (Brazilian Society of Skeptic Rationalists), form from time to time, but after an initial flurry of activity they tend to disappear, sometimes dissolving, sometimes just falling into a kind of coma. We hope that our institute will break this pattern for good.
Gerbic: What are the obstacles you think are keeping this from happening? I know when my Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project has looked to find skeptic podcasts and groups we can beg for publicity to attract more Portuguese editors to train, we have struggled to find them. Carlos you told me that you are aware of only two skeptic podcasts, Ácido Cético (Skeptic Acid) and Dragões de Garagem (Dragons in the Garage).
Pasternak and Orsi: Even these podcasts are not devoted to full-time skepticism—they are general-purpose science popularization podcasts, that produce some skeptical episodes from time to time (NOTE: the podcast from the Ácido Cético group is really called Fronteiras da Ciência [Frontiers of Science]; I was mistaken when I first quoted the name to you, Susan! Carlos).
Our belief is that organized skepticism fails to flourish for a series of reasons. They usually pop up around someone who feels they have a mission to promote rational thinking, and when this one person finds some other priority—gets a job, has a kid, whatever—the groups disperses.
We also notice that it is hard to find activists for skeptical activism. Activism requires a certain mindset and disposition, and people with this kind of disposition often gravitates toward what they perceive as more urgent causes, such as social inequality, which in countries such as Brazil is quite an open wound, or environmental degradation. The synergy between the promotion of skepticism and of the respect for scientific evidence and the amelioration of the more visible social issues is not quite clear for most people.
Another reason is that skepticism is an abrasive topic. Doing science popularization by talking about supernovas or colorful butterflies is relatively safe, and usually viewed as praiseworthy, but trying to explain that someone’s favorite therapy doesn’t, or in fact can’t, work, or that the flying saucer they visited last night wasn’t real, but a product of sleep paralysis, is usually frowned upon. “What’s the harm” and “don’t be a spoilsport” are the most frequent reactions. It tends to drain a lot of energy.
Gerbic: Great insight; I really hadn’t thought of activism that way. I understand that you both have given TEDx talks. Carlos yours was called Três perguntas contra fake news (Three questions about fake news) and Natália yours A ciência brasileira e Síndrome de Cassandra (The Brazilian Science and Cassandra Syndrome). By the way, if anyone wants to help out the world-wide community of skepticism by translating and transcribing, please be in touch with me. Can you both please tell us more about these TEDx talks?
Pasternak and Orsi: Natalia is a lab researcher in Bacteriology, and she felt—feels—that scientists in general, Brazilian scientists in particular, are betraying their responsibility in educating the public. The media bombards the audience with advertisements for products that are clearly bogus—shampoos that promise to “restore hair DNA”, for instance—and not a single voice of protest is raised among those who know better, the scientists who actually work with DNA.
She calls attention to the fact that scientists are quite ready to appeal to the public when they need public support, for funding, for instance, but that they just forget all about it when everything is going smoothly. Scientists should be aware of their social responsibility and of the cost of scientific illiteracy to society.
Carlos’s talk draws from his experience of more than twenty years writing about science for the online audience. He notes that science news has always been a fertile ground for fake news—UFOs, conspiracies, health scares—and distils from that three questions that he suggests people ask themselves every time they find some piece of news that seems too good (or bad) to be true or that comes laced with language meant to rouse indignation or outrage: “What are they talking about?”; “What exactly are they saying?”; “How do they know?”.
Gerbic: Natália I am really interested in this Pergunte a um Cientista (Ask A Scientist) group you organize in Brazil. I love the idea of getting scientists into casual situations like at a pub to explain what it is like to be a scientist and answer questions about their research. One of the problems with this war on science we seem to be involved in these days is that people think scientists are some kind of elite group of people who mysteriously “do things” and would never speak in a language that an average person would understand. There is a lot of work to do to change that attitude, please give us a ray of hope that this is possible world-wide.
Pasternak: There are really two projects—Pint of Science Brazil, a franchise from the British Pint of Science, that I organize, that takes scientists to pubs and gets them to talk to the people there; and Pergunte a um Cientista, which is not organized by me; I am only a participant. It is organized by a group of undergrad and grad students from the University of São Paulo, called Via Saber (Path to Knowledge). This project takes scientists to the sidewalks of busy thoroughfares and places them literally at a table with people who just happen to be passing by and wants to ask questions or discuss science topics. The students keep encouraging passers-by to stop and talk to the scientists about specific themes. It is a more personal interaction than with Pint of Science, and it works really well. I took part twice and talked to several people for three hours nonstop. People asked about safety of vaccines and GMOs, use of pesticides, and alternative medicine. I felt like I could really make a difference in people’s lives.
I really enjoy both projects! Pint of Science is growing, with more and more scientists volunteering to talk at the pubs, and Pergunte a um Cientista is a great way to break this imaginary wall that separates the researcher from the public. Both projects get us out of our lab coats and talking to lay people in an informal environment. But although I am a big fan of these science communication projects, I feel that we need to take the next step and go into science political activism. We need to pressure the government for science-based public policies, and we need to educate the population to start asking for that kind of evidence.
Gerbic: Carlos you are a science journalist. Here in America (and around the world) journalists are facing an ever-increasing mistrust. From what I understand, budgets are being cut in newsrooms, and the science journalist is usually one of the first to go. If they stay, they are asked to do more and more of the tasks that used to be handled by support staff such as taking your own photographs, blogging, tweeting, and monitoring comments. It seems like it is inevitable that journalists will cut corners, not fully check source,s and double check the actual science. Mistakes will be made. When that mistake is revealed, then the public will throw it back in their face to say “See, we can’t trust journalists.” Carlos is there hope? And is there something we in society can do to help?
Orsi: Your description of the situation is quite accurate, Susan, but I would add one extra point: in the cutthroat world of the dispute for audience and attention among shrinking budgets, science news is not only a target for downsizing—which leads to the loss of quality as an unintended side effect—but also for deliberate loss of quality: with the selection of more “sensational” subjects, with an undue alarmist (or optimist!) tone imposed on the stories, and so on.
What can the public do? Support the good work that still exists. And get ready to pay for content—I really believe that the days of good journalism paid for by advertisements are over. Content that is free or very cheap for the consumer will be provided only by institutions or groups with their own funding and their own agendas (which could be laudable, like a skeptic news central, for instance, or not, like an extremist political organization) or by people who are desperate to be read (or heard, or watched), no matter what crap they need to publish to get your attention. Good, independent journalism will cost something to the reader.
Gerbic: I want to plug one very sweet story I wrote about a seven-year old girl living in São Paulo named Isabela. When I get frustrated and upset about pseudoscience in the world, I think of her. I might be an optimist, but I have great hope that we will move beyond the insanity we are experiencing today and think that we might be on the verge of a “Sputnik Moment” where the world wakes up and says “What happened to us? Why did we stop thinking critically and wasting our time arguing with people on social media?” I’m thinking of the children; they might be our biggest hope. Your thoughts?
Pasternak and Orsi: Children are always a source of hope, for sure, but we cannot forget that they live in an environment that was, and is, created by the adults of the previous generations. If we want rational, skeptical, and critical thinking adults in the future, adults that today are children, we must first get to the adults of today to give proper education and opportunities for their children.
The Isabela story is wonderful, but it begins with a skeptical, science-oriented dad. To have more Isabelas, we need more dads like him. So, I would say, yes, let’s focus on educating our children to think rationally. But let’s help them educate their parents as well!
Gerbic: This year’s CSICon is bigger than ever as we outgrew our last location. Lots of new speakers I’ve never heard before, and many I’m happy to hear from again, so I’m pretty excited about the lineup. Who are you excited to meet?
Orsi: Well, everyone, really. Talking personally about myself (Carlos here!), I am a huge fan of Joe Nickell and his investigative files. Won’t get to his workshop (have another at the same time), but if I can shake his hand and get a book signed and babble something embarrassing, it will make me very happy!
Barry Karr, of course, who has been so generous to us; and to see James Randi, another source of inspiration: a big turning point in my journalistic career came when I read his words in Flim-Flam!, damning the irresponsibility of the press for the prevalence of much pseudoscience. I took that as a personal challenge, really. To read The Faith-Healers was another momentous time in my life. I wouldn’t have written my first skeptical book if it were not for Nickell and Randi.
Pasternak: Talking about myself, and of course this is Natália speaking, you put me in a very difficult situation Susan; I want to meet everyone! I grew up reading Richard Dawkins, and it was probably one of the reasons I became a biologist. I have my copy of The Selfish Gene in Portuguese, ready for him to sign!Meeting James Randi would also be thrilling; I remember reading about him first in Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World and chasing after his work ever since. I’ve used his talks and videos in my classes and as references in my articles. And of course, I am really anxious to meet you and Barry Karr, who have already helped us so much in our ambitious goal to restore the skeptic movement in Brazil.
Gerbic: I think I’ve taken up enough of your time here. I’m very glad to make your acquaintances and hope to be able to meet you in person at CSICon. As I look at what you are doing to popularize science in Brazil, I think we have a lot to learn from you both. Please tell us how readers can find you if they are interested in your work.
Carlos: Most of my non-fiction work is available only in Portuguese, I am afraid. If any of your readers are fans of murder mysteries, I’ve been published twice in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (last time this year!), and I have some science fiction and horror around in English, too.
Natalia: Most of my work in sci-comm is also in Portuguese, but my TEDx has English subtitles, and I wrote a piece for Skeptic on Brazilian cancer quackery that can be viewed here.
Gerbic: I have read many of the Ellery Queen mysteries and years ago used to subscribe to the mystery magazine; I might have to re-subscribe? Thank you both! Don’t forget that CSICon will be hosting a pajama themed Halloween party on Saturday, October 20 at 8 p.m.