Brazil’s Senate is currently pursuing an investigation of the President and the government’s responsibility for the high Covid death toll in Brazil. The Parliamentary Committee Inquiry was established on April 27th, 2021, and its members have been listening to witnesses, experts and persons of interest, hoping to clarify what actions – or lack thereof – drove Brazil to become the world’s example of what not to do when facing a health crisis.
I was called as an expert in science communication. This was a remarkable opportunity to bring scientific thinking and attitude to the Parliament in my country. I run an NGO in Brazil, Instituto Questão de Ciência, founded back in 2018 to promote science based public policies. Speaking to public officials about science, and how ignoring and denying it can have very serious consequences for the population’s health and wellbeing, has always been part of our mission. I just never thought an opportunity would present itself in such a high-profile and crucial way.
Being a microbiologist by training put me in a very special position during this crisis. My background gives me a solid understanding of the science behind the pandemic, and my experience in science communication and advocacy helps me present this to the widest possible audiences.
Bolsonaro’s government has been denying scientific evidence from the start, even before the pandemic. Our former Ministers of the Environment and of International Affairs were well known climate change denialists; and our still current Minister of Human and Women Rights denies evolution and challenges HPV vaccination. Denialism is not new to Bolsonaro’s cabinet, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that denialism would follow during the pandemic.
I started my deposition in the Senate by pointing out the government’s refusal to acknowledge the severity of COVID-19, its failure to plan ahead for the purchase of vaccines, to hold campaigns for mask wearing and social distancing, but most of all, I focused on the official promotion of miracle cures. Many Senators aligned with President Bolsonaro are sympathetic (when not outright enthusiastic) towards his defense the use of hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, and other unproven medications. I wanted to take this opportunity to show how science works.
I spoke about correlation and causation. I explained how a clinical trial is run. I talked about the difference between in vitro experiments, animal models, and actual human trials. I showed common fallacies used by denialists to “prove” that drugs or interventions can work, such as the use of anecdotal evidence and confounding factors.
Of course, I didn’t get to convince any of the government-sided Senators, and I knew that their strategy would be to attack the messenger, rather than to dispute the facts. What I didn’t expect, though, was that they would launch their attack days after my deposition. Maybe it took them some time to process what I had said, but, four days after my deposition, the aggression began.
Senator Luis Carlos Heinze, a dedicated defender of the use of “early treatment”, which includes all sorts of miracle cures, went on social media, accusing me of being a “fake doctor”, and of having a very low H-index when compared to that stalwart winner of the Rusty Razor Award, Professor Didier Raoult. I had indeed explained at the Senate that the so-called H-index is a metric (and a not very good one) used for academic productivity, and I am no longer a lab scientist, so although I still publish peer-reviewed papers, most of my work can be found in popular books and news outlets. I am a columnist for one of Brazil’s largest newspaper, I have two radio shows in Brazil’s largest radio station, I publish the only skeptical magazine in Brazil, and I run an NGO. So obviously my work – both qualitatively and quantitatively – cannot be measured by the H-index.
However, we know that facts don’t matter to denialists, so they started a defamation campaign. Other members of Congress joined in, making very funny claims. My favorite is “Natalia Pasternak is not a medical doctor. She never treated a single patient”. Hard as I try, I can’t see anything wrong with that statement. As I am not a medical doctor, isn’t it a good thing that I’ve never treated a patient?
Another very funny claim was that, by speaking against the miracle cures, and comparing it to “grandma’s tea” – a Brazilian expression that perhaps better translates as “a mother’s kiss”, meaning something cozy and comfortable, that will make you feel better regardless of having any real medical effect – I was actually being disrespectful of Native Brazilian traditions! How dare I say that herbal teas, so used by our indigenous population, are pseudoscience? Which, of course, is not what I said.
Even with the defamation campaign, speaking about the scientific method at the Senate was certainly a lifetime opportunity. I hope that it can pave the way for a more permanent interaction between scientists, science advocates and policy makers. I finished my deposition saying that a denialist government and a denialist president are to blame for the 500 thousand lives lost to Covid19 in Brazil. And I quoted Lee McIntyre: Denialism is not misinformation. Denialism is a lie. And we cannot allow denialists in positions of power.
I asked for the President’s impeachment, at the Senate session, during a Parliamentary Inquiry. And I did it with science. It might have been my greatest contribution to my country, as a scientist, as a skeptic, and as a science communicator. I just hope that the importance of this work, highlighted by the pandemic, is not forgotten immediately after the crisis is resolved. Science-based public policies are what can save us from future pandemics and crises. And we are not going to get them by remaining silent when denialism takes over governments. I am glad I had the opportunity to speak up, and the courage to do it.