During the recent presidency of the politically and religiously conservative Jair Bolsonaro, science denial flourished in Brazil. This was most conspicuous during the height of the COVID pandemic when he promoted prevention and treatment measures not backed by science while disregarding lifesaving ones.
But misinformation takes many forms—including fake news and conspiracy theories—and as a biology and science professor who researches both evolution and science education, I was particularly concerned about the Bolsonaro administration’s support of intelligent design. A rebranding of creationism, intelligent design purports that a master designer (aka God) created Earth and its life-forms. In practice, the movement spreads falsehoods and foments conspiracy theories about evolution. It has captured attention across the world, despite its lack of evidence and its purveyors often being well-funded by Christian organizations.
Five years before Bolsonaro took office, during the presidency of the more progressive Dilma Rousseff, I wrote a letter to Science, warning fellow academics about the risk of intelligent design to society’s understanding of evolution in Brazil and the world. Many Brazilian researchers and professors criticized me for giving publicity to what was supposedly a fringe movement, even though a center for intelligent design had already been created at a large Brazilian university.
After three years of Bolsonaro’s denialism rule, my warnings seem more prescient than alarmist. The Bolsonaro government has created the perfect opportunity for intelligent design to seek greater visibility, provide its leaders with greater political and media clout, and, incredibly, to give greater academic relevance to creationism. It is now up to the recently elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known popularly as Lula, to restore a belief in science and the separation of church and state; Lula should also make sure not to persecute the people who have come to believe that creationism defines life on Earth. Brazilian society will have to help.
Public funding may be playing a key role in the growth of creationism in Brazil. An intelligent design research group, led by two Ph.D. scientists from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, was approved by the Bolsonaro government to appear on Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), a public agency that approves and finances Brazilian research.
This group, linked to three large and prestigious Brazilian universities, is technically qualified to receive public funding, but it’s not clear if it actually is doing so. Still, this is intellectually worrisome. Two of the universities, the State University of Campinas and the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, are public, even though Brazil, like the United States, is a constitutionally secular state. The third, the private Mackenzie Presbyterian University, houses a research center for intelligent design associated with the Discovery Institute in the United States. The Discovery Institute is the de facto center of intelligent design; its almost seamless movement into Brazil demonstrates the ease with which creationism has begun to weave its way into society.
The research group says it focuses on “the philosophy of design.” But it’s not clear what that means; in practice, it seems to be engaged in diffuse and confusing lines of inquiry around topics in science, design, education, power networks and technological innovation. By questioning evolution in a seemingly scholarly way, the group can receive financial support from various sources and in various ways, by many Brazilian funding agencies, such as CNPq. The group is connected to other researchers, students and those who align themselves with this pseudoscience in art and technology. All in all, they have many opportunities to find financial support for this kind of denialist approach.
The group’s researchers include proponents of intelligent design as well as unabashed creationists, which makes it difficult to predict what kind of studies they will conduct. One of its members claims to have proof that dinosaurs lived together with humans and that a sample of dinosaurs was saved from a global flood on Noah’s Ark. Would any of his colleagues in this group publicly disagree?
This group member, Marcos Nogueira Eberlin, has also been involved with antivaccination efforts, the use of ineffective drugs against COVID and promoting false information about SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. The Institute of Chemistry at the University of Campinas, to which he belonged until he retired, has published a note vehemently refuting the validity of what he says.
And while the Bolsonaro government supported the intelligent design research group, lending governmental credence to a view that claims to debunk evolution, his government cut research funding in education and science, and decreased research scholarships for master’s degree students and doctoral candidates. This demonstrates the government's preference for pseudoscience and contempt for good quality science in Brazil.
A changing tide of religion underlies the Bolsonaro government’s support of creationist pseudoscience. Traditionally a Catholic nation, Brazil has experienced a recent growth of evangelical Protestantism, which in Brazil, tends to favor creationism. This religious change, combined with a trend toward authoritarianism in politics, has resulted in a perfect storm. To exemplify how central the religious issue is in Brazil, Bolsonaro and Lula started their 2022 electoral campaigns by trying to please the most radical evangelical segment of the electorate. Bolsonaro and his followers described the campaign as “between good and evil,” claiming that Lula would close the churches if elected. Lula, who was president before Rousseff and Bolsonaro, replied that Bolsonaro must be possessed by a demon.
Both overlooked, or flouted, the secular character of the Brazilian state, which is provided for in the constitution.
In October 2022, Bolsonaro lost the presidential election by a small margin to Lula. Yet it seems that the mixing of God and politics to the detriment of science will continue in Brazil, not only because many Bolsonaro supporters do not accept his defeat, but also because newly elected legislators in our House of Representatives and Senate who share Bolsonaro’s ideology will continue to carry out antiscientific, religiously oriented plans. I and others hope that Lula will heed the dangers of pseudoscience and once again value good science—something he seems to have begun to demonstrate by readjusting research grants early in his term.
And finally, the universities that have lent their good names to supporting the intelligent design project must change course and ensure that such pseudoscientific ventures do not receive government support. Only then will it be possible to undo Bolsonaro’s legacy of creationist pseudoscience.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.