Faith in knowledge

How does humanity see science and technology?

Fernanda De Negri, Luis Carlos Hernandez, Priscila Mello Alves

In recent years, ease of communication and social networks have given visibility to theses and ideas that were previously restricted to small groups of people without expression. Fake news and various conspiracy theories are expressions of this problem. Misconceptions, which oppose all the scientific knowledge accumulated over the millennia by mankind, became a subject of public discussion and gained unimaginable projection until recently.

An example of this is the “flat earth” theory which, from an obscure idea cultivated by unknown groups, has become the subject of public discussions on social networks. A search on google trends, a tool that shows historical series of the number of searches made on google for a given keyword, shows that the term “flat earth” has grown more than 5 times in the frequency that it is searched on google in 2017 , against historical standards. In the case of Brazil, the term terraplanist was virtually nonexistent in google searches until last year. This does not necessarily mean that more people have come to believe in this kind of theory, but that it has become the subject of more frequent debate, which is already an unusual and worrying fact.


The idea of ​​flat land is an extreme example of inscience. There are others not so exaggerated, but also far from established scientific knowledge. Doubting about the phenomenon of global warming against all existing scientific evidence is another critical example, as is the anti-vaccine movement. It is also worth mentioning the case of the approval, in 2016, by the Brazilian Congress, sanctioned by the then President of the Republic, of the use of phosphoethanolamine by cancer patients, without the substance having ever been tested on animals or humans (indispensable steps for development of a drug).

In this case, Brazilian society, through its representatives, simply ignored the scientific knowledge established for a supposed (and unrealistic) cure for cancer. Law 13,269, which authorizes the use of synthetic phosphoethanolamine by patients diagnosed with malignant neoplasia, is a bleak portrait of scientific ignorance.

Recently, a well-known North American researcher, Tom Nichols, published a book called "The Death of Expertise" on how knowledge has been viewed in American society in recent times. His thesis is that the disbelief of the average citizen in established technical and scientific knowledge has grown and, more than that, a movement of rejection of knowledge has grown.

Is it true that people have stopped (or are failing) to believe in scientific knowledge and the potential of that knowledge to improve people's lives? Are we really witnessing the growth of a global anti-intellectualism movement? Some clues on the subject can be found in a survey of a worldwide survey of sociocultural and political values, conducted in over 100 countries, called the World Values ​​Survey, and show a slightly different scenario.

Since 1981, this research has sought to assess changes in the values ​​and beliefs of humanity and how it impacts the social and political life of people around the world. The sample used in the survey is representative of almost 100 countries analyzed and, during its six editions, interviewed more than 400 thousand people. The following graphs refer to the latest edition, which covers the period 2010-2014, in which about 90,000 people in the world and almost 1,500 in Brazil were interviewed.

Faced with the statement that “science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable,” 58% of respondents very strongly agreed with it (they chose a score above 8 for the level of agreement, on a scale of 1 to 10). And that number has been increasing. In the 2005-2009 edition, those who responded in the same way had been 49%, the same number obtained in Brazil in 2010 to 2014. If we take all those who, to some extent (any number above 6), agreed to this affirmation, this percentage reaches 78% in the world, and 65% in Brazil.

To what extent do respondents agree with the statement, “Science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable.”


The synthesis is that, in Brazil, the recognition of the positive impacts of science and technology on everyday life, although it is the majority, is not as expressive as what is observed in the world average. Perhaps the peculiarity of Brazil lies in the significant number of people who claim to disagree with this statement: 13% of people interviewed strongly disagree that science and technology have improved our lives, compared to about 6% on the world average. On the other hand, the percentage of those who completely agree with the statement (index 10 on the scale, which represents part of the yellow bar) is 30%, much higher than the world average.

When the affirmative refers to the future, trust is a little higher both in the world and in Brazil. On the world average, about 80% of respondents agree to some extent with the statement that because of S&T, there will be more opportunities for future generations. In Brazil, this percentage is 74%, showing that the confidence in future impacts of S&T is even greater than the recognition of its present impacts. To some extent, these results reflect the confidence that people say they place in the institution as a symbol of scientific and technological progress: the university. Worldwide, 67% of respondents say they rely heavily on universities and in Brazil, 73%.

Why, if the trust in science and universities is so expressive, what explains the emergence of ideas and theories that go against all the knowledge accumulated by humanity so far? Do these ideas remain expressively minority and have only gained visibility in the recent period?

Another issue that may help to interpret these phenomena is the contrast between scientific knowledge and faith. In this question, the respondent is asked to say whether he agrees or disagrees (on a scale from 1 to 4, ranging from complete agreement to complete disagreement) of the statement that “when science and religion conflict, religion is always right” . In the world, 48% agree with this statement, compared to 43% who disagree (9% did not answer, a much higher percentage than in the other questions). In higher-income countries such as Germany, the USA, and South Korea, science has a preponderance over religion, to a great advantage. In Brazil, too, where faith in science seems to be greater than faith in religion: only 38 percent agree with this statement that religion is always right, and 52 percent disagree with it.

To what extent do respondents agree with the statement: “When science and religion conflict, religion is always right”


Despite all the recognition of the benefits of scientific and technological progress, humanity, except in developed countries, seems to be divided when scientific knowledge opposes religion. It remains to be seen whether this division would manifest itself only in complex subjects, such as the origin of life, about which science itself does not yet have all the answers, or whether it would be valid for undeniable truths, such as the shape of the earth. What the whole research seems to suggest is that the belief in scientific knowledge and the institutions that produce this knowledge is still prevalent.