Scientists are angry with Brasilia’s federal government. So is much of society. Fear, anxiety and frustration are the daily companions of tens of millions. Cynicism and disengagement are commonplace among ordinary Brazilians.
No matter how you look at it, the slow-motion breakdown of Brazil’s system of democratic governance shows its politicians are in urgent need of some help. So, can science help politics?
Yes – but not through the traditional analytical avenues of political science. And certainly not by continuing as a weakened client of the political system, with its budgets, and bolstering of unfathomable favouritisms known as “science policy.”
Instead, science offers some fundamental lessons on how to organise our knowledge of the universe and its processes, how to organise collective endeavours, and above all how to place empirical truth above individual needs and vanities. It should be a shining example.
Because science is about truth and not “the art of the possible,” politicians of all stripes would do well to pick up a test tube from time to time and humble themselves by getting a small-scale experiment wrong. Better than the folly of conducting wasteful large-scale experiments on a 190 million strong demographic, whose repercussions will be felt for generations.
Just as the business of governing and ordering societies should itself be, science is a great collaborative endeavour in which the objective is to advance empirical truth for the benefit of all, rather than just for the few.
In the abstract world of particle physics, for instance, there’s a verifiable chain of evolving thought that can be traced backwards from the discovery in 2013 of the Higgs Boson through the agency of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN– at US$13 billion mankind’s largest and costliest shared terrestrial experiment. Before its discovery, the Higgs Boson was predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics – which in turn depended on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and field equations. These in turn depended on the work of Keppler and Isaac Newton. They in turn depended on Galileo, who himself required the classical errors of Ptolemy’s cosmology to overturn.
As Newton himself said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Yet while individual opinions and shared views (even those of the Catholic Church when it came to Galileo’s discoveries) must bow before verifiable or observed truths from the laboratory or the observatory, coalition-driven politics with a populist overlay as typically seen in Brazil, tends to work exactly the other way around.
As Brazil’s politicians keep on making the same mistakes over and over again, there’s a bleak sense of the 1980s creeping back into public life. It’s just as though the lab notes from 30 years ago got lost or burned and the whole experiment has to be repeated.
This wearisome process of elimination – stubbornly testing every possible wrong outcome until the right one is finally stumbled upon – is reminiscent of least efficient forms of drug discovery.
What happens in this pseudo-scientific process is that a hypothesis – more familiar using the popular term campaign promise – is advanced by candidates or parties before each election. But this cannot be properly field-tested and verified during once the administration is in power. This is because the objectives get sacrificed to the business of retaining power, and the original hypothesis forgotten.
It’s a commonplace that Brazil is suffering a crisis of governability as a governance system based upon weak and shifting congressional coalitions tends to distort the best-designed goals and objectives. Viewed from a scientific perspective (in which the hypothesis must be tested to ascertain its truth), politics operates just the other way around: truth must be put at their service or ideologies or convictions of powerful individuals or groups known as parties.
This is especially ironic, as the origin of the “Order and Progress” motto on Brazil’s national flag was the 19th century Positivist movement that claimed (rightly or not) to have its roots in science. In fact Brazilian Republicanism always prided itself on being modern and scientific in outlook.
It’s also true that any alien focussing his lens on the scurrying antheap that is Brasilia’s Praça dos Tres Poderes would be impressed at the astonishing resilience of the institutions, regardless of individual standards of behaviour. In the Supreme Court – all thanks to prosecutor-general Rodrigo Janot and federal judge Sergio Moro – writs of stunning seriousness are routinely served on the highest in the land. Meanwhile the executive and legislative powers continue a stately dance as they wrangle for power. The system is working despite the best attempts of legislators are trying to wreck it.
Before being released into the lab to handle hazardous materials, scientists receive training, preparation and protective gear; while all their actions are guided by scientific method which is predicated upon the principle they are advancing collective understanding, not their own interests.
Contrast this with Brasilia’s congress, where the hazardous material loose in the chamber is money. Dozens of politicians are now under investigation for influence trafficking, including the heads of the upper and lower houses and at least one former president. From here it is a short and predictable stop to the Mensalão, Lava Jato, Petrolão, Pedaladas and so on. And a transparent clash of rival systems that might elsewhere be known as a debate or a stress test – becomes labelled as an attempted coup d’etat.
So what can science teach politics? Let’s dispel the idea that there is such thing as “political science” – which in large part is post-rationalisation of the chaotic nature of the power process, and acknowledge that politics is no more (or less) of a science than economics claims to be.
Instead let’s look at how and where scientists have changed the map of human history with big collective experiments to galvanise our endeavours with a shared vision that has brought out the very best in the human race.
How our mastery of latitude and longitude allowed us to map our sea paths to everywhere, so mixing up cultures and races and knowledge. How in just one long generation, we have gone from powered flight to space flight. In just a few dozen generations, from caveman to spaceman.
How we have moved from idle conjecture about our place in the universe to actively searching for extraterrestrial intelligence using the Voyager probes, while the Planck satellite shows us how our universe began. How our sequencing of the human genome sweeps away artificial divisions of colour, race, nation, class or creed by showing our common genetic history.
How the taxonomic triumph of science has broken down both life and its constituent elements and energy forces into kingdoms, classes, orders, families, genera, species; then segmented organisms into tissues into molecules into atoms into nuclei, then into protons, then into quarks and then photons and gluons. And looking outwards from these tiny particles we grasp how the four fundamental forces holding gluons, photons and bosons together allow us to understand how inflation rippling across the scalar field of spacetime, drove the Big Bang.
All along the way observable, repeatable laws are discovered and defined. It’s a collaborative, iterative, sequential process. These, surely, are the kinds of disciplines that politicians should be studying to make them fit for the job of analysing, organising and directing complex societies.
But no. History demands that each successive leader remakes policy and the organisation of society in her or his image. The result is what triggered Karl Marx’s quintessentially political observation: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” The fundamentally Romantic nature of political endeavour – the conviction that tomorrow can always be made better and that sweeping away yesterday’s achievements is the way to start, exposes us to the selfsame narrative as the French Revolution and countless upheavls before or since. Youth fans this eternal flame, to singe the older who should know better.
Of course among scientists there are vanities, jealousies, egos, clashes between rockstars, and unseemly lusting after Nobel Prizes, professorships and grant-funding power. But taken as a tribe, scientists surely have much to teach the lawmakers (and some lawbreakers) in Brasilia. In fact, in all the world’s capital cities.
More Order and more Progress should mean more Science.