Participating in a Brazilian Panel on Science Journalism and Skepticism

June 5, 2013

Last July I was invited to São Paulo, Brazil, to speak on a panel about skepticism and the state of science journalism sponsored by Folha do Sao Paulo, the city's largest newspaper. A few hours before that I met for lunch in a mall with top science journalists, science bloggers, and skeptics in São Paulo, who accompanied me.

The panel was held on one of the top floors of the Folha do São Paulo building downtown. I'd been to Brazil several times, but never to São Paulo. Though it lacks the glamour and beaches of Rio de Janiero, São Paulo is one of the most populated cities in the world, and the commercial center of the country.

As we entered the building we passed a group of six or seven businessmen who had just stepped out of the elevator. The group of skeptics accompanying me looked surprised-almost like a movie star or rock band had just passed us. I asked about it, and I was told that one of the men was a very prominent politician in São Paulo, and in fact was a candidate for mayor in the last election.

We met with a representative of the newspaper and headed up to the press room. It was an interesting panel and lasted for about 90 minutes. We had professional real-time English/Portuguese translation via headphones, and for a while I pretended that we were in a clandestine United Nations enclave!

Many of the questions, somewhat to my surprise, dealt with religion. I was asked about some of the positions of (and disputes among) Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others. We also touched on the issue of widespread belief in religions such as voodoo and candomble in the country, and how they increase the public's acceptance of faith healers.

I learned that many topics that American skeptics may assume are universal are simply not widespread in Brazil. Subjects such as UFOs, crop circles, psychics, and Bigfoot are not unknown in the country but simply are not discussed or talked much about in the popular culture. Of far greater concern are topics such as faith healers (especially "John of God"), the rise of cults, and alternative medicine claims.

We covered a lot of ground in the hour and a half. We had a respectable turnout as well; the press room was not huge but it was mostly filled, and there were many excellent questions from the audience. To be honest I was slightly taken aback by the interest in my appearance, but I was told that I was one of the few internationally-known skeptics who had made a public appearance in the city-much less in the country-in recent years.

It certainly is true that organized skepticism tends to focus on North America, Europe, and Australia, with relatively little attention paid to South America, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. In my capacity with the Center for Inquiry I have tried to address this problem when possible. For several years I served as the Editor Jefe for the Spanish-language publication Pensar ("To Think" in Spanish), working along with Alejandro Borgo of Buenos Aires.

My Portuguese was pretty rusty, but my Portuspanish was passable. During a conference in Lima, Peru, I gave a twenty-minute speech in Spanish and though my diction and accent weren't perfect, the effort was much appreciated. (Later during that trip my language skills allowed Joe Nickell and I to investigate several regional mysteries including the Ica Stones and the Nazca Lines). Still, there is clearly much more that can be-and should be-done around the world, and we do have wonderful, hard-working representatives in many countries.

After the panel I was invited to socialize with the local skeptics and science journalists; unfortunately I had to rush off to the airport. São Paulo is a huge city with severe traffic congestion, and getting anywhere was an ordeal. (I actually ended up missing my flight, though Brazilian skeptic Kentaro Mori, a São Paulo native, was kind enough to arrange my flight and have a last-minute dinner with me).

Overall I had a wonderful time. It was great to connect with Brazilian skeptics and hear about their local and regional concerns. In our modern world (even with the Internet and Facebook) it's easy to become insulated from other people's lives and miss their real concerns. Travel is always a mind-expanding experience, and this was no exception.