Bolsanaros' big squeeze –why academic defenestration poses almost as big a threat to Brazil as Amazonian deforestation
“It looks like the current government don’t know how to deal with real data.”
I recently presented at Breaking Convention, a biennial multi disciplinary conference focussed on psychedelic consciousness. Held in the austere 17th century belly of Christopher Wren’s Greenwich university campus buildings, the conference attracted (as contemporary conferences about psychedelics increasingly do) a ‘standing room only’ crowd drawn as much from the cultural world of the Venture Capitalist’s ski lodge as the Shaman’s sweat lodge.
The Dionysian side of the psychedelia was thus on full display, and whilst I think the wholesale repudiation of the relative importance of such elements of the psychedelic community is as myopic as it is small minded, my personal, Plain Jane bias, is to find out about how the hard science investigation of psychedelic compounds could help yield improvements in the treatment of mental health. An increasingly representative and reputable body of mental health professionals are similarly advocating the case for the potential utility of psychedelics in this way.
It was this inclination that saw me attend the neuroscience symposia on the Saturday of the conference - in particular to digest the work of Stevens Rehen.
BRAZILIAN BRAIN DRAIN
Rehen is a prominent stem cell biologist whose lab has been generating some very promising findings that potentially implicate a host of psychedelic compounds in the cellular influence of such health care holy grails as neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. A full discussion of the work is beyond the scope of this article – suffice to say, anyone who has serious interest in the treatment of Down syndrome, depression and neurodegenerative illness is wont to see this nascent line of neurodevelopmental enquiry intensively pursued by people like Rehen and his team.
Rehen presented slide after slide showing promising results, and it became apparent that the Brazilian research community has been instrumental in furthering the stem cell work of Nobel Prize winners like Shinya Yamanaka. The recent generation of three-dimensional tissue structures (called organoids) poses great promise for the modelling of developmental disorders and in 2016 such advancements were key in helping confirm the causal link between Zika Virus and Microcephaly in Brazil.
At the tail end of his presentation, amidst this heady and high quality research, Rehen produced the most parochial (but arguably the most consequential) of all the slides.
He outlined how, on the 23 July 2019, government soldiers in full military fatigues entered a meeting being held by the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). They interrupted a talk being given by Sidarta Ribiero, a Brazilian neuroscientist and a researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Natal. Sidarta was relaying the results of a commissioned report into the dire state of research in Brazil under President Jair Bolsanoro’s administration. The soldiers began filming Ribiero’s talk, in what Stevens suggested might have been a flagrant, “show of intimidation”.
Rehen then contextualised this occurrence with reference to the building conflict between President Bolsanaro’s right wing regime and the Brazilian scientific community. Such an occurrence constitutes a slew of ‘bad news stories’ for the Brazilian science. Whilst it is not fair to say that reduction of fiscal support for the sciences began with Bolsanaro’s administration (A draft of the SBPC report details a decline in science funding that began with a major recession in 2014), since his inauguration in January 2019 the country's science and communications ministry (MCTIC) has had some 42% of its’ budget frozen and The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development - Brazil’s main science funding agency - will have to suspend more than 80,000 scholarships to postdoctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students starting in September. Rehen is already conscious that government attempts to gut the scientific community is starting to take its toll;
“It is in the whole academy. It stared with some discussions with social scientists - but now it has spread to hard science - people are leaving the country, [and Brazil is experiencing] brain drain'“
CONVERSATION vs VIOLENCE
Rehen’s was the last talk of the symposium, and the panel of neurologists and neuroscientists then assembled to field questions from the audience.
The panel discussion quickly collapsed onto the very important (but very abstract) considerations of things like the sentience of these brain organoids. As is often the case at such things –
it went from zero to, ‘hard problem of consciousness’ in about 60 seconds.
My limited brain was adrift, and I found myself unable to invest in these discussions. I was still reeling from the more proximal issue that government soldiers had, seemingly uninvited, sauntered in to a conference of scientists exercising their constitutional right to convene, and started filming, in a vulgar attempt at intimidation of the academy. That this had occurred in Brazil (a federal representative democratic republic of some import) was concerning to me.
What was however even more concerning was that the panel did not see fit to zone the discussion in on this issue. It was as if such an occurrence had not even been reported.
The fragility of stable, peaceful democracy (and its’ sustenance primarily through discourse as opposed to the threat of violence) is not a mere hypothetical construct for people who have lived in its vacuum. I grew up Northern Ireland in the 80s, which meant growing up with the horrifyingly tedious reality that evening news bulletins announcing yet another collapse of ceasefire negotiations would usually be accompanied by a ‘chaser report’ of armed gunmen sauntering into small town bars and unloading sawn off shotguns into the faces of innocent customers, by way of retaliation. There was a time when such a chronology (i.e. breakdown in discourse followed by the threat or actuality of violence) occurred with nauseating frequency.
Sam Harris has previously been quoted as saying;
“We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That's it.”
For those of have lived through the grinding attrition of violent civil unrest in communities like Northern Ireland, such proclamations are axiomatic. The Northern Irish man on the street often grasped this stark dichotomy in a way the professor in the quadrangle often couldn’t, or wouldn’t . Caveats (regarding the definition and dimensionality of the terms, ‘conversation’ and ‘war’) aside, those of us who lived through the Troubles knew this much:
When people stop talking, sooner or later, bombs start exploding.
FEAR vs CURIOSITY
As I sat listening to the conference panel. I was conscious of my bias - some some associative cascade in my brain had no doubt prompted this reflection on my childhood awareness of the fragility of peaceful and intellectually open society, as on the way to the conference in Greenwich I had passed through nearby South Quay, where in 1996 members of the provisional IRA had exploded a flatbed trailer, killing two and wounding hundreds. This bomb came in the aftermath of a breakdown of political conversation. Personal safety, freedom of movement and freedom of expression are therefore not things I grew up taking for granted, and as I watched the panel pontificate on their field, seemingly at least unperturbed by Rehen's update, I therefore wondered if my belief that this important work was in jeopardy represent nothing but a bit of hyper-vigilant, paranoid flotsam amidst a sea of cooler heads, or an oasis of hard won wariness in a dessert of naive complacency?
Did the presence of the military at the recent Brazilian conference constitute a routine inspection of no real consequence, or the foothills of something much uglier?
As the panel discussion slid into ever more philosophical considerations of ‘subjective character’ as outlined by Thomas Nagel, I found myself not wondering what it would be like to be a bat, but the rather less esoteric thought experiment of;
what would it would be like if soldiers were to walk into this packed auditorium with the intention to shoot people - not film?
I concluded that (as the tsunamis of fear flooded the brains of conference delegates as they clambered for the nearest exit) such discussions of neurological esoterica would be the first casualty. The limbic brain doesn’t - cannot - give a flying fuck about such ponderings.
Therein lies the rub of authoritarian intimidation - be it perpetrated by civilian terrorists or government soldiers;
The first thing to die is not physical safety (or even institutional continuity), the first thing to go is intellectual curiosity.
ATTACK ON EVIDENCE
In terms of international coverage, current levels of concern surrounding Bolsanoro’s campaign of academic defenestration have been dwarfed by a wave of journalistic indignation surrounding recent reports of Amazonian deforestation under his government. Brazil’s portion of the Amazon lost more than 1,330 square miles of forest cover during the first six months of this year, a 39 percent increase over the same period last year.
The discord recently crystallised into a very public flashpoint between Presdient Bolsanaro and Ricardo Galvão, the former head of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Galvão’s agency has been instrumental in using satellite imaging technology to aid the Brazilian government in tackling deforestation. From 2004 to 2012, the rapid imaging feedback system resulted in rates of deforestation falling to record lows.
On Friday, 19 July 2019, the president publicly criticised Galvão during a news conference with the international press, accusing him of lying about the data surrounding the deforestation';
"The issue of INPE, I have the conviction that the data are liars. I even sent to see who is the guy who is in front of INPE. He will have to come explain here in Brasilia this data there that passed to the press worldwide , which our feeling does not match the truth. It even seems that he is at the service of some NGO, which is very common."
Galvão, did not take kindly to this accusation;
The first thing I can say is that Mr. Jair Bolsonaro needs to understand that a President of the Republic cannot speak in public, especially at a press conference, as if he were in a botequim conversation. He made inappropriate and unsubstantiated comments and made unacceptable attacks not only on me, but on people working for the science of this country. He said he was convinced that INPE's data are a lie. More than offensive to me, it was very offensive to the institution. (...) He has taken a pusillanimous, cowardly attitude to make a public statement perhaps hoping I will resign, but I will not. I hope he calls me to Brasilia to explain the data and that he has the courage to repeat, looking face to face in my eyes. I am a 71-year-old gentleman, a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, I will not accept such an offence. He who has the courage to face up to what he is doing. It's a botequim offence. I will not answer him and he is the one who should call me personally and also should have the courage to tell me that face to face”.
This formidable retort is what is likely to have ultimately got Bolsanaro fired. Publicly calling into question the courage and intellectual prowess of a president of Bosanaro’s ilk is not likely to stand.
PARSING ‘REACTIONISM’ FROM EMPIRICISM
Somewhat predictably, ecological activists have taken to ‘Tropical Trumps’ antics with reactionary fervour, dousing the Brazilian embassy in London in red paint and calling for ‘climate grief co-counselling sessions’ outside the Washington DC embassy. To conflate Galvão’s nuanced opposition with such sentiment is, however, to perhaps to miss the deeper threat he might be warning against.
His defiant statement does not read as Rosseauesque (when asked in a recent scientific american interview to comment on President Bolsonaro’s stated goal of opening the Amazon to mining and farming, Galvão responded by saying, “Naturally, we have to explore the Amazon—but very carefully”), but rather seems to take particular offence to the President’s offhand and wholesale dismissal of his expertise, alongside that of the organisations who are tasked with advising the government. The recent dismissal of Galvão might reveal something even more troubling. The current Brazilian administration and its premier might be engaged in;
The repudiation of expertise and empiricism itself.
Viewed through this lens, this cannot therefore be dismissed as just another public tiff between two stubborn men ‘spitting the dummy’ at each other. Rejecting the very notion of expertise is an early societal step down a toxic road. Comparative history teaches us that whilst not all wholesale rejections of independent expertise (i.e. existing outside of the central government administration) indicate authoritarianism per se, all authoritarian regimes are eventually characterised by a wholesale rejection of independent expertise. Freedom of speech and the selection of conversation over violence is what undergirds the competitive development of expertise and empirical finding within the academy. This in turn is true is the life blood of true science as it informs public policy. Potentially losing such a mooring is a big, big deal. All can fall under the bulldozer of such a circumstance, from the Amazon to the Organoid.
BODEGA OFFENCE OR BOARDROOM STARTEGY?
In, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters - Thomas Nichols outlines his theory that the disintegration of trust in expertise has been a key factor in the polarisation of American Culture;
'“…experts being wrong on occasion about certain issues is not the same thing as experts being wrong consistently on everything. The fact of the matter is that experts are more often right than wrong, especially on essential matters of fact. And yet the public constantly searches for the loopholes in expert knowledge that will allow them to disregard all expert advice they don’t like”.
Could it be, that far from a careless ‘Botequim offence’ (i.e. a bumbling slur from the patron of a neighbourhood bar) - the President’s comments and actions to de-legitimise the authority of the academy and defund its purse, form a part of a larger anti-intellectual campaign that strategically appeals to aspects of his base?
RESTORING THE CITADEL
In optimally functional democracies, the scientific community can be thought of as a sort of metaphorical ‘citadel’ - tasked with the generation and safeguarding of intellectual authority. In healthy democracies, this intellectual authority constitutes a node of legitimate power, existing in relation to (but outside the metaphorical walls of) the presidential palace. It serves two seemingly opposed functions;
It presents its node of power (i.e. its intellectual authority) as a source of counsel to help the best impulses of the palace - thus promoting human flourishing characteristic of true democracy ,
and can also withhold this node of power from the worst impulses of the palace - thus protecting against the perennial risk of the state monopolising power and authority - characteristic of totalitarian regimes.
This healthy tension is accepted by well integrated administrations who understand that, whilst they are well within their rights to challenge the conclusions of the academy, they need to be held accountable to the state of nature by something outside of themselves. Those with authoritarian leanings however know that challenging the very belief that, ‘the intellectual citadel is the true custodian of authority’ is a classic and effective move to resolve this tension in favour of more tyrannical and centralised control of the populace. Where Bolsanaro stands and lands in relation to such a proposition, only time will tell, but the unscheduled and unrequested presence of soldiers at a scientific conference and the professional assassination of detracting scientists would seem like a range finding shots across the ramparts of the citadel.
RESEARCH AT RISK
Legitimate researchers in the field of psychedelic science have always struggled with government funding and mainstream acceptance. Private philanthropy from funders like Tim Ferris has been the MO for funding a lot of the research which has fuelled the current renaissance. The great irony is that psychedelic researchers in Brazil had previously been able to somewhat circumnavigate such difficulties experienced by their European and North American counterparts, because the cultural status of psychedelic compounds in their country has been more integrated into society. For example, the Federal Drug Council In Brazil has consistently upheld the right of the Santo Daime Church to legally utilise ayahuasca for devotional purposes.
But now, given the current political situation Rehen does not feel his life’s work is safe from such a governmental purge. In a recent podcast interview he alluded to how much easier it is for the government to break things than to make them;
“What has made me angry and sad is how fast and easy it has been to destroy the scientific community the consequence for our country is going to be the worst possible - we are talking only, around 6 months this government has been in power - these guys are going to be in power for four years how the scientific community will survive on that? - how the country will survive without science? This is the question, we don’t the answer.”
Rehen is a careful scientist, not prone to speculation when it comes to politics or research, but given recent the promising results his lab has demonstrated he is understandably concerned that the predicted jugular cut to his funding would stop such important work dead in its tracks. Regardless how groundbreaking the work might turn out to be, his staff need to eat and pay their bills, and the lab will close if they cannot do this.
Off- mic and after our podcast interview, Stevens outlined a dozen or so confidential lines of enquiry he is particularly excited about. If but one of them pans out to some applicable treatment, the benefits for those of us who manage conditions like Depression, Alzheimers and Down Syndrome could be significant. The likely outcome if his funding is castrated is that the brain drain will continue, and potential progress into possible treatments for these conditions will be lost in its wake. Mental health issues and neurodegenerative conditions are infamously not subject to socio-economic, ideological or geographical boundaries - they possess a tragic capacity to unite us in our humanity.
It would stand to reason that research into these conditions shouldn’t be subject to political cycles either.
The travesty is that the figures needed to fund such projects, in the grand scheme of things run into only the tens of thousands of dollars - not millions. For the price of a few mid-range luxury sedans. the price to run fiscal interference and give his lab security from the heavy handed interference of the government is, in the grand scheme of things, tiny.
RUNNING INTERFERANCE - CONVERSATIONALLY AND FISCALLY
What has been known in the psychotherapeutic community for a long time is that the best way to ensure physical and psychological safety is the presence of two ‘sitters, ’ or ‘guides’. Michael Pollan outlined the primary purpose of such guides in his seminal New Yorker article, The Trip Treatment;
“Guides are instructed to remind subjects that they’ll never be left alone and not to worry about their bodies while journeying, since the guides will keep an eye on them. If you feel like you’re “dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc.—go ahead,” embrace it: “Climb staircases, open doors, explore paths, fly over landscapes.” And if you confront anything frightening, “look the monster in the eye and move towards it. . . . Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’ Look for the darkest corner in the basement, and shine your light there.”
The phenomenological investigation of the psychedelic experience is a dialogue with the unknown, and the scientific investigation of psychedelics is just the same - it is a dialogue. Advocates of psychedelic science could (and should) act as ‘sitters’ for the scientists themselves. It is their job to further this dialogue - to push out on untrodden paths and shine light into the darkest corners. It is our job to ensure that they are safe to do so.
Ricardo Galvão was ripped under duress from his telescope. Whether or not Stevens Rehen will continue to be able to stand by his microscope, depends on whether he has the support of his ‘twin sitters’ of cultural and fiscal interference.
Cultural interference should be run by journalists and advocates of psychedelic science, but this will not be enough. Philanthropists are needed to keep the lights on.
The squat pen of discourse is often regarded as the sole defender agains the thin sword of violence. But such an assessment overlooks the power of the coin.
When it comes to the defence of conversation money is important - - because money talks.