Negotiating Truth: Project Description

‘Post-Truth’ was pronounced the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. What followed was a vivid defense of truth by scientists, journalists, and politicians. It seems we are on our way to abandoning the notion of truth as we know it: just look at the populist uprising that is turning Western liberal democracies upside down, and at the critique of academic knowledge during the Brexit debate or coming from the Trump administration. Scientists should raise their voices against the trend, and civil society should fight post-factualism—that is what we hear these days.

 How do we get a handle on this problem?

Using examples of scientific disputes, the project defines truth as a central instrument of power—as a sound knowledge supplying evidence to politics—and highlights emotions’ role in truth production (Durnova et al. 2016, Durnova 2015). Emotions enter evidence-making, they evaluate the range of actors and make them entitled to pronounce public concerns, and as such emotions have to be recognized as integral parts of knowledge-making with an impact on policy processes. We can’t fight post-factualism by highlighting rationality.

We have to negotiate what ‘truth’ is

Evidence-based political responsibility calling for the integration of scientific knowledge engendered the dichotomy of modern societies of civil rationality being threatened by uncivil emotionality (Alexander 2006 & 2014). As a result, emotions have served as a way to delegitimize both knowledge and the actors who harnessed emotions. Being consequently limited to be the tools of social movements, empowerment strategies, and revolutions’ trump cards, emotions have been raised to be seen as virtues sine qua non for those who are against the establishment and against accepted truth. We therefore need to understand better the interplay of emotions in truth production. We need to overcome the dichotomy of rational-emotional to analyze what values and beliefs are wrapped up in a particular emotionality.

 Why Semmelweis?

While hand hygiene has become a cornerstone of Western medical practice the historical Ignaz Semmelweis case demonstrates that the practice of hand washing was established as part of a scientific dispute in which emotion, discourse, and power played crucial roles. Ignaz Semmelweis’s assumption that physicians disinfecting their hands led to a significant reduction in cases of childbirth fever—a widespread, fatal disease in the 19th century among birthing mothers—grew into a vicious dispute over the duty of hand disinfection as a measure against childbed fever. Notably, Semmelweis failed to prevail over that dispute in his lifetime.

His discovery is emblematic of a political moment to truth. It divides actors into either advocates or opponents, with no middle ground: either doctors were on his side, or they were against him. The analysis has identified beliefs and values that have been crucial for the enrollment of the controversy: the fact that women giving birth at hospitals at that time were mostly unmarried and from the lower classes had justified a set of theories that childbed fever is a female disease related to the psychosocial state of the minds of mothers and to their social conditions. That obstetrics was being established as an independent sub-discipline of medicine at the same time of Semmelweis’s discovery made his data uncomfortable and challenging and nurtured obstetricians’ professional conflict with midwives. Through this emotion-laden dynamic, Semmelweis’s discovery was elevated to a political instrument justifying the role of midwives as much as it was blaming obstetrics practitioners, and created the public concern of hospital hygiene that has continued to the present day.

 The Negotiating Truth uses Semmelweis’s dispute as an analytic blueprint to investigate a range of contemporary cases that demonstrate the recurrent fight for truth and its embeddedness in politics: one such contemporary case is represented by the international March for Science demonstrations in April 2017.


Published results:

In den Händen der Ärzte, Residenzverlag, 2015: available here

“Negotiating Truth” – Semmelweis and the Role of Emotions in Public Policy: Policy & Politics Journal Blog: available here

“Semmelweis-Lecture”, Keynote Address at the Annual conference of the Surgical Infection Society:”Negotiating Truth:Semmelweis, Discourse on Hand hygiene and the Politics of Emotions”: available here