‘Science is not being treated as ‘just another opinion’ at all’

Author Wytske Versteeg will be defending her PhD thesis, entiteld ‘How do you know? Everyday negotiations of expert authority’, at the University of Twente on 19 December. The most surprising result? According to Versteeg’s research, science is not being treated as ‘just another opinion’ at all.

Wytske Versteeg used conversation analysis for conducting detailed research into conversations held in environments that usually are considered to be anti-scientific, such as online forums and programmes to which the audience can dial in.

Versteeg: ‘You see that speakers do the best they can to present themselves as critical, rational, and, above all, not naive. For example, people who are against vaccination question each other about the ‘raw data’, and they emphasise the extensive research they have carried out. Often, especially the mistrust of science is seen as a problem. But if you take a closer look at those conversations, it appears that people go to great lengths themselves to prevent others from seeing them as credulous. Both quoting and disputing science can be a way to establish such a critical and ‘scientific’ identity.’

The researched conversations were about varying topics. In addition to vaccination, the study comprised conversations about ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), vaccination, aspartame, ALS, and diabetes. ‘You see that the way of treating scientific expertise highly depends on what is further at stake. In the conversations between ADHD patients, for example, we see a lot of respect for experts, because they have the power to diagnose and therefore function as gatekeepers of the disease. Diabetes patients are much more critical in their statements on scientific expertise.’

The study has far-reaching consequences. ‘A detailed analysis of conversations shows what we usually do not notice, the water in which we are swimming. We hold each other responsible for a critical attitude, and have been encouraged by the government to do so. If you want to communicate about science, it is good to know that it may be important for your audience that they should not have to take your word for it. There is little point in complaining about the alleged declining authority of science. If the facts did not matter anymore, we would not go to such a lot of trouble to dispute them. Many conversations that seem to be dealing with the question as to whether something is or is not true, become in fact heated because something else is at stake. What does it mean to be a good citizen, parent or patient? We will have to start looking for a debate in which this kind of questions can be asked.’        

Janneke van den Elshout
Press relations (available Mon-Fri)