All But Naive. On the Importance of Articulating Hidden Moralities in Public Discussions on Science

All But Naive. On the Importance of Articulating Hidden Moralities in Public Discussions on Science

Author: Hedwig te Molder, Wageningen University, Netherlands

Co-author: Wytske Versteeg

This paper examines the role of ‘hidden moralities’ in public discussions, in which a scientific truth, such as what healthy food is or real ADHD, is juxtaposed against ‘mere’ belief or experience. On the basis of a discourse analysis of public radio debates on ADHD (UK) and the flu shot (Netherlands), we argue that this type of debate – which apparently only deals with contested knowledge – touches moral issues of identity that are just as essential for the course of the debate as they are hard to recognize.

It is shown that callers use their experience as entry ticket to the debates, and then position it as having relevance beyond their own, individual domain. Rather than directly rejecting these claims, the radio hosts undermine callers’ experiential knowledge by portraying the callers as blindly trusting their own experience and therefore being naive. Callers subsequently use scientific knowledge, and allusions to scientific procedure in particular, to prove their ‘epistemic vigilance’. The results suggest that it is not so much the callers’ epistemic claims that are at stake here, but first and foremost their identity as a potentially gullible and non-rational person.

More broadly, the results provide a possible explanation for the frequent contestation of factual sources in public exchanges. If epistemic claims are tightly interwoven with identity work, such contestation might not be so much a matter of distrust in science, as is often argued, but a demonstration of one’s critical attitude. ‘Lay’ participants use both science and experience to show that they are all but naive. If we want to conduct fruitful discussions and include non-scientists in a better way, uncovering this everyday moral dimension is crucial. Science communication research should therefore not restrict itself to organized debates on science and technology but also include real-life discussions on these matters.