"How do you know?": Everyday negotiations of expert authority

Wytske Barbara Versteeg

Research output: ThesisPhD Thesis - Research UT, graduation UT

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News headlines often argue that science has become just another opinion, that truth has died or that we have given up on facts. I employed Conversation Analysis in order to investigate this claim, basing my analysis on a corpus of health-related radio phone-in conversations, online conversations and coaching sessions. I studied interactions about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as example of a controversial field to which both experiential and scientific knowledge claims are highly relevant. I compared the negotiations of expertise in interactions about ADHD with those in conversations about vaccination, aspartame, diabetes and ALS.
I found that lay interactants collectively protect the symbols of science, even if their interpretation of what constitutes a scientific method is not necessarily correct. Speakers take care so as not to be seen as gullible or naïve. Both claiming scientific or factual expertise and disputing its authority when offered by others are an essential part of building a rational identity. What seems to indicate pure disregard for science often turns out to be an attempt to take a more scientific attitude. What is more, speakers' treatment of scientific expertise cannot be understood without taking the identity and accountability concerns into account that are relevant to the knowledge field in question. Because of this, one should be careful when speaking about the waxing or waning authority of scientific expertise in general.
If it is important to interactants to demonstrate their critical attitude so as to show themselves not gullible or naive, this is likely to have consequences for the way in which they receive and respond to information. Whereas science communicators typically see distrust in science as the problem, interactants themselves treat being (seen as) trusting as the main interactional problem. An increased awareness that it is often an important identity concern for interactants to position themselves as epistemologically vigilant might contribute to the quality of science-society interactions.
Based on this research, I argue that science has not become just another opinion. On the contrary; it seems as if we lack a language to discuss what matters, other than by disputing offered facts and claims to expertise. I suggest we stop deploring science’s alleged demotion to merely an opinion, and start wondering how we can solve - or even just discuss - the pressing problems of our time in a way that leaves room for other languages than science as we know it. Rather than lamenting the death of truth, we should (re)consider the consequences of our necessarily incomplete grasp of it.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Twente
  • te Molder, H.F.M., Supervisor
  • Raymond, G.T., Co-Supervisor, External person
Award date19 Dec 2018
Place of PublicationEnschede
Print ISBNs978-90-365-4692-8
Publication statusPublished - 19 Dec 2018


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