Today, it is commonplace for doctors to wash and disinfect their hands thoroughly. The health risks involved in a failure to do so are well known, and the demands made on daily medical practice are consequently high. Nevertheless, when awareness of the link between the cleanliness of hands and infections was still something of a novelty, these demands met with massive resistance. The new facts were first presented by the physician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. His studies from 1846/1847 showed why the mortality rate of mothers from childbed fever was significantly higher in the obstetrics department of the General Hospital in Vienna, staffed by doctors and medical students, than in the ward where midwives assisted the births. This was mainly due to the fact that, unlike the midwives, the doctors started their day by conducting post-mortems and then simply rinsed their hands before delivering a baby.
Despite clear evidence that hygiene measures were extremely effective, it took a long time for these findings to be acknowledged as true by leading medical practitioners. A frequently advanced argument as to why Ignaz Semmelweis was unsuccessful with his hygiene demands assigns the blame to the emotional manner in which this physician fought for recognition of his new knowledge and facts. In a project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, Anna Durnová, a political scientist and Firnberg fellow, has investigated why this explanation does not entirely fit the bill.
A partitioning with consequences
Anna Durnová was struck by how much focus was placed on the emotional behaviour of Semmelweis. “This ignores the fact that both sides – Semmelweis and his opponents – were emotional,” says Durnová, “and today, many people tend to regard emotions as an indicator of unscientific behaviour.” The researcher is not comfortable with this tendency to separate science from emotions. Her discomfort was first triggered by the debates about “post-truth” from 2016 onward, when she observed that many scientific communities were rallying behind the defence of rationality and in clear opposition to emotions.
The massive March for Science rallies took a stand against any “post-factual era” and urged that more account be taken of scientific evidence in politics, for example as regards the climate policy of US President Donald Trump. This, however, fostered a one-sided picture of truth which Durnová describes as “rational, objective and opposed to emotions”. In her opinion, it is precisely the neglect and exclusion of emotions by one side that then delivers them entirely into the hands of populists and science refuseniks – thus giving rise to the “post-factual era”.
New insights trigger emotions
In her research work, Durnová focuses on the connections between emotions and knowledge: “What’s new here is that I want to identify and filter out the emotional moods inherent in controversies. This then makes it easier to understand why some new insight is the object of debate.” In her FWF project, the young scientist analysed the historical controversy surrounding hand hygiene and also various current disputes. And this is what she found out: knowing which emotions play a role and for what reason allows one to draw conclusions as to socio-political aspects, such as power plays, and social dynamics.
“Semmelweis’s hypothesis and his new knowledge were annoying and unwelcome for many doctors. They saw it as a threat to their status and reputation. In addition, they would have had to acknowledge a certain degree of responsibility and change their daily routines,” explains Durnová. In her eyes, “annoying” translates into an important emotional dynamic that can lead to a new insight being discredited as “untrue or dubious”. The analysis of discourses about emotions thus pinpoints the basis for an important distinction: Is a new insight perceived as annoying because it threatens power structures or a certain world view, or because it really is nonsensical from a scientific point of view?
Truth is “negotiated”
“I was interested in the crucial moment when something new has been discovered but is not yet generally accepted as being true,” adds the researcher, who works at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna and the Charles University in Prague. Her research work is thus based on the concept of “truth production”. This dynamic concept brings together both actors (i.e. scientists) and emotions, thus revealing that truth always also needs negotiating. Her approach understands emotions as part of truth production and looks at the following questions: Who labels something in a certain way and why? What emotions have an influence on how facts are accepted? If something is not accepted as being true, the blame does not necessarily lie in a rejection of facts or the emotional nature of individuals or groups. “Studies have shown that what is at stake here is not that opponents are unaware of the facts, but that they do not want to be aware of them. Given that we are talking here about social moods, a fact-checking approach does not get us any further,” explains the researcher.
Dividing a society into “rational/scientific” versus “unscientific/emotional” camps creates a threat to democratic systems: individuals or groups can be shut out of the discourse about truth, whilst new, unwelcome insights can more easily be denounced as fraudulent. Getting to the heart of controversies and thus being able to counter undesirable developments through better arguments would have been helpful in the past just as today. After all, facts are only one part of the problem. Emotions complete the picture.
Anna Durnová investigates the socio-political connections between emotions and knowledge. She is currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna and at the Institute for Public and Social Policy of the Charles University in Prague. Her approach to analysing the political aspects of the Semmelweis case study (see publications) met with great international interest and resonated within the science community.