Negotiating Truth: Semmelweis, Discourse on Hand Hygiene and the Politics of Emotions

Project Lead: Anna Durnová
Duration: 2012–2018
Funding: Austrian Science Fund (FWF), Hertha Firnberg Programme, TG592-G15

The project advances a new concept of understanding public policy through emotions. Emotions are neither causal factors nor urges that motivate actions: the Negotiating Truth project defines emotions as performed experiences of values and beliefs that enter evidence making and evaluate the range of actors, entitling them to pronounce public concerns.

As such emotions must be recognized as integral parts of truth production, with an impact on policy processes. The project set the stage with the key medical dispute of the 19th century, initiated by Viennese gynaecologist Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (see in: Durnova, 2015). Semmelweis claimed that “childbed fever,” a disease that afflicted many women giving birth in hospitals, could originate in the fact that doctors did not disinfect their hands before assisting in the birth. His thesis grew into a dispute over the duty of hand washing among physicians.

The Negotiating Truth uses Semmelweis’s dispute as an analytic blueprint to investigate a range of contemporary cases that demonstrate the recurrent “attacks on truth”: one such contemporary case is represented by the public defense of scientific truth in U.S. public discourse during the first year of the Trump presidency. Their analysis shows several contestations in the relationship between scientific expertise and democratic governin that can be explained through the analysis of the role of emotions in truth production.