Happy Science And Angry Technology Are Not The Same Things

Science is in the dock, it seems. Experts are under attack; citizens are stirring the internet. At the same time, science is more important than ever. Communication about science should therefore be truly interactive, with a profound interest in each other’s motives. Simply ‘telling the story is no longer enough, argues Prof. dr. Hedwig te Molder in her inaugural address as professor of Science Communication at the University of Twente, on 15 September.

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Society does not just ‘talk back’ when it comes to science, but is already in discussion. That makes science and technology more ‘social’ than we often assume, is Te Molder’s starting point. However, according to her, we still see little of this dynamic image of science and technology in the theory and practice of science communication. The ‘happy science’ with which we already become acquainted at primary school is ‘finished’ and betrays little or nothing of its sometimes tumultuous development. On the other hand, the ‘angry technology’ we will be introduced to later on: in public debates, we mainly talk about the risks of new technologies.

Expertise and relationships
Happy science and angry technology clearly have their limitations. According to Te Molder, they obscure the interactional dynamics with which science and technology come about. Understanding these dynamics is crucial in understanding, for example, why science is a provocation for some people, and at other times grist to their mill. To this end, you will have to look not so much at the nature and content of expertise as such, but at the relationships between the participants in the debate, and what they achieve in that relationship by calling on knowledge and experience at certain times. We can characterize the online reports that the HPV vaccine can paralyze you like a piece of lay expertise, but that does not tell us what exactly this statement is a reaction to.

Science communication, according to Te Molder, is about more than telling the truth. It is about speaking rights that people attribute to or deny each other, and thus also about ourselves – our identity. This also explains the fierceness of the science and technology debate. Better communication between scientists and other stakeholders presupposes a deep interest in each other’s contributions to this debate – not so much in the arguments as such, but in the interactional concerns, they represent, such as a loss of autonomy or a vote of no confidence by the government. The authoritative position of science makes it controversial at the same time. The built-in presupposition that scientific claims show that the discussion is closed is precisely a communicative requirement that is disputed in science-society debates. Here there is a danger that the walls between science and society will be rebuilt instead of being broken down.

Hedwig in Molder (1967) is a professor of Science Communication at the University of Twente and a half-time associate professor at Wageningen University, section Communication Sciences. She is engaged in communication about science and emerging technologies, in particular in relation to the meaning of science and technology in everyday conversations. She has published on the role of experts and expertise in our society, and the significance of new (bio) technologies. A recurring theme within this research area concerns the role of online environments such as discussion forums on the Internet. In her internationally recognized work, she continuously establishes connections between different scientific approaches or domains (e.g. science communication with discourse analysis), and theory and practice (such as through the development of a scientific reflection method for experts and professionals). For her book Conversation and Cognition (Cambridge University Press, with Jonathan Potter) she received the Distinguished Book Award from the American Sociological Association.