Published online 9 December 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1290

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Fearing the fear of nanotechnology

Hard data could help dispel scientists' preconceptions about the public, argues Richard Jones.

Nanoscientists have always had a degree of nervousness about the way that public opinion of their science might unfold.

nanotubeThe reasons for public concerns about nanotechnology often surprise scientists.Punchstock

This unease is underpinned by a set of preconceptions about people's reactions to new technologies in general. Some of these assumptions have now been tested by three studies published in Nature Nanotechnology, which survey public attitudes to the science1,2,3.

All too often, scientists treat the public as an undifferentiated mass. Indeed, sociologist of science Arie Rip, of the University of Twente in The Netherlands, goes so far as to identify widespread 'nanophobia-phobia' among nanotechnology insiders4 — an unreasonable and exaggerated conviction that a scientifically illiterate public with no appreciation of how to balance risks will reject a promising technology at the behest of an irresponsible media.

A more sophisticated analysis must recognize that the public is made up of different people with their own ideologies, through which they filter information about technologies and their risks.

Perhaps the most common of scientists' preconceptions is the idea that fear of technology arises from ignorance, and that public acceptance inevitably grows as people learn more about the technology. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, and colleagues call this the familiarity hypothesis, and have now shown that it is not true1.

People's views of nanotechnology can become more or less favourable as they learn more, the authors found, depending on their ideological starting point. So-called hierarchical individualists, who like free markets and respect the authority of social elites, find more to approve of in nanotechnology as they grow more familiar with it. Conversely, more information seems to give 'egalitarian communitarians' more to be concerned about.

An ocean apart

Another well-worn preconception sees the American public as gung-ho, pro-business technology enthusiasts, whereas Europeans tend to be green-tinged and averse to technology. The results of two public dialogues on nanotechnology held in parallel, one in Santa Barbara, California, and one in Cardiff, UK, throw light on this issue.

Psychologist Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University, and colleagues found surprisingly little difference in outlook between the two groups2. People generally accepted the promise of the technology, and in spite of a lack of knowledge, believed that benefits would outweigh risks.

But there were differences. The UK group made a connection between the potential risks of nanotechnology and perceived past regulatory failures; for example, with genetically modified organisms, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and foot-and-mouth disease. There was also a contrast between more consumerist values in the United States and community-based concerns in the United Kingdom. For example, the UK group worried that the potential medical applications of nanotechnology would benefit only the wealthy.

In light of Kahan's study, it might be tempting to interpret these transatlantic differences as a consequence of differing political outlooks, with hierarchical individualists being more common in the United States, and a broad tendency towards egalitarian communitarian views in the United Kingdom. But there is another obvious difference between these two countries — the role of religion.

The stem-cell debate shows that the American public is not uniformly in favour of all technology, and religious attitudes are clearly important here. Dietram Scheufele, a science-communication expert at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and colleagues argue that religion is important for nanotechnology too3. Their US telephone surveys reveal that a high degree of religiosity is strongly correlated with an individual's rejection of the statement "nanotechnology is morally acceptable". At the national level, more people in European countries agree that nanotechnology is morally acceptable than in the United States, and the researchers link this with national differences in religiosity.

What is this thing called nanotechnology?

But can one assume, as these studies do, that there is a single thing called nanotechnology, to be simply summed up and characterized as morally acceptable or unacceptable? Even among nanoscientists there can be serious differences about what constitutes nanotechnology, and the information available to the public about that field is strongly coloured by the ideologies of its originators, whether they are boosters of nano-business, environmentalists or enthusiasts for human enhancement.

In taking on the familiarity hypothesis, Kahan's team has dealt another blow to the 'deficit model' of science communication: the idea that given the facts (whatever they are), the public will happily support new technologies.

But the nature of the information available to the public is still important, and these studies suggest that scientists might do more to learn how to frame information in a way that enlightens people with diverse values, rather than simply reinforcing their preconceptions. 

Richard A. L. Jones is a polymer physicist at the University of Sheffield, UK, and is Senior Strategic Adviser for Nanotechnology for the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Read more at his Soft Machines blog.

  • References

    1. Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Slovic, P., Gastil, P. and Cohen, G. Nature Nanotech. advance online publication doi:10.1038/nnano.2008.341 (2008).
    2. Pidgeon, N., Herr Harthorn, B., Bryant, K. and Rogers-Hayden, T. Nature Nanotech. advance online publication doi:10.1038/nnano.2008.362 (2008).
    3. Scheufele, D. A., Corley, E. A., Shih, T., Dalrymple, K. E. and Ho, S. S. Nature Nanotech. advance online publication doi:10.1038/nnano.2008.361 (2008).
    4. Rip, A. Science as Culture 15, 349 (2006). | Article |
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