Religious beliefs and public attitudes toward nanotechnology in Europe and the United States

Abstract

How do citizens make sense of nanotechnology as more applications reach the market and the mainstream media start to debate the potential risks and benefits of technology1? As with many other political and scientific issues, citizens rely on cognitive shortcuts or heuristics to make sense of issues for which they have low levels of knowledge2. These heuristics can include predispositional factors, such as ideological beliefs or value systems3, and also short-term frames of reference provided by the media or other sources of information4. Recent research suggests that ‘religious filters’ are an important heuristic for scientific issues in general5, and nanotechnology in particular6. A religious filter is more than a simple correlation between religiosity and attitudes toward science: it refers to a link between benefit perceptions and attitudes that varies depending on respondents' levels of religiosity. In surveys, seeing the benefits of nanotechnology is consistently linked to more positive attitudes about nanotechnology among less religious respondents, with this effect being significantly weaker for more religious respondents6. For this study, we have combined public opinion surveys in the United States with Eurobarometer surveys about public attitudes toward nanotechnology in Europe to compare the influence of religious beliefs on attitudes towards nanotechnology in the United States and Europe. Our results show that respondents in the United States were significantly less likely to agree that nanotechnology is morally acceptable than respondents in many European countries. These moral views correlated directly with aggregate levels of religiosity in each country, even after controlling for national research productivity and measures of science performance for high-school students.

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Figure 1: Relationship between strength of religious beliefs and moral acceptance of nanotechnology.
Figure 2: Link between views on moral acceptability of nanotechnology and support for regulations.

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Acknowledgements

This material is based upon work supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (grant no. SES-0531194). We gratefully acknowledge E. Hillback, S. Dunwoody and students in the Media and Society Research Group at the University of Wisconsin—Madison for their intellectual contributions to this project.

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D.A.S. and E.A.C. led the study design and data collections and took responsibility for planning and writing the manuscript. D.A.S., E.A.C. and T.S. analysed the data. T.S., K.E.D. and S.S.H. contributed at different stages of data collection, analysis and writing.

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Correspondence to Dietram A. Scheufele.

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Scheufele, D., Corley, E., Shih, Tj. et al. Religious beliefs and public attitudes toward nanotechnology in Europe and the United States. Nature Nanotech 4, 91–94 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nnano.2008.361

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