Nanotechnology 'culture war' possible, study says

Nanowire Lasers
Nanowire lasers are one new development of nanotechnology. Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

Rather than infer that nanotechnology is safe, members of the public who learn about this novel science tend to become sharply polarized along cultural lines, according to a study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The report is published online in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

These findings have important implications for garnering support of the new technology, say the researchers.

The experiment involved a diverse sample of 1,500 Americans, the vast majority of whom were unfamiliar with nanotechnology, a relatively new science that involves the manipulation of particles the size of atoms and that has numerous commercial applications. When shown balanced information about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, study participants became highly divided on its safety compared to a group not shown such information.

The determining factor in how people responded was their cultural values, according to Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor at Yale Law School and lead author of the study. "People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe," said Kahan, "while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous."

According to Kahan, this pattern is consistent with studies examining how people's cultural values influence their perceptions of environmental and technological risks generally. "In sum, when they learned about a new technology, people formed reactions to it that matched their views of risks like climate change and nuclear waste disposal," he said.

The study also found that people who have pro-commerce cultural values are more likely to know about nanotechnology than others. "Not surprisingly, people who like technology and believe it isn't bad for the environment tend to learn about new technologies before other people do," said Kahan. "While various opinion polls suggest that familiarity with nanotechnology leads people to believe it is safe, they have been confusing cause with effect."

According to Kahan and other experts, the findings of the experiment highlight the need for public education strategies that consider citizens' predispositions. "There is still plenty of time to develop risk-communication strategies that make it possible for persons of diverse values to understand the best evidence scientists develop on nanotechnology's risks," added Kahan. "The only mistake would be to assume that such strategies aren't necessary."

"The message matters," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. "How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology. Scientists, the government, and industry generally take a simplistic, 'just the facts' approach to communicating with the public about a new technology. But, this research shows that diverse audiences and groups react to the same information very differently."

Citation: Nature Nanotechnology (Advance Online Publication December 7, 2008)
doi: 10.1038/NNANO.2008.341

Source: Yale University

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Dec 07, 2008
Well when a "nonbeliever" finds out he has cancer that can be cured by nanotechnology, lets see how his/her opinion changes.

Dec 08, 2008
blah, blah, blah, people want everything to be black and white. all technology is good, all technology is bad. sorry people the devil is in the details. what nanotech are we talking about. of course some of it is bad. of course it will save the world. sorry again people techology is the only thing that can save us. What do you think we should abandon technology and just try being nice to each other? We've tried that. It doesnt work. lets try something else.

Dec 08, 2008
Anyone remember the Khmer Rouge? The ones who murdered millions in Cambodia in the late 1970's? They were also anti-technology as it was one of the hundreds of intellectual pursuits that was counter to the "Noble Peasant Farmer" society they were forcibly imposing upon the people of Cambodia.

The left (anti-captialist, anti-trade) has always been the great exploiter and eventually enslaver of the ignorant masses and uses scare tactics to implement their agenda of rule by thuggery. Nanotech should be a cornerstone of US economic development and we should be the world leader but the left, like those Khmer Rouge did will work hard to make the bogeyman out of it.

Dec 08, 2008
There will certainly be beneficial results of nano and horrific ones. Look at current day air, water, and food pollution. Most of it that kills you or makes you sick is already tiny, molecular even. So we have ignored the nano-poisons that we already have. I challenge you to blame that on the liberals, LOLLLL,, what a concept. Reagan, Bush, and Bush 2 have done more to kill Americans via pollution of our world than all of our enemies combined. If you consider the Bush war on stem cell research which has allowed about 2 million Americans to die each year from heart disease, diabetes, cancer, brain injury/disease, etc., etc, well he's the president of enforced ignorance. By the way he's not a liberal, neither was his cia daddy, nor was reagan.

The nano already being delivered in products is toxic under the right circumstances. An enlightened country/world will closely study and be wary of nano from mining/processing, to manufacture, to consumer use, to disposal. Anything else is pretty stupid and what we will probably see if the right wing has their way is more dead Americans from nano products that are not being monitored or studied for toxicity. We aren't even monitoring or prohibiting the known "nano" poisons that we expose people to every day, like diesel and gasoline emissions, mercury from several sources but mostly burning coal, industrial and consumer plastics that are ubiquitous and mimic estrogen as they leach into our food and water. Farm chemicals that mimic estrogen, or worse, that atrazine that most of us drink in our drinking water can't be removed by water treatment. At .1 ppb it changes 90% of a male frogs testosterone into estrogen via aromatase (Dr. Hayes U.C. Berkley)

Anyone who believes that nano will be properly monitored or even studied for deadly effects on humans is already clearly wrong if we look at the history of the lack of regulation of the current toxins and carcinogens and brain damaging pollutants that we take in every day.

The right wing believes that industry and profit are more important than human life.

Dec 08, 2008

The left (anti-captialist, anti-trade) has always been the great exploiter and eventually enslaver of the ignorant masses and uses scare tactics

Perhaps "one of the great exploiters" would be more accurate. In the US, it's the rabid right that's doing the most to block nanotech, along with stem cell research and any other scientific endeavour that threatens their belief system. I think the key point here is "belief system", which can exist all along the political spectrum wherever people decide to trade in their brains in favour of a set of slogans.

Dec 08, 2008
My first comment on Physorg.

Nanotech is a duel-edged sword, of course. Drexler tried to warn us. The military industrial complexes of the Democracies cannot be trusted with robust and sufficiently advanced nanotechnologies. We already have Predator and Reaper drones with AI and facial recognition. We are bathing in nanoparticles we cannot understand or yet catalogue, such as mycotoxins and the concomitant chemistries of active biological molecules. If we are all so naive about mycotoxins yet to this day, why should even "lay people" trust the Democracies to correctly regulate nanotechnology ? Is this an argument to stop nanotech research ? Of course not, as if that could possibly be accomplished anyway.

Terence McKenna calls our age "the boiling of the pond surface." He also correctly stated that "... in the future, technology will become nanotechnology, and disappear from our physical prescence."

Nature is drawing us like fireflies toward a future with some sort of "strange attractor" that we cannot perceive or define. It is Pandora's box and it cannot be closed.

With the preponderance of ignorance and malice in our world (in our genes and memes), how could Earth not be destroyed by even the most well-meaning Democracies ? Nanotech will advance nanotech, and nanotech will destroy nanotech, to be locked in a dance of death like a supergiant star and it's white dwarf companion.

Anhiliation is inevitable. Let's get our kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.

I smell smoke already. Did in 1995.

Please reread "Engines of Creation." The second half of the book is a guide to harness nanotech while preventing mutual destruction. We should educate ourselves and others to make fine distinctions regarding nanotech, and not let some self-appointed elite drive our species into the grave.

I am cynical but we must have hope.

Dec 08, 2008
technology = use of knowledge.
It is neither good nor bad and is used by all political idiologies for good and bad.
Its like say fire is good or bad.
We can burn someone at the stake or heat our food and homes.
Nuclear tecnology is more advanced yet fundamentaly the can use it to produce cheap clean energy for a city or vaporize the city! Nanotechnology is very advanced...knowledge we can create a heaven on earth or a hell on earth...but there is no escaping it. Lest we bury our heads in the sand and ignore progress and knowledge...while evil embraces it and crushes us. Its better to get in the game and try to mold it for good then to wait and see what happens!

Dec 08, 2008
By the way,, we will have to be smarter to control nanotech and advanced this will require active immersion in the tecnology. Where we augment our genomes and upgrade our minds to keep up with the break neck pace of things to come or yes we will be left in the dark. The good thing is that there should be the ability to upgrade at break neck speed to keep up. Even being too cautious could be very dangerous while waiting and seeing for a week or 2 can be the equivilant of being out of the game for 1000 yrs. Good people must rise to this challenge and face it head on at the same pace that technology demands. Evil dictators wont be so slow to the draw with this kind of pot at stake. I hope privacy and freedom doesnt take a back seat to security but without security what freedom will we have and vise a versa!

Dec 11, 2008
the smart robots that Japan builds will rule us in 30 years so who cares?

Our only hope will be the genetic mutant cyborgs that South Korea is making.

Dec 26, 2008
I don't know the political views of the above comments, but it isn't hard to imagine what some of them are: And that is exactly the point of the article: Most people aren't thinking -- their minds are already made up. How many of you above imagine there's any chance you'll ever change your mind that nanotechnology is basically good (or basically bad) (or basically neutral)? See?

That's the whole point of the article! It's not "thinking" it's "expressing a cultural viewpoint".

Dec 30, 2008
Its an odd 3 sided argument between the "haves", the "have nots", and the "want the have nots to have". The haves generally support technology while not always caring about the results. They know how to use it and view it as the only way to provide the "have nots" with with the "want the have nots to have" insist they must get. There are always problems with any new system because you don't know everything when you start. More people today die from cancer and heart problems mostly because they live long enough to get them, previously they died of silly things like starvation and being eaten by bears. Without a doubt there will be problems caused by nanotech, when technology cures cancer and repairs hearts I'm sure there will be some new top killer for people who live routinely to be 100 yrs. old.

People want more, they want more kids more stuff, with so many people you end up with a choice more technology to keep pace with the rising demand. You feed your doubled population with your genetically modified grain. Sure in good years, with good weather the noble peasant may be a good life. However, in bad years he gets to watch his children starve to death. Premium example ships of grain arrive in African nations to feed those who are starving, the national government refused to let them offload the "poisonous genetically modified grain" I'm sure the emaciated corpses feel much better about not having lived long enough to get cancer in 20 years.

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