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No one is afraid but we can still learn a lot from studying nanotechnology risk perceptions

No one is afraid of nanotechnology.

And at this point, no one any longer seems to be afraid that people will become afraid of nanotechnology.

There used to be a lot of anxiety about that.  Federal research agencies, foundations, and private industry all supported studies aimed at predicting how the public would react to nanotechnology—and how unreasoning fear, or self-reinforcing dynamics of political polarization, might be averted through adroit communication strategies. The worry was that nanotechnology might follow the path of nuclear power or genetically modified foods in Europe.

The concern seemed reasonable.  Indeed, CCP did a study, which found that when individuals were exposed to balanced information on nanotechnology’s potential risks and benefits, they polarized along lines that reflected their cultural predispositions toward other environmental and technological risks, such as climate change and nuclear power.

But nanotechnology has been around for many years now, and nothing of any consequence has happened. The public remains largely oblivious—neither concerned in general nor polarized.

To illustrate, consider some data collected from a large, nationally representative sample in April.  Nanotechnology is a risk-perception blip compared to climate change and nuclear power.

The public not only has failed to become anxious about nanotechnology. It still hasn't really noticed that nanotechnology exists.  Surveys continue to show that very few people say they have heard about or know much of anything about it.

Maybe things will still “heat up.”  But I’d be surprised at this point. Very surprised.

That doesn’t mean I think it was a waste for researchers to have studied public reactions to nanotechnology. 

On the contrary, I think the self-conscious effort to try to forecast its possible risk-perception trajectories—for the purpose, if possible, of guiding it away from influences inimical to reasoned and constructive engagement of the best available scientific evidence—was a model one, well worth emulating for emerging technologies in general.

The number of putative risk sources that are amenable to cultural polarization will always exceed by a large margin the number that actually do generate polarization. But because the public welfare costs of such conflict are so high, it makes sense to try to learn what influences cause emerging technologies to become suffosed with this pathology, and what sorts of steps can be taken to steer them clear of it.

Still, it does seem to me that at this point the question is not so much “whether” nanotechnology will become suffused in controversy but why exactly it didn’t.  Researchers who are continuing to focus on nanotechnology should try to figure that out—by, say, taking a close look at the career of nanotechnology in public discourse and comparing it with various other technologies, both ones that have generated high degrees of concern and controversy and ones that haven’t.

The only valid way to learn about causation is to examine carefully both the occurrence and non-occurrence of events of interest.

 Now, here’s a conjecture to get things started.

Although most people still haven’t heard of nanotechnology, my own casual observations suggest that if one asks people to “complete the phrase” that begins “nano. . .,” the most likely response (after “huh?”) is “Ipod.”

I suspect Apple has immunized nanotechnology from controversy by infusing it with the positive connotation evoked, more or less universally, by its more or less universally beloved entertainment technology.

Can this outcome—which surely was a matter of sheer happenstance—be consciously directed in the future?

Today there is widespread concern that synthetic biology will be the next “nuclear power” or “GMO” in risk-perception terms.

To forestall this, I propose—the Synbio iPad!

Using the engineering techniques associated with synthetic biology, researchers have in fact created a form of e coli capable of solving complicated math problems.

So, just fuse some e coli with the processor of the iPad 4 or 5 or 9 or whatever we are up to—and voilà: as the tide of public infatuation rises, good will will spill over onto synthetic bio (“synbio . . . iPad!”), immunizing it form mindless contentiousness that has infected climate change, GM foods (in Europe), and nuclear power (everywhere but in France) etc!

(Actually, e coli are the rock stars of synbio—being taught how to do all sorts of astonishing things, including how to fill the air with pleasant fragrances; a very nice turnaround for an organism that has borne a retched stigma since the beginning of human understanding of microbial life.)

As I said, merely a conjecture.

But inspired insight of this sort is among the predictable public-welfare returns on investments in scientific  risk-perception forecasting.

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Reader Comments (11)

Your conjecture about the reason nanotechnology fails to excite a polarized response -- Apple-immunization -- seems cute but strained. What's interesting to me about this is that when exposed to balanced information about the technology -- i.e., not "toxic" or "pathological" communication -- the same pattern of polarization along cultural fault lines reappeared. Wouldn't this suggest a simpler, and easily testable, reason for the lack of polarization -- namely, a lack of knowledge? Furthermore, wouldn't it suggest that polarization is not necessarily or even generally a result of some toxic or pathological exogenous situation, but rather an inherent feature of at least some kinds of technical issues? Might it be the case, in fact, that for those in the EC cultural quadrant almost any sort of general and novel techno-scientific issue will give rise to fears once knowledge of it is sufficiently widespread?

July 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


1. Strained yes ... My real goal was just to build up support for the Synbio Ipad. I'd love to have one. That & a Bumblee "First Drone."

2, I think the lab result suggested that it was plausible to imagine that people would polarize as they learned more, but it didn't imply that that had to happen. Other things could occur, we argued, that would dissipate this potential effect. Maybe something did.

3. Or maybe, as you say, people just "haven't heard" yet. But that in itself needs an explanation, I think. People's exposure to information is not random; it is shaped by cultural outlooks. Indeed, the same study suggests that individualism predicts *knowing* about nanotechnology-- & liking what one learns! I think it would be interesting to study why nanotechnology didn't become the sort of thing that people are motivated to find out out about under conditions that likely will polarize them. That would help us to create the Brave New World of the Managed Science Utopia that you know I'm angling for-- in which everything is mangaged & controlled by the few of us (less than 1%, certainly) who are genetically immune to cultural cognition & in a manner tha tprevents the rest of mankind from harming themselves.

4. But look-- here's a chance to play WSMD? JA! Can you think of anything that might be in the data set and that might, if the specified correlation is there, support an inference cponsistent w/ your view?

5. And while you are at it: how about synthetic biology? Predictions about its career? Is it vulnerable to polarization by virtue of its "inherent" nature or otherwise?

July 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Other things could occur, we argued, that would dissipate this potential effect.

Oh sure -- for example, if space aliens appeared and threatened to destroy the earth, I think fears of nanotechnology would lessen across the board. But in the absence of those "other things", it seems your own study indicates that more information by itself leads to polarization.

Or maybe, as you say, people just "haven't heard" yet. But that in itself needs an explanation, I think.

Sure again -- let's put it in the large pile of things that need an explanation. I could suggest some reasons -- unlike nuclear power, say, nanotechnology is new, different, and so far without noticeable effect; unlike climate change, it's so far not associated with policy proposals to make major changes to the economy -- but in any case it's another question. Regardless of the reason, what your study does show is simply that many people haven't even heard of it yet, and that remains the simplest and most obvious reason for its lack of polarization -- i.e., the study itself directly supports my inference, don't you think? (And I say this as one included in your <1% who are genetically immune to cultural cognition.)

So, yes, I'd say that synthetic biology is vulnerable to polarization as well, as and when more knowledge of it, or more effects of it, pervade society -- like nanotechnology, it's new, different, and broad in application, and so I'd expect EC types, more than others, to fear it on principle. Of course, not all fears are irrational, and it's possible that fear of it could be raised high enough across the board to erase cultural difference (as may be the case with GM foods) -- but it would be interesting to see a test of this with a sample again provided with balanced information.

July 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


I have aliens in the dataset. I'll check & see if that's it

July 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I guess it probably wasn't aliens, right? But what other things could occur that would dissipate the apparent polarizing effect of simply added information, do you think? And how, in general, can anyone communicate more information about any large technological innovation to the EC quadrant so as to overcome their relatively greater fear of technology?

One answer, and one you favor I think, would be to emphasize the role of science in studying and controlling for the risks involved, since, as you've said, science is widely respected as a source of objective knowledge across all cultural quadrants. My prediction would be that this would have the effect of implicating science itself in the controversy, and sullying its reputation (though I'd be happy to be wrong about that). See, for example, the use of the "frankenfood" epithet in the GM foods debate as a way of invoking the horrors of science gone amok.

Re: the concern about synthetic biology, however, I have another way of testing your conjecture about the reason for the lack of fear around nanotechnology. If you're right that nanotech has been immunized from pathological polarization, whether through association with Apple or otherwise, then one way to talk about synthetic biology would be to point out how it's really just a particular kind of nanotech, and a "natural" kind at that. Do you think that would help?

July 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


You are right, it wasn't aliens. Or in case, the when I tested it the hypothesis that aliens were responsible, I was unable to reject the null at p < 0.05; perhaps I was underpowered, since I had only 19 aliens (from outerpace, anyway) in the N = 2000 data set.

I take your point: that the nanotechnology polarization study shows that even before anything has really occurred in the career of a technology, it can reveal iteself to be amenable to generating cultural polarization.

This supports your "inherent tendency thesis" (would you call it that? Obviously, I'm adverting to the colloquy following the "Polarization is not the norm" post).

I don't get the "inherent tendency thesis." Social meanings are not "inherent"; or at least this is my fundamental assumption. The polarizing tendency "balqanced" information about nanotechnology had to polarize those who had never heard of it, I surmise, reflected the residues and vapors of contentious meaning that surround issues like nuclear power & other familiar & polarizing technology issues; those had "seeped into" even the sort of idioms and tropes that appear in ordinary discussion of nanotechnology among the very small number of people who know what it is & say things about it.

But you observe that I have no satisfying account of why this didn't generate in the world anything remotely resembling the polarization we observed,

Well, as you point out (as I did, too), most people still haven't heard of nanotechnology. Maybe if they did, they'd freak out.

But then I say we need to figure out why they haven't heard of it. We should figure that out b/c the answer isn't obvious; there have been efforts, not unlike the ones now going on w/ GM foods, to make people hear about it & "freak out." My surmise is that there is something about the conditions in which issues that have a tendency -- you can call it inherent; my guess is that it inheres in contingency, historical influences that link things in language & emotion & other media of public comprehension -- to polarize either "catch" or don't.

I don't think Apple had much to do w/ anything. But I do suspect that the amorphous nature of nanotechnology, as well as the strategic decision of the "industry" to start de-emphasizing the term, as a way to reduce its profile, contributed.

July 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I don't get the "inherent tendency thesis." Social meanings are not "inherent";...

I didn't think there was much to get. This isn't about some mysterious substance inhering in issues that endows them with "social meaning" -- it simply refers to the idea that some issues have bigger or wider social consequences than other issues. Formaldehyde emissions, e.g., don't appear to have many consequences for many people, other than those directly affected, and in any case don't seem to have many policy ramifications that would affect people's lives. Climate change, on the other hand, is potentially very wide and deep in its consequences for virtually everyone, and the policy proposals associated with would have significant affects on most people's lives. Hence, the latter is considerably more likely to generate polarization than the former -- and that's all that the "inherent tendency thesis" means to my mind.

It doesn't preclude the idea that different cultures, with different histories and contexts, might display different degrees of polarization around the same or similar issues. And it doesn't preclude the idea that what we might both agree are "toxic" or "pathological" messages also get attached to polarizing issues, and indeed the more polarizing the issue the more likely it is to attract such opportunistic and pernicious communication, sad though that be. So we can agree, as I think we did in that last colloquy, that that sort of noise should be exposed for what it is, and separated as much as possible from the issue itself. My argument would be only that there would remain a degree of what I'd call real polarization that no amount of clever use of the science of science communication would be able to dissipate, and would only be able to be overcome, or changed in form, through the slow processes of social debate and experience.

July 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


All the work is going to be done by "appear" & "seem" in your sentences.

Whether people can own assault rifles doesn't have much impact on people's lives over all; getting killed by one is like being struck by lightening. More of them will die in swmming pools. probabably from formaldehdye poisoning for all I know. But look how polarizign proposals to conrtrol are.

You can say that the issue "seems" or "appears" to those involved to have an impact. They belivee that-- or many do. They form exaggerated senes of the impact of laws alllowing or not allow etc.

But things "seem" that way b/c people's values give them a stake in fitting evidence to their expectations.

So to say that the apparent or seeming impact of the risk makes it vulnerable to polarization is completely upside down: the vulnerability to cultural polarization, and the relaization of that vulnerability, drove the perception of the "seeming," "apparent" effects.

So I still don't find your "simple" explanation of what becomes amenable to polariation & why helpful

July 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I don't think that much depends on "appear" and "seem". I used those qualifiers only because I don't actually have stats on the numbers of people involved in formaldehyde emissions, but since the entire population of the world is involved to one degree or another with climate change I'm quite confident that climate change is vastly more impactful than formaldehyde. I notice, in fact, that you seem reluctant to stick with that pair of issues -- I suspect, though of course I don't know, that this is because even you feel uncomfortable asserting that they are comparable in their social impact or "meaning". And so you want to switch to guns vs. lightening strikes or swimming pools, which simply involve different forms of impact and policy options.

Rather than get into a long side bar over those impacts, I'd just say that your position that any and all technical issues must have negligible objective social consequences, or that all such meanings are merely arbitrary attachments, is untenable on its face. Your insistence that it must nevertheless be so seems therefore curious, because it seems unnecessary. I guess this is because you are really hoping that the SofSC will be able to come up with some sort of formula that would be able to dissolve away those meanings and be left with only pure, empirical truth which will somehow not carry any social/cultural/political valence at all. Little wonder such a formula seems so elusive.

July 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

P.S. I thought I should explain why I think insistence on the idea that any technical issue must be without inherent social/cultural consequences is unnecessary. I think the Cultural Cognition Project in general is not just interesting but important, despite having some objections to aspects of it, or perhaps just to aspects of the way it's presented. And one particular objection has to do with what I see as an extreme and untenable generalization that all polarizations over technical issues are toxic or pathological. I think it should be possible to allow that some such polarizations are normal aspects of the very fact of cultural cognition and are unlikely to be eradicated by any honest communication strategy, while still seeing great possibilities for improvement by, first, just displaying the role that cultural cognition does play in the controversies, as you've been doing, and second, by exposing the aspects that are indeed toxic -- such as trying to deepen such controversies as wedge issues in larger political or ideological battles.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


I think many technical issues have huge impacts, which is why I characterize their entantlement w/ divisive cultural meanings to be a "toxic" state for the science communication environment.

But I agree with you that polarizationj per se is not toxic; it certainly isn't when the matter that divides people is how to live -- that's a necessary consequence of human beings having freedom & reason.

Maybe even some cultural polarization over "facts" is also at least harmless, if pretty silly

July 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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