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Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 8.1: Emerging technologies part I

Wow--time flies, doesn't it? Especially when every other week of class is cancelled due to snow.

But in any case-- it's that time again!  "Science of Science Communication 2.0" session 8 reading list here, & study/discussion questions below.  

Have at it!

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Will write a full response in a couple days - still catching up with reading!

In the meantime, participants might be interested to read this:
Bill Nye Had a Fixed View on GMOs. Then Something Happened.

March 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner

On #1. Carbon nanotubes have a physical structure pretty similar to asbestos. If employed improperly they could end up causing some pretty serious lung diseases. This is something industry is well aware of though and hopefully they'll work around it.

March 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan


Fun story! "It’s not yet clear what happened at Monsanto. Did one of the scientists pictured above cast a spell on Nye? Has Monsanto created a new GMO love potion that was slipped into Nye’s milkshake when he was having lunch at the company cafeteria?" And so a new rumour starts!

I thought Bill Nye was some sort of children's TV entertainer? Do people actually take him seriously?


"Carbon nanotubes have a physical structure pretty similar to asbestos. If employed improperly they could end up causing some pretty serious lung diseases."

Carbon nanotubes are basically soot - which in sufficient quantity does indeed cause pretty serious lung diseases. Just ask a chimney sweep.

The proper question with a lot of these new technologies is not "Is it dangerous?", because most of them are, at some level. The proper question is "Is it more dangerous than all the other dangerous stuff in daily life that we routinely ignore or accept?"

March 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


Funny you should ask - it provides a sort of reality check. I'd say Bill Nye is more than a children's entertainer - he's a general popularizer of science. But that story about him takes on extra significance for a particular group of people: members of the skeptical movement. (Hard to come up with a succinct definition, but this gives some idea.) Many people in the movement regard him highly as a science communicator, but many also were frustrated by his stance on GMOs. Skeptics are an interesting population because they pretty actively discuss problems of science communication, but can fall into the trap of doing so in an ad-hoc rather than evidence-based way. (I consider myself part of the movement, but I can see that we need to apply more discipline in our sci comm discussions.)

Sorry, this drags us off topic... as you were.


March 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner

"But that story about him takes on extra significance for a particular group of people: members of the skeptical movement."

I know them well, from the days I used to get involved in the evolution and relativity debates, many years ago.

They're an odd mixture. You do get a few - fans of Feynman and Popper and so on - who seem to take the philosophy seriously. But I found a lot of them to be virtually indistinguishable from their opponents, except that they took the word of science magazines as gospel instead of whatever alternative belief system the rest were into. The latter tended to be the ones who got worked up about it - angry, contemptuous, insulting, intolerant, inclined to see it as a sign of the moral and intellectual collapse of modern civilisation. As if to doubt what scientists said was a pernicious heresy that needed to be stamped out. A lot of them didn't even understand the basics of the science they were so passionately arguing for.

I shouldn't be surprised - scientific study has repeatedly shown that that's what people have always been like. The story of scientific and technological progress has been heavily romanticised over the years.

"Many people in the movement regard him highly as a science communicator, but many also were frustrated by his stance on GMOs."

I've always got the impression from what little I've seen of him that he's one of those who 'follows the market' in sci-comm, that he's picked up on the cultural attitude of the 'skeptic' community to various issues and tailors his message to that, without really doing a lot of research. Although I know Dan's got figures to show it's not a politically-polarised issue in the States, anti-GMO does fit the popular stereotype of the environmentally-concerned organic vegetarian atheists of the skeptic movement, and I'd guess that if asked for an opinion on a topic he doesn't know anything about, but wanting to maintain his image as a knowledgeable pundit of science, anti-GMO sounds like a safe bet. I'm sure it works with most of the other topics he gets asked about.

But my view is no doubt slanted because most of what I've read about him is from people laughing at him. The only time I cam across his work 'spontaneously' so-to-speak was when his did that silly CO2-in-a-bottle experiment with Al Gore on his 24-hour TV global extravaganza, the one they faked. He sort of came across in his manner like a lot of the children's TV science presenters we have over here, dumbing it down to sub-basement level. Which is (arguably) the right thing to do for younger children, but would seem a bit patronizing on the adults. (The bow tie didn't help!)

Nevertheless, I'll take note of what you say. I've probably got a distorted impression of what he's really like. Thanks for the info.

"Skeptics are an interesting population because they pretty actively discuss problems of science communication, but can fall into the trap of doing so in an ad-hoc rather than evidence-based way."

Mmm hmm. I called it "faith-based science" rather than "ad hoc" but I know exactly what you mean.

"(I consider myself part of the movement, ....)"

Me too. But I'm up at the Feynman/Popper/Randi/Locke/Mill end of the spectrum. It's a broad church, as we say in England.

March 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Can I ask a question specific to the nanotech issue?

Dan, in your paper (Cultural Cognition of the Risks and Benefits of Nanotechnology) you say, “The ‘cultural cognition’ hypothesis holds that these same patterns [cultural polarization] are likely to emerge as members of the public come to learn more about nanotechnology.” But in your blog you repeatedly make the point that only a minority of public science topics end up getting polarized - that such polarization is “pathological” in its rarity. Why then did you hypothesize that such a pattern would be likely to emerge for nanotech?

I noticed that you start to address this later in the paper when you say, “At the same time, nothing in our study suggests that cultural polarization over nanotechnology is inevitable…” and point out that proper framing can help people to extract factual information. Does this indicate that the passages used in your study employed framing likely to encourage polarization? They seem to use pretty neutral language, to me. What about them makes them polarizing - and is it possible that some polarizing language is unavoidable? For example it seems like just talking about "risks of a new technology" tape into certain egalitarian/communitarian sensibilities, but since that's exactly what the topic of discussion is, I don't see how you would avoid it.

NiV, I agree with a lot of what you say. I do still enjoy going to skeptic conferences, but sometimes I find myself talking to a ranter type and have to excuse myself. If they're not too ranty, sometimes I try to challenge some of their assumptions. I do get the feeling that the "it's not helpful to call people idiots" message is very slowly gaining converts within the movement, but we have a ways to go.

March 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner

On #4:
This partly depends on the definition of "controversy". I know we're talking about bitter, long-lived controversy involving large percentages of the public here. But if we lowered the bar to include topics with small but non-trivial dissent, you might not need cultural division to describe them— or at least the cultural niche would be small.

Anyway, the key ingredient in the controversy recipe is obviously the cultural hooks that allow an issue to get tied up in the other shit we divide ourselves with. It always want to think that those things should be obvious enough to anticipate, but I think that's just hindsight being a know-it-all.

I think topics have to have an impact on unshared values/assumptions. Perhaps medical technologies are generally unlikely to become polarized because there's too much common ground. Obviously, medical technology relating to specific things like contraception or transgenderism would be at greater risk. Pig-grown organs for transplant, though? Hard to imagine trouble there.

So the question is, can you foresee the impacted values?

I'll bring up my own counterpoint: in an alternative dimension where gun control hadn't come up yet and the NRA didn't exist, would proposing gun control be an obvious cultural controversy? Would we expect urban/rural differences to be enough? I'm not so sure it would, without all the history behind it...

March 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterScott Johnson


Bill Nye is just an inferior in every way version of Mr. Wizard. That guy was awesome. He would teach science and let kids blow stuff up.

So the safety of nanotubes issue is actually one where we can maybe watch a cultural divide emerge. Hopefully not, but suppose some narrative of "big corporation X knows nanotubes can cause lung cancer but keeps on using them" emerges. Proper questions like "is it still safer than alternatives" could end up vanquished from the narrative like it is with nuclear power but isn't with air travel.

March 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan


Dunkin' Donuts to remove nanomaterials from powdered doughnuts

March 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan


Your question is great; I took 20 mins to draft an answer & then deleted it! ... I don't have the heart to reproduce -- right now. But will later today or tomorrow.

March 7, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

My thoughts as to what ought to be included in a sensible answer:

On Nanotechnology in particular: We didn't have the possibility of technology based on nano sized materials until we had the ability to measure such materials. Now that we do, we can see that some materials of this size already exist in nature. Also, we can now see that some of our current mechanical process have been creating such materials. Usually in sizing, there is a fraction that can only be labeled as less than whatever it is the detection limit is. And that "whatever" was not usually thought about that deeply. Now it can be.

On Scientific discovery and new technologies in general:

First there are scientists, who, with the aid of their University or research institute PR departments, come out to announce to the world their brand new, never seen before, exciting solution to the problems of the world, discoveries.

Then there are the corporations who want to implement technologies based on these new discoveries in ways that benefit their bottom lines. Thus, they are against public conversations that have to do with the nuances of such uses of the new scientific breakthroughs, because that might lead to:

Government regulators, who in the US (except for a few items like pharmaceuticals) must generally operate in the realm of proving harm, not from a point of view of first do no harm. And who have very limited budgets for doing so.

Next are the activists who see harms and want to inspire a public with a very limited attention span into taking action. Again, delving deeply into the nuances of the matter are too difficult to seem productive in such efforts.


In the case of nanotechnology, it seems that what we've gotten out of it is donuts in which the sugar was whitened with paint particles.

Just as in GMO, what we have is crops where the herbicides can be applied directly onto the growing foodstuffs, rather than making the crops themselves hardier (more like the weeds they compete against). Because after all, the innovations were designed by herbicide and other synthetic chemical manufacturers like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont.

So, if environmental groups want to rally the public, they must do so in ways that the public can feel engaged. Which might be a public scientific forum, but might best be done in an appealing yet non science-y fashion.

As I previously explained to Dan, in the case of forcing a petrochemical refiner to conduct a full environmental review before constructing tracks to bring in oil by rail, it does take legal briefs, presented to a county administrator called a hearing examiner who is a lawyer. But what you do to get interested members of the public to come to the hearing is to make them feel engaged. This was done by getting people to come to the hearing with giant paper mache blue heron cranes which they must have spent hours constructing. (The refinery is next door to the Pacific Northwest's second largest heron rookery.) This did rally the public and did get press coverage. And so, along with the news headlines of exploding oil trains elsewhere, might conceivably have influenced the hearing examiner. Even though the hearing examiner explicitly stated at the hearing that he would decide the outcome on the legal merits of the case not emotion. But importantly, the environmental groups need to pay their lawyers who wrote their legal brief. And that takes getting the public to think that they can change the world with actions that they are organized to take themselves, with the aid of these environmental groups along with a few monetary donations.

So, as I see it the question for nanotechnology, is whether or not we can create venues for public discussion and possible governmental regulation of things like bright whitened donuts separately from attacks on the underlying science.

This is very much like the analogous case of "chemicals". People who tell me that they hate "chemicals" are worriers. Worriers, in my opinion can first be best approached by addressing worries and taking worriers seriously. Thus, I'd start with discussing the ways in which chemists, especially analytical chemists (which I am) can address chemical worries. And thereby learn about all sorts of hazards even from natural chemicals. As well as ways to detect and to carefully regulate synthetic ones. Things that the worriers ought to be worried about, but might not have been aware of. And then, (I'd finally get around to mentioning), even synthetic chemicals could even do good! I'm not skilled at the artsy stuff.

March 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

"We didn't have the possibility of technology based on nano sized materials until we had the ability to measure such materials. Now that we do, we can see that some materials of this size already exist in nature."

To some degree, nano-materials are just a broader class of materials generally, for which we already have well-developed ideas and processes. Advertisers have taken to pointing it out, because it sounds 'sciency', but I think it's unlikely to be particularly controversial.

Where things get interesting, and the real source of some of the concerns over the technology, is when you get nano-machines. There are the self-replicators (which would work a bit like bacteria/fungi, and with the same sorts of limits). There are the builders - used to manufacture materials designed on a nano-scale. There are the scavengers - designed to collect and clean up contaminants. There are the medics - performing surgery or drug-delivery at a cellular level. There are the sensors and tracers - able to measure the environment (temperature, sound, radio, radioactivity, force, smells, tastes, etc.) and record it or transmit it back to base. You can have smart materials that sense and repair damage to themselves; self-healing and corrosion-resistant. You can have even smarter materials with some computer processing and decision-making capability, able to act or change their properties autonomously when a complex sequence of conditions are observed. And of course you have - inevitably - security and weapons technology. The military will certainly be interested in a field with the potential of nanotechnology.

There are already microscopic devices able to track location (MEMS), communicate a unique identity (SSID), perform processing and record data (normal computer microchips), and do chemistry. There's 'smart dust', that the military are rumoured to be able to leave scattered around security perimeters, so that intruders pick it up on their clothes and can be traced and identified later.

What happens when it can also record where you've been, and what you've said? How much power does that level of surveillance technology give a government?

How about sensor materials that can detect explosives and drugs? I recall one 'controversial' proposal suggesting inserting drug detectors in the sewers, allowing drug users to be instantly identified by their wastes. They can tell if you're pregnant, or have diabetes, or have been eating too much chocolate and not enough green vegetables. Does it constitute a 'search' if they never have to enter your property? What privacy concerns are raised?

What if someone was to develop 'assassin' nano-machines, able to manufacture/release a neurotoxin on receiving a coded signal, or on expiry of a timer, or whatever? What if one government were to ensure the 'good behaviour' of another government by such means? What if a government sought to ensure the loyalty of its citizens this way? You can tailor addictions and diseases to whatever rules the designer pleases. Even if you trust your own government not to abuse the technology, (and I really wouldn't,) do you trust all the others? How about corporations? Religions? Campaign groups? Terrorists? Moral crusaders?

And this is just the obvious stuff - the stuff we can see more or less how to do right now. It's got the potential to be as disruptive a technology as computers, automation, mass communication, or electricity. Look how fast computers changed things. We are simply unable to imagine what will be possible in a hundred years.

On the other hand, just as with computers or chemistry, it's probably going to do much more good than bad. There's more profit in helping people, after all. But controversial? Oh my!

"Just as in GMO, what we have is crops where the herbicides can be applied directly onto the growing foodstuffs, rather than making the crops themselves hardier (more like the weeds they compete against)."

Trouble is, the most likely reason for crops to be hardier is for them to contain natural pesticides that better fend off all the stuff that wants to eat them. Weeds can be as toxic or nasty-tasting as they like - after all, the reason they're weeds and not crops is that we can't eat them because they are. But crops are fundamentally limited that way. Natural breeding does breed in different levels of natural in-built pesticides in crop plants, too, but there's a limit to how far you can push that before it starts poisoning people or giving the pickers chemical burns on their hands.

"Because after all, the innovations were designed by herbicide and other synthetic chemical manufacturers like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont."

I'm pretty sure they wouldn't care. They'd just charge more for the crops that didn't need herbicide to make up the difference, and the farmers could afford to pay it because they didn't have to spend money on herbicide.

But I suspect that if Monsanto engineered a plant that sprayed its own Monsanto-patented pesticides on its neighbouring plants, the protestors would have a fit!

"This was done by getting people to come to the hearing with giant paper mache blue heron cranes which they must have spent hours constructing."

Uh Huh. And did you have participation by those members of the public who would benefit from the refinery? Potential employees? Supporting industries? Investors? Car drivers? Lorry drivers? Retailers? People who use plastics? Clothes manufacturers who use synthetic fabrics and dyes? People who wear the clothes they make? Farmers who use pesticides? People who eat the food they grow?

Because you're unlikely to make very good decisions if you're entirely one-sided in your consideration of the costs and benefits.

In a sense, the oil refinery is precisely what makes it possible for people to devote hours to constructing papier mache cranes. Otherwise they'd be starving peasants devoting all their efforts to bare survival. Thus, the cranes are symbolic of how industrial technology can change people's priorities to the point where they can actually care about the cranes, and spend hours on pointless activities for their benefit.

" People who tell me that they hate "chemicals" are worriers."

It's an interesting point about 'the public understanding of science' that is often ignored by the people who most like to go on about it - that there are people who have grown up apparently unaware that everything is made of 'chemicals', including themselves!

This seems like a far more fundamental (and useful!) bit of science than the rather more specialist stuff like evolution or whether the sun goes around the Earth / vice versa.

Everything is made of chemicals. Pick up a biochemistry textbook, and you'll see that the natural world in particular is made up of horrendously-complex unpronouncably-polysyllabic superscary-sounding chemicals. If you had to put the actual list of ingredients on a cabbage, say, you'd need considerably bigger packaging to fit it all in!

So the knowledge that the world is made of chemicals would tell us that the vast majority of chemicals we come across are either harmless, or close enough to it for us to comfortably ignore. And by understanding how they work and what they do, we can make the world a better and more convenient place. We can make foods safer, tastier, more nutritious, or more appetizing. We can stop food rotting, or being eaten by big dirty hairy bugs, so we no longer have to eat food that's gone off and has dead insects in it. (Or at least, not ones big enough to see! ;-) ) And we can thereby feed more people using less land, and leave time and room for those herons. Who we can now care about, despite the fact that herons are made of chemicals too.

Why do people care that the public don't know about evolution or global warming, but don't feel the same way about the public being scared of chemicals? What's the difference?

March 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

On nanomaterials: There are unique properties of nanomaterials that may lead to concerning health effects. This has to do with their small size relative to the defense mechanisms of such things as cell walls.

I think your concerns about technological applications also generally apply, to larger sized objects.

So, I think that NIV and I ought to agree that particle size, and possible effects is more of a continuum than a dividing line.

On GMOs: I believe that if we had more public funding for research efforts (but that would have to come from a government that wasn't dominated by the lobbyists for the very same corporations), we would have a different focus on GMO crop development.

For example, pre-historically, humans gathered seeds that were conveniently large to harvest. They then bred these over time to be even larger. Mostly, these are from annual plants as annuals have more need to invest in the survival of their seeds each year than perennial plants do. The decision making over time that went into this makes sense in an evolutionary sort of way, but could be re-analyzed.

It would take a lot of careful scientific work and closer regulation than has been seen with such things as the "Round-Up Ready" crops, but I think that moving towards perennial grains would be highly desirable.

Our current system has required the consolidation of farms partly to afford the necessary new equipment, such as the high wheeled tractors that can drive over the tops of growing corn to spray fertilizers and herbicides. And for farmers to remain competitive in a marketplace where commodity prices are also dominated by global corporate interests. What we are doing is not sustainable either in terms of the water or the land.

Can the rest of us afford this? Yes, but we would be eating a whole lot less meat. We can't continue to do what we are doing now anyhow.

March 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

I've been chewing over some thoughts about the relationship between knowledge of and opinion about emerging technologies. Blog post about that here.

Dan - argh! I hate it when that happens. If you can bear to write another response to my question I'd love to see it. But I understand if not.

March 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner

Tamar gives an interesting analysis on her blog.

I think that one crucial way to analyze the question: " Is it problematic that many tests of opinion reflect the ad-hoc opinion people form about something they don’t know about or don’t understand?" is to look at politics.

I think part of the answer has to do with the need to further subdivide those being polled into groups for which a question, like for example fracking, matters in their daily lives or not. And another significant portion of the answer lies in the fact that politicians choose to duck discussion of these hot button issues in favor of substitute cultural tribal issues upon which they can hope to rally their base without creating controversies with other powerful forces, ie corporations upon whom they depend for funding.

So we have a system in which Wall St. Republicans can forge an alliance with Tea Party Republicans by pandering to their interest in such things as abortion or evolution. About which Wall Streeters probably see no reason to give a damn.

In electing the political leaders that do make the policy decisions affecting climate change or other science based matters, people are voting based on tribal affiliations, but not giving many of these particular issues much consideration, or are doing so only in limited ways.

Partly because political candidates are arranging things that way.

So in both Colorado and Washington State, (the states in which I have the greatest personal knowledge), as I see it:

Districts were gerrymandered by the two political parties in ways that strengthened their base, and, as they saw it made the few remaining swing districts as amenable to their candidates as possible.

This makes for very little serious political debate.

In Colorado, in 2008, Democrat Mark Udall ran a successful campaign against Ken Buck, highlighting Buck's very right wing and anti-woman views. Since then, Republicans were able to engineer the 2nd Congressional district into a safe haven for very mild mannered and no political baggage history Cory Gardner.

Additionally, with regards to fracking, prior to the 2014 election, Governor Hickenlooper (D) and US Rep. Jared Polis (D) engineered a compromise in which ballot measures that were to serve as a referendum on fracking were removed from the ballot. This was supposed to help Udall by removing that issue from consideration.

In Colorado, fracking matters very deeply to people who have only recently woken up to the fact that the innocuous looking tan painted box and tank in the "open space" behind their backyard is in fact an oil and gas well, installed just before their subdivision was built (the usual practice). This is a very emotional issue, one that they might see as potentially affecting their families health. But at least one that will affect their home's property values. (Or not an issue at all, if you live further away, or haven't woken up to a oil truck in your backyard yet). At the same time the oil and gas industry is one of the main economic drivers in the state. And nearly all of the oil and gas operations are dependent on activities that could be defined as "fracking".

Explaining the nuances of all that probably seemed to complicated to Mark Udall, who at any rate largely ran the same "womens rights" oriented campaign he ran against Ken Buck. But, at least on the surface, Cory Gardner did not seem rabid like Ken Buck. Especially in the current economic climate of job and housing uncertainties, it is a hard thing to get younger voters registered. Many probably didn't see any point in it. At any rate, Gardner won the election.

Similarly, in Washington State, the Democrats ceded the 42nd state senate district to the Republicans, allowing boundary changes that cede that district to climate skeptic Doug Erickson, who has become the state legislative leader thwarting Governor Jay Inslee's (D) energy and climate agenda. This district now is strongly dominated by dairy and berry farmers, blue collar refinery workers and would be lumberjacks. Their frequently anti-environmentalist, anti-Native American rights orientation segues nicely with being anti climate change. Particularly when that links up with issues like whether or not we should build a coal port. That is probably not so much about coal, ports or climate but is about JOBS NOW! Which is the slogan for the pro port campaign.

I think similar arguments could be made in the case of GMOs. The potential debate on this issue has been narrowed by corporate interests who recognize that their control of information affects their power to dominate everything from commodity pricing to environmental regulation to labor relations to overall discussions of agricultural sustainability and the nutritional value of marketed foodstuffs. These corporations can control policy by donations to political candidates that will support them. But that does not mean that these candidates need to focus on these issues in their campaigns. By squelching disclosure, public discussion of the distinction between the science of genetic modification and the appropriate technological applications of that science are seriously inhibited.

Knowledge of cultural cognition has allowed the political process to take place with proxy issues replacing the matters of real importance. And, in my opinion this serves to strengthen the hands of those few extremists who actually are anti-science.

March 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

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