Most of us get through our lives with the help of folk theories – generalisations about the world that may have some grounding in experience, but which are not systematically checked in the way that scientific theories might be. These theories can be widely shared amongst a group with common interests, and they both serve as lenses through which to view and interpret the world, and guides to action. Nanotechnologists aren’t exempt from the grip of such folk theories, and Arie Rip, from the University of Twente, one of the leading lights in European science studies, has recently published an analysis of these – Folk theories of nanotechnologists(PDF) , (Science as Culture 15 p349 (2006)).
He identifies three clusters of folk theories. The first is the idea that new technologies inevitably follow a “wow-to-yuck” trajectory, in which initial public enthusiasm for the technology is followed by a backlash. The exemplar of this phenomenon is the reaction to genetically modified organisms, which, it is suggested, followed exactly this pattern, with widespread acceptance in the ’70s, then a backlash in 80’s and 90’s. Rip suggests that this doesn’t at all represent the real story of GMOs, and questions the fundamental characterisation of the public as essentially fickle.
Another folk theory of nanotechnology implies a similar narrative of initial enthusiasm followed by subsequent disillusionment; this is the “cycle of hype” idea popularised by the Gartner group. The idea is that all new technologies are initially accompanied by a flurry of publicity and unrealistic expectations, leading to a “peak of inflated expectations”. This is inevitably followed by disappointment and loss of public interest; the technology then falls into a “trough of disillusionment”. Only then does the technology start to deliver, with a “slope of enlightenment” leading to a “plateau of productivity”, in which the technology does deliver real benefits, albeit less dramatic than those initially promised in the first stage of the cycle. Rip regards this as a plausible storyline masquerading as an empirical finding. But the key issue he identifies at the core of this is the degree to which it is regarded as acceptable – or even necessary – to exaggerate claims about the impact of a technology. In Rip’s view, we have seen a divergence in strategies between the USA and Europe, with advocates of nanotechology in Europe making much more modest claims (and thus perhaps positioning themselves better for the aftermath of a bubble bursting).
Rip’s final folk theory concerns how nanotechnologists view the public. In his view, nanotechnologists are excessively concerned about public concern, projecting onto the public a fear of the technology out of proportion to what empirical findings actually measure. Of course, this is connected to the folk theory about GMOs implicit in the “wow-to-yuck” theory. The most telling example Rip offers is the widespread fear amongst nanotechnology insiders that a film of Michael Crichton’s thriller “Prey” would lead to a major backlash. Rip diagnoses a widespread outbreak of nanophobia-phobia.