Overcoming nanophobia-phobia

It’s all too easy to worry about what the public thinks of nanotechnology, while forgetting that the public isn’t at all homogenous, and that their attitude will depend on their existing values and preconceptions. Three papers in the current issue of Nature Nanotechnology explore this issue. Dan Kahan and coworkers test the idea that, if people learn more about nanotechnology, they will tend to become more positive about it. Not so, they say: while people who support free markets and respect the authority of hierarchies find more to like in nanotechnology the more they learn, people with more egalitarian and communitarian views find more to worry about. Nick Pidgeon and his coworkers look for national differences, conducting parallel public engagement exercises in the UK and the USA. They find a somewhat surprising uniformity in views across the Atlantic, with both sets of people optimistic about potential benefits, particularly in the energy area. There are some national differences, with a greater consciousness of the possibility of regulatory failure in the UK (connected to recent history of the GMO debate and the BSE crisis), and a more consumerist attitude to potential medical benefits in the USA. The biggest media interest (see, for example, this BBC piece) has been attracted by Dietram Scheufele’s team’s suggestion that a dismissal of nanotechnology as morally unacceptable is correlated with religiosity, and that as a consequence nanotechnology is more publicly acceptable in the relatively irreligious countries of Europe than in the USA (see also Scheufele’s own blog).

I’ve written at greater length about these findings in this opinion piece on the Nature News website. I think many scientists will agree with Tim Harper that it’s a category error to ask whether “nanotechnology” is morally acceptable or unacceptable. A related question that occurs to me is this: when we compare public responses in the USA and Europe, how much of the difference is due to the religiosity of the members of the public being asked, and how much is due to the way nanotechnology is popularly framed on either side of the Atlantic? It’s notable that Scheufele’s paper illustrates the potential conflict between religion and nanotechnology (and converging technologies more generally) with a couple of papers about human enhancement, and a commentary by a Lutheran on the full Drexlerian vision of nanotechnology, all of which come from the USA. My sense is that this explicit connection of nanotechnology to human enhancement and transhumanism is much less prominent in Europe than the USA. Maybe it’s not so much the religiosity of the public that’s important in determining people’s attitudes, but the fervour of the people who are promoting nanotechnology.