Just because an invention is 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair does not mean that it will not elicit strong ideological responses in humans, according to a Yale study released Wednesday.
Researchers at the Cultural Cognitive Project at Yale Law School, in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, found that emotions play a large role in individuals’ responses to nanotechnology, even after they are given balanced information on its benefits and risks. Once presented with the facts, people are likely to transition from a gut reaction to an opinion based on ideological and political views of other scientific issues.
Law professor Dan Kahan, who co-authored the report, said the most significant finding was the overarching tendency of people to fall along clear ideological lines — as with issues like global warming — when evaluating the benefits and risk of nanotechnology.
“As people who don’t know a lot about nanotechnology start to learn even a little bit, they start to polarize along ideological lines,” he said.
According to the report, the vast majority of the 1,850 Americans surveyed said they had little or no knowledge of nanotechnology — devices on the atomic or molecular level that have possible electronic, environmental and medical applications. Fifty-three percent indicated having no previous knowledge of nanotechnology, while only 5 percent said they had “a lot” of knowledge.
But even when a sample of those surveyed was presented with what the study described as balanced information on the benefits and risks of the science, researchers found that people formed their opinions of nanotechnology based on their personal values rather than unbiased evaluation of fact.
“We all know what side we’re supposed to be on when it comes to nuclear power and global warming, but people have a hard time deciding what to make of [nanotechnology],” Kahan said. “But once they are given info that is balanced, they tend to assimilate it with issues that are already familiar.”
The proportions of positive and negative opinions regarding nanotechnology remained about the same after participants received the information, but political and cultural patterns became much more evident. For example, whites were more likely to emphasize benefits of nanotechnology after receiving more information while blacks were more likely to see risks.
More notable divergences occurred along political and social lines. Conservatives, for example, generally came to see nanotechnology as beneficial. But liberals and egalitarians tended to reverse their original stance and see the technology as a threat.
Julia Moore, deputy director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, said the combination of nanotechnology’s polarizing effects and the public’s low awareness of the field make it essential for those involved in its development to take varied public responses into account.
“The government and other stakeholders need to be both talking to and engaging the people in a discussion about nanotechnology and its benefits and risks, and its capacity to change the environment and economy,” she said. “[The public’s] attitudes towards nanotechnology are up for grabs.”
Until now, Kahan said, stake-holders assumed that merely disseminating scientific facts was enough to promote public awareness and support of nanotechnology. He said the Cultural Cognitive Project, which collects researchers from different universities, is currently conducting experiments on how to approach educating the public without immediately polarizing it.
“We want first to understand what the different mechanisms and dynamics are, then identify useful interventions to try to promote informed public deliberation on risk issues,” he said. “Our hope is that it will motivate people to think about how they present information so that people of diverse values will be able to get the same facts.”
Moore said the government currently invests $1.2 to $1.4 billion in nanotechnology research and development each year, but that only a relatively small amount of that money is used in raising public awareness of the science.