Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Roco and Bainbridge on Societal Implications

M. C. Roco and w. S. Bainbridge, "Societal implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology: Maximizing human benefit," JOURNAL OF NANOPARTICLE RESEARCH, 2005, 7, 1-13.


I was tempted to hold off and award this article the NANOHYPE AWARD for this month but I decided to reserve the award to an article with less warrants for the claims made (even if most of them in this article are authoritative and reference unidentified experts).

The article reviews a collection of essays soon to be released as SOCIETAL IMPLICATIONS OF NANOSCIENCE AND NANOTECHNOLOGY (II): MAXIMIZING HUMAN BENEFIT, NSET Report, Arlington, VA published by Springer Science in which this blogger is published.

The article makes a series of interesting claims such as: "Media analyses show that groups with views at the extremes of the spectrum of opinions, either exaggerating the benefits of or mistrusting nanotechnology, have a disproportionate voice in the mass media, which impedes public understanding of both potential benefits and possible risks" (p. 2).

Unfortunately, statements of this sort of are as hyperbolic as the statements presumably made by the extremists. In addition, I am wondering which media analyses the authors are addressing. Absent extremist views (if they exist), it is difficult to understand how public understanding would necessarily improve. This is a multivariate phenomenon and rhetoric to the contrary simply does not make it true.

On p. 9. "Negative public attitudes toward nanotechnology could impede research and development, leaving the benefits of nanotechnology unrealized, even if those attitudes were based on misconceptions." (See below) I am not sure it's fair to categorize public attitudes which happen to be negative as misconceptions. This communicates that positive ones are accurate, which they may be, but remarks of this sort turn this piece into propaganda.

If it works once, say it again. On p. 7, they go on. "Negative public attitudes toward nanotechnology could impede research and development, leaving the benefits of nanotechnology unrealized and the economic potential, untapped, or worse, leaving the development of nanotechnology to countries who are not constrained by regulations and ethical norms held by most scientists worldwide."

First, I am very concerned about the off the cuff remark that negative public attitudes could impede R&D. Often, when I ask why, the answer I get is incredibly speculative.

Are we talking about the electorate deciding not to support politicians who vote funding for nanotechnology? I have seen only one study that ever addressed that variable and the findings were mixed and inconclusive (at least as a univariate variable) Or are we talking about the legislature deciding that public may not support nanotechnology and acting pre-emptively?

Are we talking about boycotts against products upon entering the market? America has never been strong with boycotts except in two cases, one dealt with California produce and the Chavez migrant worker movement and the other impacted the fur industry for a period of time though fur seems to be making a comeback.

Call me conservative, but I feel that before fear appeals of any sort should be used, there needs to be a plausible scenario. It might behoove us to investigate what that will be rather than offering bogeys like: "We don't want another GMO catastrophe!" I do appreciate that Roco and Bainbridge avoided making that analogy prominent. I believe Roco and I are both highly skeptical of the analogue and question its overall utility as a rhetorical flourish.

Second, I really enjoyed the zero sum trade-off rhetoric. It's either us or another nation and the other nations may not have those upright American scruples. Obviously, I am not sure this is a zero sum game per se and I am not ready to compare American scruples to non-American ones and claim American scruples are superior.

The article has its moments when it bleets free markets rhetoric. For example, "While the short-term result may meant disruption of some specific corporations and careers, the free market system ensures that capital and labor will shift to new uses, and the disruptions will be limited to a transition period in narrow sectors of the economy" (p. 8). The sectoral disruptions will only be short-term if we define short-term loosely and the assumption that this will only impact "narrow" sectors seems wishful.

The piece ends with an interesting series of recommendations, many of which are being undertaken by the dozens of humanists and social scientists researching societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology. One of the recommendations involves "develop[ing] a communication strategy to keep the public informed of representative and fundamental developments of the new technology" (p. 11). This may be the crux of the problem addressed in the piece.

We are reticent to relinquish the deficit theory when it comes of public understanding of science. Providing more information is simply ineffective. Involving small publics in deliberative polling experiments, while interesting, is not convertible to a national strategy. We need a much more comprehensive and universalizable model.


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