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« More Policy Input, Please | Main | It Doesn't Have To Be This Way »

July 15, 2004


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Perhaps this says more about people in the US than it does about nano, something that most people have heard little about (especially from any variety of perspectives). See, for example, an interview in the EU magazine RTD Info with sociologist, physicist and journalist Hans Peter Peters, a man studying how to convince people to trust new science. It's online at:

"We are currently doing so with a homogenous study in Germany and the United States, countries with clear cultural differences and where media coverage is not comparable. How then do reactions differ to one and the same item of information? We took two populations of primary schoolteachers of both sexes, and gave them each the same articles to read on food biotechnologies. The cultural contrasts came out very clearly, with the Germans much more inclined than the Americans to question the credibility of the information."

I would contend that too many people in the US are intimidated by science and trusting in authority...especially the people uncynical enough to take a telephone survey. Imagine how much more frightened people would be about the privacy from tiny sensors issue if they new more about the nature and market status of Smart Dust.

Sorry to be the first to comment here.

Janessa Ravenwood

I see the Luddite is back again. What, no mention of how this is all some racist-colonialist plot? Or just trying to scare everyone about the EVIL nanotechnology coming our way?

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Ack, Janessa... Just yesterday I wrote to someone that we hadn't had a flamewar yet in our blog discussions. Please don't go out of your way to start one.

I think antinano's point is worth considering. Two responses: First, the researchers expressed a bit of surprise that starting the survey with a positive or negative slant on nanotech caused little variation in the responses. I take this to indicate that people aren't just believing whatever they hear. If they like technology, maybe it's because they have had a generally good relationship with technology.

Second, they found that fewer than 5% of people had "a lot" of trust in business, while 60% had "not that much trust."

I also find it interesting that the thing people are most worried about--privacy--is an issue that doesn't depend on MM (though MM can certainly make it more extreme).

And here's a finding that made my jaw drop: people who had read Prey were much more likely to think that the benefits of nanotech would outweigh the risks. There was a correlation with science fiction in general, but it was weaker. They didn't find correlations with demographics.


Janessa Ravenwood

Someone who comes to a pro-nanotech site with the tag "antinano", denounces all nanotechnology, and throws around Luddite views is kidding himself if he doesn't expect criticism. Are you forgetting the last time he was crawling around here, quoting the ETC Group - of all people - like their shoddy "studies" were actually to be taken seriously?

Janessa Ravenwood

Also, Chris, I don’t think you realize what’s at stake. Luddites must not EVER go unchallenged. If they do then their position is the only one on display by default. This must not be allowed, so don’t coddle him - HE IS THE ENEMY. He is NOT on your side. All of the wondrous technology you, I, and more or less everyone else here would see come to fruition he is against. He and his ilk would absolutely love to drag the world back to the dark ages just to satisfy their ideology that science and technology are evil. Start recognizing that and thus recognize the need to stand up to these cockroaches whenever they crawl out from underneath their rocks.

Richard Jones

This is an interesting and heartening study. Despite the apparent public ignorance of the details, it seems to me that the ordering of potential risks and benefits is pretty much right. Antinano wonders how much more frightened about privacy people would be if they knew more about the current status of smart dust. A fair point, but one can also wonder whether the public might have placed privacy issues even higher if groups like ETC had focused on a few genuine worries rather than adopting a completely indiscriminate oppositional stance.

I'm not quite sure what antinano is getting at with his comments about cultural differences. It is obvious that different cultures are receptive to innovation to different degrees. More accurately, cultures differ in what they are conservative about and where they welcome innovation. (Look at the French, for example - you mess with their deeply sentimental view of peasant farming and the countryside at your peril, but no nation is more comfortable with nuclear power than they are). One has to be aware of this, but antinano seems to go beyond identifying cultural differences to make value judgements that one set of cultural assumptions is better than another, and that the Americans would be better off if they were more like the Germans. This is a dangerous road to start down, quite apart from being fundamentally undemocratic and very bad politics. It's reminiscent of that Brechtian joke about the East European government that, finding its people unsatisfactory, dissolved them and elected a new lot.

So, how should one engage with the public on matters of technology? The old view from government/science circles that if one simply explained the science enough the scales would fall from peoples eyes and they would rush off to welcome whatever new technology you were bringing is now, thankfully, pretty discredited (at least here in the UK). It seems that the equally patronising view of many environmentalists that you simply need to badger and hector the public to behave properly, ride more bicycles and generally give up their profligate ways is more persistent. The apparently unlikely alliance between the left-wing anti-globalists of ETC and our feudal and conservative Prince of Wales isn't really surprising, because both share the basic assumption that the serfs need to be told how to behave (for their own good, of course).

I'm not at all sure what the best way to engage with the public is, but I do know we have to try. I spent Wednesday evening discussing nanotechnology with 40 16 year olds from inner city schools in Leeds and Bradford, most from disadvantaged backgrounds, the majority from ethnic minorities. I have to admit to feeling daunted in anticipation, but in the end it went very well, they were all gripped by the subject, many made very perceptive points, and I was certainly led to see a few things in a new light. What I tried to do was say, here's the science, here's what people are saying about it, here's what I think and why, now over to you. You've got to start with accurate science, you've got to be upfront that there are different points of view, but then you can state your own views in a reasoned way. I have to say that this lot didn't seem particularly respectful of authority, and I'd be surprised if a similar group in America would have been much different.

Mike Treder, CRN

One correction, Janessa: CRN is not "pro-nanotech".

We are in favor of the safe development and introduction of new technologies -- especially molecular manufacturing -- but we are even more fundamentally in favor of human rights. If the two ever clash, we will favor the course that supports human rights. If that means we oppose nanotech at some point, then so be it.

However, we believe that with diligent study and careful crafting of appropriate regulatory measures, it may be possible to enjoy the benefits of MM while minimizing the dangers.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Janessa, there's a difference between challenging someone's viewpoint and attacking the person. The latter is uncivil. And in many cases, it'll strengthen the resolve of the attackee. And it's unproductive. I don't think you won any points for your side, and I don't think you stood up to him. All you did was attack him.

I understand you feel threatened by him, and I won't tell you you're wrong in that. But please don't react that way here again. There are more effective ways to discredit his ideas; use one of them instead.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

One additional comment on "pro-nanotech"-ness: It looks to us like early development is likely safer than later development. So in that sense, we are pro-nanotech. If we became convinced that early development was less safe (taking account of the millions of lives lost each year through material scarcity and primitive medicine) then we would be in favor of postponing it.


michael vassar

Are there any concerns that lead you to believe that later development might be safer? What is your current attitude towards Eliezer's MNT > AI > the end position?
BTW, here's an interesting set of nearly optimally sticky fingers. http://www.plosbiology.org/plosonline/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0020175


Do leftists tell the general population how to behave? All too often they do.
Is that what ETC and the anti-globalization movement does? I'm not so sure that it does. A nice counter example to that can be found, I think, in the work of Genetic Resources Action InterNational (grain.org), another NGO that is allied with ETC. For example, see the interview with Colombian anti-Industrial Agriculture activist German Velez posted at http://grain.org/seedling/?id=261
Velez is a great example of spending years in indigenous communities, or any marginalized community due to be effected by any new tech or treaty, and learning from them. He was the one who's ideas were changed, not the other way around.

Now could it be said that technocrats tend to deliberate, if at all, behind closed doors, only attempting to sell their favorite technologies uncritically to the public? I think this is a major problem. There are steps being taken in Europe to mitigate that tendency. Read EU
publications, their officials regularly treat GMO critiques with the respect due an informed, serious, credible argument that they happen to disagree with. (see, for example, the European Research Area's "Giving Society a Key to the Lab") Vastly different than how things work here.

Look, for example at the debate in congress over citizen panels as part of the NANOTECHNOLOGY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT ACT OF 2003. (See House floor 5/7/03) One congresswomen (Ms. Eddie Bernice Johnson D-Texas, Ranking Democratic Member of the House Committee on Science Subcommittee on Research and a Black woman) introduced an amendment to fund citizen panels, arguing that public participation was key (to acceptance of the tech!) but it was shot down hard. Opponents of the amendment (namely Rep. BOEHLERT R-NY) said that the White House itself opposed the idea, (it sounded like a Danish plan they argued had been criticized in studies) and that OF COURSE public input was VITAL, but the best way to do that was not with citizen panels but with the existing period in which public comments could be submitted to relevant government agencies. HA! Johnson was not pleased.

The RTD Info article I linked to above argues that people tend to respond to new technologies by focusing on the information that confirms what they already believed. The Germany/US comparison was not to say that cultures should be the same, but to point out that many segments of US culture are remarkably unskeptical. I don't think it's a serious stretch to invoke the Milgram experiments here. People generally don't see new technologies as hurting someone directly, but they ARE told by authoritative voices that they MUST support new technologies, that they have no choice, (eg. that millions of preventable deaths will bloody the hands of any dissenters.) The Milgram experiments were a vastly simplified version of themes we experience every day, just in more complex ways. Voice of authority says we have no choice, must do something, and we don't even look into the negative consequences. That's one part of what's going on, in addition to outright secrecy, hard-core salesmanship, and all of us being so socialized in favor of technocratic perceptions that more technocracy only makes sense to us. (that's what I think is going on, anyway.)

Nano isn't anything new other than a smaller scale on which to control things, as such it's a source of great new power. Should we encourage those who hold so much power already to gain even more? No! What can be done about a nano arms race? I don't know, but having a grumpier attitude about nano altogether (and authoritarianism/technocracy in general) seems a prerequisite for engaging with any of these questions.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Michael: Later development would give us more time be hit by other technology advances, which might lead to some nano-relevant policy being worked out. I think this is a minor effect.

I'm looking into Eliezer's claim. If he's right, then we may do ourselves in with conventional computers even before MNT is developed, so this isn't an MNT-specific problem.

That paper looks extremely interesting. I wish I knew enough organic chemistry to follow what they're doing. It looks like they've found a way of binding reactants in a spatial array so that they can then apply a sequence of reactions to make a programmable synthesis. I wonder whether they can use this for templating 2D reactions, perhaps with Ned Seeman's DNA grids? I'll definitely follow up on this. Thanks for pointing it out.


Richard Jones

Antinano, your comments about the political process in the USA around the NNI are interesting and illuminating to me; being based in Europe I haven't been following them in great detail. But from my European perspective I must admit that the idea of the EU providing a model for public engagement strikes me as pretty ironic; it's difficult to imagine a more closed and remote bunch of technocrats than the EU commission and their secretariat. But your general point that things are done differently in Europe to the USA may have some force. The UK government commissioned study into nano done by the Royal Society publishes 29 July; that had a lot of input both from NGOs and citizens groups as well as direct public engagement via market research and citizens groups and it will interesting to see the results.

But your comments about the Milgram experiments reinforce my perception that you just don't trust ordinary people to make the right decisions - that old Marxist chestnut of "false consciousness" still seems to be alive and well in the environmentalist movement. Maybe we are that much more cynical and sceptical of authority in the UK than you are in the USA, but somehow that seems implausible to me. I don't think ordinary people are necessarily stupid, and even in the absence of good information democratic judgements are often sound.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

I think the Milgram experiments don't relate to people being overly trusting or unskeptical.

The Milgram experiments are very interesting. It's important to read them closely--including the later ones where he tried to analyze what component of the situation caused the remarkable abdication of responsibility.

Simply being an authority figure was not enough to invoke compliance. Milgram did some experiments exploring the effects of dissent between multiple "doctors." If there was a clear hierarchy, dissent from the underling didn't have much effect. But if the chain of authority was ambiguous, dissent at the "top level" caused a marked drop in compliance.

So unless you want to argue that the technophiles are in an unambiguous authority/hierarchy position with respect to the people, I don't think you can invoke Milgram. But I don't think you need to; it's not like it goes against the grain to be a technophilic consumer. Embracing technology is not remotely the same experience as personally torturing someone. The Milgram experiments were about direct authority convincing/coercing people to do things against their nature. The worst spin you can put on technophilia is that it's about convenience and persuasion enticing people to be morally lazy. Consumers of technology are generally cheerful and easygoing about it. The participants in the Milgram experiments were not.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Correction: In a comment above, I wrote that reading Prey was correlated with a positive attitude toward nanotech, and that Prey-related demographics didn't explain the effect. This was based on a writeup of early analysis by the researchers. But, later in-depth statistical analysis apparently showed that demographics does explain the effect and that Prey itself doesn't have much effect either way.


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