The ‘scientific citizen’ and nanotech: chasing an unrealistic ideal?

By Dietram Scheufele
Small Times Guest Columnist

Nov. 16, 2005 – History, Nietzsche said, has a tendency to repeat itself. And he was right. The debate about public understanding and public acceptance of nanotechnology is just another example. Academics in the natural and social sciences struggle to figure out how to get the public more involved in scientific decision-making and how to make them more informed about nanotechnology. And often they tend to forget the lessons we learned from similar issues in the past, such as the debates surrounding genetically modified organisms and stem cell research.

One of the main lessons from these issues, of course, is that the public does not think like scientists. Michael J. Fox, Ron Reagan and the Christian Coalition have probably had a more profound influence on public opinion about stem cell research than any scientific fact. And based on all we know about how people gather and process information, things won’t change anytime soon.

Nonetheless, the predominant discourse about how to interpret and inform public opinion about nanotechnology seems to be focused on traditional scientific literacy models. Literacy models are based on the assumption that there are relatively low levels of information about scientific issues among the general public and that this widespread lack of information is — at least in part — responsible for low levels of public support for these emerging technologies. The concern for scientists, based on literacy models, is therefore to increase levels of knowledge among the public.

Of course, there’s an inherent fallacy underlying this reasoning. Let me illustrate my point with an example. Scientists frequently travel by plane. Do they have an in-depth understanding of the air traffic control system, of aeronautical engineering, or of servicing commercial airliners? Probably no. So how do they make decisions about the risks of flying or about regulations for commercial airlines? Some people choose large airlines rather than smaller, low-cost carriers. Many trust regulators to make air travel safer. And, in the end, we all rely to some degree on heuristics or mental shortcuts to make a decision under some condition of uncertainty.

Similarly, citizens use heuristics when dealing with emerging technologies. They do not try to understand all the complexities of an issue such as nanotechnology, and they do not try to be amateur scientists. In fact, it would make little sense for them to do so. Political scientist Sam Popkin calls this behavior “low-information rationality.” It makes sense for people to not use all available information, he argues, but to use only the information that is most easily available to them.

In short, we can’t make the public think like scientists, as much as proponents of literacy models like to think that we can. People rely on heuristics (in addition to information) to help them make decisions about issues such as nanotech. And they have to, at least to some degree, since they lack the scientific expertise or the time to develop a comprehensive understanding of every scientific issue that hits the policy arena.

In work forthcoming in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research and Science Communication my colleagues and I explored many of these shortcuts in greater detail. I want to highlight one here that illustrates the competing influences of information and heuristics. We conducted a national phone survey in 2004 to assess respondents’ levels of information about nanotechnology and their support for the new technology. This produced four distinct segments: informed supporters of nanotech, informed opponents, uninformed supporters and uninformed opponents.

We also gauged how much guidance religion played in respondents’ lives, averaged for each segment. Both informed and uninformed supporters reported lower levels of religiosity than the two segments of opponents. Second, and more importantly, the segment reporting the highest levels of religiosity were the informed opponents, i.e., the people who were generally opposed to nanotechnology, even though they were significantly more informed about the issue than more than half of the population.

This shows how information and heuristics clash for informed opponents of nanotech. And it is reasonable to assume that the unusually high levels of religiosity in this segment serve as a heuristic for opposing nanotech in spite of understanding much of the science behind it.

As we’re beginning to engage the public in decision making about nanotechnology, it becomes more and more important for scientists and science journalists to develop a better understanding of how public opinion is formed and of how individuals make sense of emerging technologies. This includes not only the kinds of information the public is looking for, but also how this information should be presented to be most useful to the public. The goal of these efforts should not be to make citizens think like scientists, but rather to make them understand how scientists gather knowledge and reach scientific conclusions.

This brings us back to the example of a scientist getting on an airplane. His or her decision about boarding a plane is similar to the judgments that a citizen makes about nanotechnology, and it involves similar assumptions: an understanding of the uncertainties involved, some knowledge about the technical aspects, confidence in the relevant regulatory bodies, and ultimately the notion that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Dietram Scheufele is a professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication and the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He can be reached at [email protected]

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