NanoPhobia … Phobia

NanoPhobia … Phobia

In an interesting coincidence and counterpoint to Jim’s Nanophobia post this morning, I ran across the following on Nature News:
Fearing the fear of nanotechnology. It is, surprisingly perhaps, by our old friend Richard Jones. The thrust of the article is that a study in Nature Nanotechnology seems to show that the public’s reaction to nanotech is not as simplistic as technologists seem to think it is, and that there’s a significant segment that recognizes nanotech’s promise and broadly expects benefits to outweigh risks.

All too often, scientists treat the public as an undifferentiated mass. Indeed, sociologist of science Arie Rip, of the University of Twente in The Netherlands, goes so far as to identify widespread ‘nanophobia-phobia’ among nanotechnology insiders — an unreasonable and exaggerated conviction that a scientifically illiterate public with no appreciation of how to balance risks will reject a promising technology at the behest of an irresponsible media.
A more sophisticated analysis must recognize that the public is made up of different people with their own ideologies, through which they filter information about technologies and their risks.
Perhaps the most common of scientists’ preconceptions is the idea that fear of technology arises from ignorance, and that public acceptance inevitably grows as people learn more about the technology. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, and colleagues call this the familiarity hypothesis, and have now shown that it is not true.
People’s views of nanotechnology can become more or less favourable as they learn more, the authors found, depending on their ideological starting point. So-called hierarchical individualists, who like free markets and respect the authority of social elites, find more to approve of in nanotechnology as they grow more familiar with it. Conversely, more information seems to give ‘egalitarian communitarians’ more to be concerned about.

In this connection, it seems that there is an important role for Foresight — to maintain a strong emphasis on the difference between eutactic, atomically precise manufacturing and the kind of “nanotechnology” that involves the application of uncontained nanoparticles.


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  1. Richard Jones December 11, 2008 at 7:01 am - Reply

    Thanks for the advertisement, Josh (it’s good to see you writing on Nanobot, by the way). But I’m curious as to why you think it’s surprising that I’m the author of this piece. Aside from the fact that I write a regular column for Nature Nanotechnology, so the people at Nature know me well, I’ve written a great deal about nanotechnology and public engagement over the years, as well as having quite a lot of first hand experience of talking to the public about nanotech. It’s that personal experience that makes at least some aspects of these three academic studies ring true to me.

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