Nanotechnology policy game for public shows bias

Dietram Scheufele writes of an event at the U.K.’s Dana Centre — whose website says “The Dana Centre is sexing up science for the masses” — using a nanotechnology-based card game to get the general public thinking about nanotechnology. Dietram concludes: “Using a card game that defines clear rules for all players and forces them to examine the issues from all angles, may help counter the detrimental group dynamics and informational gaps that often characterize traditional deliberative meetings with members of the general public.” Sounds right.

But as regular readers of Nanodot know, we at Foresight have doubts about how information is being presented to the public in these outreach events. For example, I looked over the card game (PDF), and by my rough count, 35 cards seemed to have a neutral tone, 23 were more negative, and only 14 were more positive. Your count may be different, but I think it’s clear that there are more negative cards than positive ones. Who made that decision, and on what grounds? It’s unclear.

We can see some results of real games with these cards. Go to the Decide website, click on Results, select Nanotechnology. Then you can view results for Europe as a whole, specific European countries (click on the map to select a country), or select Canada, Israel, South Africa, or the U.S. It’s interesting to see the national variations, but we need to keep in mind that the information being fed to the participants has a bias.

Before such procedures will be useful for policymaking or effective public outreach, a lot of work is needed to make them more robust against bias. Maybe a more explicitly adversarial process (as mentioned previously) would be a more balanced way to do this. That’s how we do it when the issue is literally of life-and-death importance, e.g., a murder trial.

The Decide website intro says that the game “provides a structure that helps people feel safe discussing a subject they may know nothing about.” This is good, but it’s awfully easy to manipulate people in that situation, even if one doesn’t mean to do so. —Christine

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