NEW HAVEN, Conn., Dec. 8, 2008 – According to an experiment, conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, involving a diverse sample of 1500 Americans, the notion of nanotechnology is sharply divided along cultural lines.
The experiment involved members of the public, the vast majority of who were unfamiliar with nanotechnology. Rather than infer that nanotechnology is safe, participants who learned about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology tended to become sharply polarized in their opinions, compared to those who were not afforded the same information.
Nanowire lasers are one new development of nanotechnology. Photo courtesy of Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation.
These findings have important implications for garnering support of the new technology, say the researchers.
The determining factor in how people responded was their cultural values, according to Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor at Yale Law School and lead author of the study.
"People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe, while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous," said Kahan
According to Kahan, this pattern is consistent with studies examining how people's cultural values influence their perceptions of environmental and technological risks generally. "In sum, when they learned about a new technology, people formed reactions to it that matched their views of risks like climate change and nuclear waste disposal," he said.
The study also found that people who have pro-commerce cultural values are more likely to know about nanotechnology than others.
"Not surprisingly, people who like technology and believe it isn't bad for the environment tend to learn about new technologies before other people do," said Kahan. "While various opinion polls suggest that familiarity with nanotechnology leads people to believe it is safe, they have been confusing cause with effect."
According to Kahan and other experts, the findings of the experiment highlight the need for public education strategies that consider citizens' predispositions.
"There is still plenty of time to develop risk-communication strategies that make it possible for persons of diverse values to understand the best evidence scientists develop on nanotechnology's risks," added Kahan. "The only mistake would be to assume that such strategies aren't necessary."
"The message matters," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. "How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology. Scientists, the government, and industry generally take a simplistic, 'just the facts' approach to communicating with the public about a new technology. But, this research shows that diverse audiences and groups react to the same information very differently."
This report was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School, and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
For more information, visit: www.yale.edu