Study examines perceptions of nanotechnology safety (12/9)
A diverse sample of 1,500 Americans were involved in the study. Most were unfamiliar with nanotechnology, a relatively new science that involves the manipulation of particles the size of atoms and that has numerous commercial applications. According to Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor at Yale Law School and lead author of the study, participants’ responses were primarily determined by their cultural values. “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 in general. “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 concluded that people who have pro-commerce cultural values are more likely to be familiar with 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.”
Kahan and other experts say that 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.”