The ongoing spat between a journalist determined to prove nanotech is dangerous and the Nation Nanotechnology Coodination Office tells us a lot about how science is perceived, and about ourselves.
The problem is that, as a journalist, you are far more likely to get a story published which alerts people to some kind of hidden danger, preferably as a result of a government conspiracy or cover up, than if you write something about science being wonderful. And it is an unequal contest. As this incident, and many others illustrate, to ‘prove’ that something is dangerous you only need to point to one study, as we saw with the MMR vaccine in the UK. However, proving that something is safe requires an infinite number of studies conducted an infinite number of times with no statistical error, so you lose the argument in the first paragraph. Of course after a reasonable amount of data has been gathered, it may turn out that something isn’t dangerous after all, but returning to an argument five years later is not of much interest in the world of journalism. Just like bankers, you collect your royalty cheque and move on to the next issue without looking back.
Any solution doesn’t lie with with risk management and perception, but with understanding the difference between scientists and the general public, a category which includes journalists and politicians, amongst others. Scientists are trained to be rational, to repeat the experiment, to gather statistical evidence and make decisions based on fact. Most people don’t have time for that sort of palaver. They open the newspaper, read that microwave ovens, vaccines, coffee, GMOs, Toyotas, nanobots are dangerous/cause cancer/will destroy the planet/make bankers even richer, and that’s it. An opinion is formed, and no further research and experimentation is needed. Having a rational scientist reciting ‘facts’ is as exciting to most people as having Gordon Brown pop round to explain tax credits to your family over breakfast.
After ten years of dealing with journalists trying to find scare stories about nanotech, I advise most people to leave them to it. If you wanted to prove that physics was dangerous you could point to nuclear weapons, or someone getting knocked off their bike while listening to an iPod instead of watching for bendy busses, but no one is yet suggesting that physics as a whole is dangerous.
Bad news sells newspapers as a result of human nature – we love to be scared and disgusted more than we want to be amazed.
After ten years of nanotech scare stories I feel that we have a fairly balanced research agenda, with plenty of good science being backed up by excellent toxicology and risk management studies.
But it’s a balance that is impossible to get right without second guessing what the applications will be.