A new survey on US public opinion provided little new in terms of the scientific literacy of the man on the Clapham Omnibus (or Deadwood Stage) – this survey found that over 80 percent of U.S. respondents had heard “little” or “nothing at all” about nanotechnology – but reveals some fascinating insights into the way that perceptions of technology are reached.
According to the researchers, people tend to have a gut reaction based on their beliefs rather than any facts, so capitalist libertarians will focus on the befits while Marxist greens will focus on the risks. Race and ethnicity seems to also play a part, although one would suspect that that was more influenced by underlying social factors such as the ability or otherwise to make a fast buck out of a new idea.
One of the rather worrying conclusions is that the “survey indicates that just providing the public with factual scientific information about nanotechnology will not guarantee popular acceptance and support” – although some of the recent studies in the UK seem to indicate the contrary.
So in summary, the general public doesn’t know anything about nanotechnology, doesn’t care about nanotechnology and their views are formed along social and economic lines rather than through an understanding of the facts. I don’t think that this is a surprise, many technologies polarise along good/bad lines and people will cling to the filmiest of evidence to support what they want to believe – GMO’s, vitamin supplements, organic food, nuclear power, climate change and now nanotechnology.
So when it comes to public engagement, it seems that the only way to sway the public opinion is to show them some clear benefit from the technology, which is why mobile phones were judged to be an acceptable risk despite early concern about the effects of microwave radiation on human tissue.