Australia’s branch of Friends of the Earth have been running an anti nanotech campaign for a while, along the lines of “all nanotech is bad, except where it permits the reduction of CO2 emissions, allows renewable energy, cures cancer etc”. If this pattern keeps up the argument will have more holes in it than a swiss cheese and wind up more complex than the European Constitution.

The group have seized upon an essay by Australian ethicist Dr Robert Sparrow of Monash University as evidence of widespread hypocrisy about nanotechnology, although in this case it accuses the pro nano camp of changing the argument depending on the questions being asked – which is presumably not a tactic that F0E would ever engage in.

Overall, it illustrates the old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Lumping all things nano together results more in confusion than hypocrisy, especially for non scientists. Are we talking about molecular manufacturing or nanomaterials, thin film organic solar cells or nano enabled death rays commissioned by the Pentagon?

The recent study on public opinion which indicated that most people had made up their mind about whether nanotech was a good or bad thing on the basis of socio economic and political views is probably relevant here.

Finally the conclusion, below, could apply to any technology, or indeed advocates of greenness. The world is full of hypocrites, but I am not convinced that nanotech has a bigger share than any other technology or anti technology advocates, but perhaps the key to identifying hypocrisy would be to start with the science rather than the ethics?

However, the real problem arising from the existence of the contradictory claims I have highlighted is not so much that it is hard to work out which of them is true but that the combination of them functions to close down the space in which critical engagement with them might take place. Changing stories allows nano-enthusiasts to avoid having to discuss the full implications of their original claims. When advocates for nanotechnology want to drum up interest in it, or funding for it, they talk about nanotechnology and argue that it is revolutionary; when they want to defuse fears, they insist there are only nanotechnologies which are already familiar. When they want the public to accept nanotechnology they argue it is inevitable; when they want the government to provide more funding, change the laws, or educate the public to be more enthusiastic about it, they argue it is precarious. They allow that nanotechnology requires regulation but ignore the problems with the institutions that will be doing the regulating. While they routinely acknowledge the importance of ethical issues, they seldom acknowledge the possibility that these might constitute a reason to turn away from developing nanotechnology. This pattern of claims reflects an attempt by advocates for nanotechnology to have the best of both worlds across these areas. It also functions to continually defer sustained ethical discussion of any of them.

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