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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Religion and nanotechnology

Now this story is really weird.

Apparently, most Americans reject the morality of nanotechnology on religious grounds. At least that's the inference drawn by Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication. In addressing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on 15 February, Professor Scheufele presented survey results seeming to show the effect of religion on public views of technology in the United States.

In a sample of 1,015 adult Americans, only 29.5 percent of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable!

According to the story, similar European surveys that posed identical questions about nanotechnology produced a very different result. In the United Kingdom, 54.1 percent found nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. In Germany, 62.7 percent had no moral qualms about nanotechnology, and in France 72.1 percent of survey respondents saw no problems with the technology.

Scheufele is quoted as saying: "There seem to be distinct differences between the United States and countries that are key players in nanotech in Europe, in terms of attitudes toward nanotechnology."

The reason that he gives is the role of religion:

"The United States is a country where religion plays an important role in peoples' lives. The importance of religion in these different countries that shows up in data set after data set parallels exactly the differences we're seeing in terms of moral views. European countries have a much more secular perspective."

According to Scheufele, Americans with strong religious convictions lump together nanotechnology, biotechnology and stem cell research as means to enhance human qualities. These religious Americans see researchers "playing God" when they create materials that do not occur in nature, especially where nanotechnology and biotechnology intertwine.

If this research and the author's analysis are accurate, the effect of irrational thinking on public perceptions of science in the United States is even greater than might have been feared. Admittedly, there may be misuses or hazards associated with nanotechnology as it develops, as with any powerful new technology, but that is not a good reason for holding that nanotechnology in itself is morally unacceptable.

More research surely needs to be conducted to confirm whether the basis for widespread moral rejection of nanotechnology in the US is primarily religious in origin, particularly whether it is based on fears of "playing God". However, the reported research is certainly suggestive of such thinking. If that's correct, we have another example of why popular US-style religion is incompatible with the development of a broad public policy based on freedom, reason, and the advancement of science. It's not necessarily a matter of explaining the situation more effectively: the people interviewed were not ignorant, so it's claimed, but morally opposed to something that they actually did understand.

It appears yet again that the ultimate solution is not more explaining, spinning, "framing", or what have you, even if these are necessary. We need a direct, long-term, unremitting campaign to weaken the cognitive and moral authority of religion. We need to attack the root of the problem by doing whatever we can to create a more rational and sceptical ethos in Western societies, the US above all.

Even the figures from the UK, Germany, and France are worrying. About 45 per cent in the UK did not find nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. Almost 40 per cent in Germany. Almost 30 per cent in France.

Again, nanotechnology will surely create risks, but that does not make it essentially immmoral. So why, in those relatively secular countries of Western Europe, do we still find very large numbers of people who consider it so? Is the quasi-religion of an inviolable nature having an influence here, or is there some other factor that hasn't yet been identified?


Blake Stacey said...

My first question upon seeing that story at RichardDawkins.net this morning was to ask, "How sure are we that people really are well-informed?" Given the appalling state of American science literacy in general, and considering the earlier research by the same fellow, I'm not sure that's a statement we can make. I haven't yet been able to dig out any information beyond the press release, so I can't say anything about the methods used in this survey to assess the public's knowledge.

And, as Epinephrine said at RD.net,

There are over 500 nanotech products already in use in Canada, and probably more in the US.

Those stain-proof pants? Nanotech. The special paint on high end cars? Nanotech. Bandages with silver for antibacterial properties? Nanotech. High spf sunscreens with zinc that go on clear? Nanotech.

Nanotech simply means technology at very small scales; a precise definition hasn't been agreed on worldwide. The nanoscale particles of zinc in the sunscreen, of silver in the bandage, the carbon nanotubes on the pants, and the special coating on the paint are all nanotechnologies. So is the ferrofluid used in a computer hard drive, exploiting the properties of very small magnetic particles in a carrier, to form a seal around the drive shaft.

People are scared, because they don't know that these things are already in use, and they interact with them daily.

That's not to say that they shouldn't be a little apprehensive. Very little toxicological work has been done on nanotech, and most is on carbon fiber (or other nanoscale particle) inhalation (and even that work is tricky, due to the number of ways of creating carbon nanotubes, their varying lengths and so on). Small paricles of silver can be absorbed by bacteria, killing them, but what happens when they are absorbed by us? Where are they transported? Same holds for the zinc particles in the sunscreen.

See, e.g., here and here.

Still, that said, too many political movers and shakers in my country do believe that every sperm really is sacred. From their perspective, the beneficial applications of nanotechnology we have in mind really are "playing God".

Anonymous said...

I agree with Blake, and the material quoted. Nanotech hasn't been well-defined, and everybody has visions of nanobots taking over the world, or other sci-fi visions.

I wonder what they would say if they respondents had first been reminded that their computer contains nanofabricated devices.

I think saying it's immoral is a fallback position of not liking the unknown, and here's an easy excuse to reject it.

Coathangrrr said...

It appears yet again that the ultimate solution is not more explaining, spinning, "framing", or what have you, even if these are necessary. We need a direct, long-term, unremitting campaign to weaken the cognitive and moral authority of religion. We need to attack the root of the problem by doing whatever we can to create a more rational and sceptical ethos in Western societies, the US above all.

I agree that the hold religion has on the U.S. needs to be weakened. I don't think that needs to be separate from "framing." In fact, I think they can and have to work together.

Roko said...

This links in well with what I've just said about transhumanism and atheism on my blog

J. J. Ramsey said...

One thing I wonder is how the questions were asked. Trouble is, for most Americans, the word "nanotechnology" is probably scary-sounding technobabble, and what little they know about it probably comes from fiction on TV, where nanotech is something like scientifically implausible tiny robots, rather than far more mundane applications of very small particles. Also, I wonder if it is straight-up matter of religion itself, rather than things often correlated with religiosity, like level of education.

Joseph said...

IIRC, the same pollster also claimed that experts were more worried about nanotechnology than the general public. He might be fudging data to make religion look better in his opinion.

Joshua said...

I'm not sure, really. Did they control for reading Michael Crichton novels as part of the experimental protocol? Is he as popular in Europe as he is here?

And while I half-jest, I'm also still half-serious about that.

Further, I have to agree with Blake that probably most of the respondents don't even know what nanotech is. So, the problem is even worse than you implied when you said that Americans are "morally opposed to something that they actually did understand." In reality, it seems they are morally opposed to something they don't understand (and have no desire to). Much like evolution, really.

exarch said...

I wonder, what would they respond if you asked them whether they are morally opposed to carbon emmissions or not.

It's essentially a similarly strange question to ask. Are we, after all, potentially playing god by (unintentionally) heating up our own planet. Or would drilling for oil still be considered making use of god's green earth as directed by the bible? Because that's what the president is in favor of.