Monday, October 23, 2006

Framing wars: Religion vs. science

Leading up to key races in Missouri and other states, mass media have fully endorsed the framing wars between science and religion. Fueling the fire is Richard Dawkins’ tour for his latest book The God Delusion, which was enough to have Wired Magazine declare the age of “The New Atheism" in their November issue. As their title says: “No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science: Inside the crusade against religion.”

Science, of course, has little to do with religion or a crusade against it. But science is fighting for its life. Proponents of the Intelligent Design movement have very aptly and very successfully reframed religion as a scientific theory. They have recast margins of error as "uncertainty," and concept-based reasoning as “just a theory.”

And these frames fall on fertile ground. In a 2004 Newsweek poll, 93 percent of Americans said they believed that Jesus Christ actually lived and 82 percent believed Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God. Fifty-two percent of all those polled believed that Jesus will return to earth someday. Fifteen percent believed that Jesus will return in their lifetime.

This makes the recent battles over public opinion and framing of stem cell even more interesting. A number of think tanks and interest groups are actively battling back. MajorityAction, a DNC think tank, just released an issue ad, attacking a number of Republican candidates who oppose expanded federal funding for stem cell research. Their frame: Anti-stem cell means anti-life and anti-science. Here’s part of the transcript of an ad targeting NY Congressman Jim Walsh that plays directly into the religion versus science frame:

“He voted against federal funding for stem cell research. Is he a doctor? Is he a scientist? Why did Congressman Walsh bet my life that he knows best?”

Michael J. Fox also just came out with a campaign ad supporting Claire McCaskill (D) who is running for one of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seats. Among the sound bites from the ad:

“Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope.”

And the strategy of recasting opponents of expanded stem cell funding as anti-science and anti-life may very well work on November 7. But more importantly, these attempts to establish one frame over another are good indicators of what we can expect for future debates about emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology.

And they highlight a key aspect of successful communication. Neither proponents nor opponents of stem cell research build their arguments on scientific information. What they rely on are heuristics or cognitive shortcuts that will allow voters to make decisions without understanding the obvious complexities surrounding the issues. And it doesn't matter if these shortcuts are based on religious beliefs, celebrity, or personal hopes. Packaging matters ... regardless of which side of the issue you’re on.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Could a GM-style nano war be breaking out?

The Times speculates today that we may soon see a public debate over nano and food that is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding GM food. And even though some researchers have argued that the two issues are inherently different (see nanopublic posting from February 13, 2006), Vivienne Parry's article provides some very interesting explanations for why European companies have been so keen to establish the "nano is nature" frame in public discourse early on (see nanopublic posting from August 20, 2006), especially as more and more food-related nano applications are hitting the shelves.

"Could nanomaterials migrate from packaging into food? If so, what might their impact be? No one knows yet [...] . So that is one area where future controversy may lie.

But more likely by far to provoke public concern is the interest that food manufacturers are showing in adding nanomaterials directly to food. Because nanotechnology is such a new science, the consequences of them entering the human body is an under-researched area."

(For the full article, click here.)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

FDA hearing and public opinion: About more than just trust ...

The precautionary principle and science are like the welfare state and a market economy. No one seriously argues that we don’t need some combination of both. But the question is: How much weight do we assign to each, and what are the goals we have in mind when we do?

And this week’s FDA hearing on nanotech was a perfect example:
“[T]he U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Nanotechnology Task Force got more than just a mixed message Tuesday when it convened experts and stakeholders to get advice as to whether the agency should regulate nanotechnology products.

Some said current regulations are sufficient, while others said safety testing is long overdue, especially for products like cosmetics. But they also disagreed as to how to define a nanoparticle, and even if there should be such a definition in the first place.”
(for the full article from Smalltimes, click here)

All arguments about labeling at the FDA hearing came down to three competing interests: the scientific community, the business community, and the public. Interestingly, the argument was made that regulations are necessary in order to not lose the public’s trust. But regulations, of course, are just on potential predictor of trust.

Trust in regulatory bodies tends to spill over from issue to issue, and people who felt that the government did not deal adequately with the risks associated with previous issues, such ag biotech or asbestos, will also be less trusting when it comes to regulating nano. More importantly, however, trust is shaped my mass media and their coverage of emerging technologies. And the FDA and other federal agencies should be very concerned about how to communicate about nanotech not just with the public, but with journalists who will cover the story.

Journalists favor conflict over science and debate over discourse. For the Intelligent Design issue (i.e., teaching various creationist beliefs in public school science classes), this has produced the warped perception among large parts of the public that scientific findings are inherently tentative and uncertain. And media are in part to blame. Based on a faulty understanding of balance, some media organizations present “both sides” of the Intelligent Design debate, as if the pro-ID position were on par with other scientifically-based viewpoints.

In addition, for many emerging technologies, the question if we have regulations in place to minimize health effects is irrelevant for public support. Stem cell research is a great example of an issue where various sub-publics would oppose any scientific progress on ideological and religious grounds, regardless of how well regulated the approval processes by federal agencies would be. In short, public opinion on nanotech is about a lot more than trust.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Civic scientists ... the ability to tell a story

Assistant Editor Bethany Halford's feature on 1996 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner and Rice chemistry professor Richard E. Smalley in the current issue of Chemical & Engineering News is worth reading. Halford's take: He was one of the greatest communicators that the field of nanotech has had.

The article outlines at least are two interesting lessons for effective communication about emerging technologies, especially at the policy level. First, in order to be effective at the policy level, any description of the new technology has to be episodic, i.e., it has to link to a concrete case.
“When Smalley testified before the House of Representatives about establishing NNI in 1999, he had been fighting leukemia for over a year. "I sit before you today with very little hair on my head. It fell out a few weeks ago as a result of the chemotherapy I've been undergoing to treat a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," Smalley told the representatives. "While I am very optimistic, this chemotherapy is a very blunt tool. It consists of small molecules which are toxic-they kill cells in my body. Although they are meant to kill only the cancer cells, they kill hair cells too, and cause all sorts of other havoc.

"Now, I'm not complaining. Twenty years ago, without even this crude chemotherapy, I would already be dead. But 20 years from now, I am confident we will no longer have to use this blunt tool. By then, nanotechnology will have given us specially engineered drugs, which are nanoscale cancer-seeking missiles, a molecular technology that specifically targets just the mutant cancer cells in the human body and leaves everything else blissfully alone. ... I may not live to see it. But, with your help, I am confident it will happen. Cancer-at least the type that I have-will be a thing of the past."”

The second interesting skill Halford highlights is Smalley’s ability to act as a “civic scientist, as Neal Lane, Clinton’s Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, puts it.
“The academics who are most effective in Washington—Lane calls them civic scientists—can "tell an interesting story in a succinct manner, where not only is it clear what the fundamental science and engineering aspects are, but also what the impact on society will be. And you have to do it in such a way that what you say sounds credible and not hyped," Lane says.”

(Click here for the full article.)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Technology Review: ‘"Nanotoxicity" might seem more compelling if there was an actual nano-victim out there.’

Technology Review editor David Talbot just blogged on the recent discussions about regulatory deficits for nanotechnology, suggesting that none of these arguments will gain much traction unless we see some type of catalytic event:

“Not since New Year's Eve 2000, have so many safety concerns been voiced for what--so far, anyway--seems so little reason. We're talking about nanotechnology: the catch-all term for engineering super-small features and particles to create things like ultra-sensitive medical diagnostic tools, blazingly fast electronics, and exceptionally strong materials.

There are theoretical risks. When you break something into smaller pieces, you wind up with more surface area for the same mass--making the thing potentially more reactive and more toxic. Also, super-small particles can move to places in the body where other particles can't, like the alveoli in the lungs and even past the blood-brain barrier.”

(Click here for the full article.)
His overview is especially refreshing since he is not blindly jumping on the we-need-more-regulations bandwagon that has dominated the discussions about societal impacts of nanotechnology recently:
“Yes, as with most human endeavors, the field carries potential risks to human health and the environment. But, by all appearances, the leaders in this field are on top of what is, so far, a nonproblem.

Nanotech is where breakthroughs are likely. Forget about just the cancer-detection and other advanced medical tools it's midwifing and the next-gen consumer electronics such as super-bright displays. On a planet that's on the cusp of catastrophic climate change, nano-engineered materials have the potential to make a real difference. Imagine solar power cells that are far cheaper and more efficient; batteries that allow for more efficient electric cars; components that make cleaner coal-fired power plants. These and other applications are hardly trivial--they'll save energy, reduce pollution, and maybe go a little way to making sure Times Square won't be under water for the next millennium celebration.”
The only aspect where his blog post is somewhat misleading is his interpretation of the results of a recent Wilson Center survey. The survey asked about people’s self-reported awareness of nanotech. This has little to do with knowledge or understanding, of course, but Talbot doesn’t make that distinction:
“Rich people know more about nanotech than poor people. And as a kicker: older people and women know the least about nanotech, even though they're the ones more likely to use the cosmetics and sunscreens that may contain nanoparticles.”
In the last NSF-funded national survey we did here at Wisconsin, there was no gender or income gap for nano knowledge. That is, if nano knowledge was measured as an additive index of six factual knowledge questions about scientific and economic aspects of nanotech rather than simple awareness of the issue. Which demographics were in fact more informed about nano? Younger and more educated respondents.

For more details:

Scheufele, D. A., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2005). The public and nanotechnology: How citizens make sense of emerging technologies. Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 7(6), 659-667.