Thursday, November 23, 2006

“The asbestos of tomorrow” is beginning to stick

The asbestos of tomorrow frame that I’ve blogged about back in February (see nano|public post from February, 16, 2006) is now even emerging in the academic discourse about nanotech in the U.S. Brown University’s alumni magazine recently ran an article about professors Robert Hurt and Agnes Kane who research the safety of carbon nano materials.

The article provides an excellent overview of the important work that Hurt and Kane are doing at Brown. But it also illustrates a key aspect of how scientific issues get communicated. And that is: A good frame goes a long way, and once the genie is out of the bottle it is impossible to put it back. In other words, scientists should think very carefully about the type of language they use when talking about emerging technologies, because the terms they use are often as important as the scientific findings that they want the public to know about.

Political candidates have figured this out a long time ago and are now spending significant amounts of time and resources on researching the labels they use when describing or framing issues. Framing as a concept goes back to work in sociology, psychology and communication, and refers to the idea that the way we describe an issue can influence the cognitive schema that people use to make sense of the issue. In other words, it is not what you say, but how you say it that makes all the difference.

The tricky part is that framing is also an important tool for journalists who have to convey complex issues, such as nanotech, to their audience who have little or no scientific training. Frames like “the asbestos of tomorrow” therefore allow journalists to cover the issue in a way that helps audiences make sense of the potential concerns by drawing parallels to previous scientific controversies.

In other words, framing is an important journalistic tool. The problem is that the “asbestos” frame in particular evokes interpretive schema that have little to do with nano. And rather than encouraging citizens to carefully consider what we know and don’t know about nanotech and its risks, the asbestos frame allows audiences to instead rely on a heuristic understanding of nanotechnology that is in part based on what many considered a lackluster response by the Federal government to the health problems surrounding asbestos.

And the Brown article plays directly into this interpretation. Emily Gold Boutilier, author of the article and now editor at Amherst Magazine, uses the asbestos comparison to put Hurt and Kane’s work into a historical perspective.

As a result, the article is not sensationalist or misleading. In fact, it provides an excellent overview of the work done at Brown. The problem is that Boutilier's story angle and choice of frame structures the narrative around potential parallels to asbestos, even though that is not what the content is all about. As a result, the complex issues surrounding the largely unknown toxic qualities of nano-sized carbon structures are reduced to a single question, repeated in pull-quotes and teasers throughout the article: “Could today’s wonder fiber be the next asbestos?”

And the story angle provides a convenient interpretive tool for audiences who know little about nanotech (see the recent poll by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies). Paralleling nano and asbestos also rules out anything but the strictest interpretation of the precautionary principle. Who in the world would not chose oversight and regulations over scientific progress, if we are really about to create a new cancer epidemic 20 years down the road?

The idea has nothing to do with being in favor or against nanotech, of course. But it highlights an important lesson for all of us involved in outreach and education about nano. It’s not just what you say, it is how you say it. The Frankenfood label was successful not based on the information it provided, but based on the interpretive schema it triggered among audiences.

And European companies have learned their lesson. They continue to prepare for a potential public controversy on nanotech by focusing on a few key terms and ideas around which they brand their innovations and parents. And they’re good at it. The goal: To establish their frames early in public discourse and to stay on message with nano is nature frames, comparisons with the lotus flower, and with earthy colors for every product that hits the market.


Maria Powell said...

Your recent blog, "The asbestos of tomorrow," raises some interesting questions that I'm hoping you can address since you are a risk communication expert.

Although you praise the "important work that Hurt and Kane are doing at Brown," you critique the journalist (Boutilier) for saying that Dr. Kane wonders if carbon nanotubes can "behave in the lungs like asbestos fibers." You say that the article is not sensationalist or misleading, but then strongly criticize Boutilier's frame because it includes (among other issues) a parallel to asbestos.

Dr. Kane is an expert on asbestos toxicity and is actively studying carbon nanotubes. Perhaps she made the asbestos parallel, not the journalist? Perhaps the journalist only paraphrased her? Many scientists, in fact, are comparing carbon nanotubes and other nanoparticles directly to asbestos (as positive controls) in their studies (see Soto et al, 2005, Muller et al., 2006, Lam et al., 2006). Several of these studies found that the toxic effects of some types of carbon nanotubes and other nanoparticles are comparable to and in certain cases exceed those of asbestos. Many more studies on CNTs that don't use asbestos as a comparison/control in experiments also found that they have effects in vitro and in vivo very similar to those of asbestos (inflammation, fibrosis, granulomas). I can also send those papers to you if you'd like.

Certainly, there are countless scientific uncertainties about whether or not CNTs and other nanoparticles will be "the next asbestos." Still, the structures of CNTs, and toxicological effects in studies so far, are enough like asbestos that some highly reputable scientists feel comfortable making this comparison and asking this question. Some of the top research experts in the world on nanoparticles and fibers are making the asbestos comparison.

So, my questions to you are--

1) Your blog implies that the asbestos comparison is not OK for journalists and other risk communicators when discussing nanofiber and other nanoparticle risks. Given that many research scientists are making this comparison in studies, are you suggesting that journalists NOT share these scientific findings? Is this honest journalism? Is this good science communication? Methodologically, not discussing the controls or comparisons is bad science in my book. Comparisons, as you know, are among the key elements of good scientific method. Why do you suppose scientists are choosing asbestos for comparisons in nanoparticle studies? Maybe you should critique the scientists for choosing asbestos as a control in their experiments?

2) What if a scientist comes out and makes the asbestos comparison verbatim to a journalist? Are you suggesting that he/she shouldn't do that, even when his/her study directly compares nanotubes to asbestos in an experiment? Or, should the journalist just change the quote, taking any comparison to asbestos (or other known risks) out for fear of triggering the wrong interpretive schema?

3). Most importantly, how do you think journalists and other risk communicators should communicate to the public about the risks of emerging nanotechnologies? What kinds of "interpretive schema" do you think they should be attempting to trigger in audiences, and why?

I hope you'll take the time to answer my questions. I look forward to your response


Maria Powell


Maria C. Powell, Ph.D.
Research Associate
Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center
Engineering Centers Building, Rm. 3103
1550 Engineering Drive
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI 53706-1296

phone: 608-890-0394 or 608-240-1485
FAX: 608-240-1485 (call first)