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
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
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.