Thursday, February 21, 2008

Religion and nano … what the data show

Following up on some of the recent coverage of our AAAS presentation and press briefing (see, for example here, here, and here), let me provide a few pieces of background info. As part of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University we’ve been collecting survey data since 2004 now on public attitudes toward and awareness of nanotechnology. These data allow us to make comparisons over time using nationally representative samples and stable measures.

In our most recent iteration, we also designed a battery of questions to parallel the wording of questions in the 64.3 Eurobarometer surveys about public attitudes toward nanotechnology. This provides us with data from over 30 countries on attitudes toward nanotechnology and nano regulations.

First comparisons showed many similarities between the U.S. and key players in Europe (see Figure 1). There was, however, one difference between Europe and the U.S. And that was that respondents in the U.S. were significantly less likely to agree that “nanotechnology is morally acceptable.” At first glance, of course, this finding seems somewhat puzzling. Why would consumers and citizens have moral qualms about a technology they know little about?

Figure 1: Nano attitudes in the U.S. and Europe

(Scheufele, D. A. (2008, February). Engaging religious audiences on nanotechnology. Presented to the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Boston, MA.)

In order to make more sense of this finding, we also looked at the World Values Survey, an extremely rich data set with data from over 75 countries on religious views, values, media use, demographics and other variables. And the pattern was not surprising. On a ten-point scale, U.S. respondents scored between 8 and 9 on average when indicating how much guidance god provided in their daily lives. European respondents in Germany, France, and the U.K., in contrast, consistently scored below 5.

And these differences are at least consistent with the idea that religiosity may play more of a role among the U.S. public than European audiences when it comes to nanotechnology. At the same time, however, comparing aggregate level data from different data sources can suggest a potential explanation, but provides no conclusive evidence. Some of that individual-level data, however, can be found in a forthcoming study conducted by colleagues of mine at Wisconsin and myself, examining the role of religiosity in moderating the impact of risk/benefit perceptions on nano attitudes.

And the influences we found in that study of religiosity on attitudes toward nanotech in the U.S. were very interesting. First, our data showed a weak link between religiosity and attitudes toward nanotech and nano funding. And that most likely reflects a general reservation toward science among religious respondents. More importantly, however, our data showed that religiosity also serves as an important "filter" for certain publics when they make sense of nano. I have written about this idea before:

Scheufele, D. A. (2006). Messages and heuristics: How audiences form attitudes about emerging technologies. In J. Turney (Ed.), Engaging science: Thoughts, deeds, analysis and action (pp. 20-25). London: The Wellcome Trust.

And again, this is not just about a simple correlation between religiosity and attitudes toward science, which is important in its own right. But in this case, we're talking about a link between benefit perceptions and attitudes that varies depending on respondents' levels of religiosity. In other words, seeing the benefits of nanotechnology is consistently linked to more positive attitudes ... at least among less religious respondents. For more religious respondents, in contrast, that effect is significantly weaker, and seeing the benefits of nano does not necessarily translate into support for the technology or future funding (see Figure 2).

(Based on more complex multivariate models, outlined in Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E., & Lewenstein, B. V. (forthcoming). Religiosity as a perceptual filter: Examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science.)

Putting information out there, of course, continues to be an important goal for all science communication. But we also need to realize that different publics have different informational deficits, react very differently to information, and -- most importantly -- are looking for answers to questions that often have very little to do with the scientific issues surrounding emerging technologies. As the data from our forthcoming articles show, fitting the moral implications of nano breakthroughs into their existing belief or value systems is much more important for some groups in society at the moment than understanding the science behind it.

(For media coverage of this story, see BusinessWeek, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Capital Times, Wired, Science Daily, and other reactions from the blogosphere.)