Saturday, March 06, 2010

beyond cross-tabs ... and toward a more sophisticated understanding of public opinion on nanotech?

This week, we saw another summary report on public attitudes on nanotech -- this time issued by the UK's Food Standards Agency.  And there were no surprises as far as punchlines go: a lack of familiarity with nanotech and its applications among the general public and some concerns. The report's conclusions were based mostly on reports of dichotomous cross-tabs -- with little baselining against insights from social science research more broadly about how attitudes are formed, and few statistical controls to provide more granular information into different sub-publics or rule out alternative explanations.

And don't get me wrong, reports like this are very useful, especially as initial quick snapshots of what the public opinion landscape may look like and where we need more research. But similar to recent discussions about the simplistic polling on the health care debate, continuing to reduce the issue of nanotech to aggregate percentage breakdowns of familiarity and support does little to help our understanding of the dynamics surrounding public communication about emerging technologies or to inform and improve policy decisions. 

In fact, it is time for us to move beyond a few often-repeated (but incorrect) assumptions, and look at data in a much more sophisticated (and ultimately useful) fashion:

First, many people (including the most recent report) have argued that knowledge and awareness of nanotechnology have not increased significantly in the last few years.  This is true if we look at the U.S. population as a monolithic whole, assuming that 308 million Americans (or the population of any other country, for that matter) approach nanotechnology in the exact same fashion, regardless of political views, education levels, experiences with previous technologies, etc. Of course, we know from previous research that this is not true, and that the U.S. and other countries may differ significantly as far as attitudes toward nanotech go.

Not surprisingly, therefore, more recent data suggest that knowledge levels about nanotechnology are not static, and that we may be witnessing increases in knowledge and awareness among some groups, while other groups show decreases in understanding, as policy discussions  about toxicity, regulations and applications becomes more complex. In other words, if we examine public opinion data in a more granular fashion, it becomes clear that knowledge and awareness of nanotechnology seem to be in flux and that gaps between the already highly-informed and those with less familiarity about nanotechnology may be widening.  And what makes these widening gaps particularly disconcerting is the fact that those groups who are increasingly being left behind in terms of information levels tend to be of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Second, a lot of research has focused on risk-benefits perceptions as a key focal variable, asking the public if they think the risks outweigh the benefits, if the benefits outweigh the risks, or if the two are about equal. Of course, these measures are likely fraught with order effects and the inability of respondents to make reliable summative assessments of risks and benefits.  In other words, we need to expand our views on attitudes toward research and funding in particular areas of application. And again, recent research suggests that the link between concrete (as opposed to abstract summative) risk assessments and attitudes is not equally strong for all members of the public, but rather depends on a variety of factors, including people's assessment of likely applications and the risks and benefits associated with them.

This raises a third point: the need for sophisticated modeling beyond bivariate cross-tabulation of data.  Offering percentage breakdowns of respondents supporting or opposing an issue may be useful for initial overview reports, but it does little to help us understand the complexities of how different publics understand risks, what informational deficits they may face, or which areas of nanotechnology they'd like to see more of of a societal debate on.

In order to answer these questions we need to move beyond crosstabs and carefully look at what we know from basic research in communication, political science, and other fields about the public opinion and media dynamics in midern democracies. And we need to rely on state-of-the art statistical and analytic tools to tell us about the complex interplay of demographic variables, values, media, perceptual filters, and information, and about their influences on how the public approaches nanotechnology. Figure 1 shows the complexities of some of those interrelationships when predicting general attitudes toward science.
Figure 1; from Nisbet, M. C., Scheufele, D. A., Shanahan, J., Moy, P., Brossard, D., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2002). Knowledge, reservations, or promise? A media effects model for public perceptions of science and technology. Communication Research, 29(5), 584-608.

Ultimately, our ability to systematically plan and evaluate communication efforts that involve all members of the general public in the debates surrounding emerging technologies is very closely correlated to the sophistication and accuracy with which we understand the opinion and communication environment that shapes all of these efforts.

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