Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wisconsin Week: Q&A on communicating nanotech

From a Q&A in Wisconsin Week:
[...] Wisconsin Week: Why has nanotechnology, as opposed to other kinds of science, become a moral dilemma for many people as viewed through the prism of religion?

Scheufele: I am not sure if nanotechnology is the only recent example of a scientific area that challenged some people’s religious views. In fact, for genetically engineered organisms we saw similar discussions about “unnatural science” and about scientists “interfering with nature” or “playing God.” But two things are different for nanotechnology. It has a potential impact on virtually all areas of life, ranging from medicine to materials and the environment. And as a result, the potential conflict between religiosity and science will likely be much more salient for nanotechnology, in particular with respect to nano-bio-info-cogno (NBIC) technologies that may, in the future, enable us to create synthetic life and intelligence without divine intervention.

WW: How do the views of Americans differ from those of people in countries where religion is less a part of everyday life?

DS: It depends on which countries we compare the United States to. Our analyses showed that the United States is in many ways very similar to countries like Italy, Ireland and Austria, who have deeply rooted religious traditions. But the United States differs significantly from more secular European countries like France, Germany or Denmark,with a less religious citizenry and fewer moral qualms about nanotechnology.


WW: How do we explain the paradox of such a dynamic and pervasive field of technology coming under a cloud of moral scrutiny in a country that thrives on technology?

DS: I am not sure if it is really such a paradox. Science and religion are not incompatible. And many of the questions that modern science raises do not have scientific answers. Is it moral or not to create new life, for example, if that will ever be possible? And what are the social effects of virtually invisible surveillance devices that can trace our every movement? The answers to these questions depend on our values, ethics, beliefs and morals. And society will only find answers if all of these considerations are taken into account and help us understand the implications of what science has made or will make possible.


WW: Do we need to rethink the way we talk about science and its implications in America?

DS: Absolutely. Effective communication with wide cross sections of society is probably more important now than it’s ever been. Issues like nanotechnology and stem cell research raise questions about what it means to be human, what kind of applications we want in the market and how quickly. The tricky part is that, while scientists generally realize how important it is to connect with the public, many people have taken the approach that it will be enough if we just put sound science out there. But unfortunately that’s not really supported by our research.

Rather, we need to realize that different publics have different informational needs, 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 some of our recent research here at Wisconsin shows, trying to make sense of the moral implications of nano breakthroughs based on their own belief or value systems is much more important for some groups in society at the moment than understanding the science behind it.

(Click here for the full interview.)