Nanotechnology sharply polarises people along cultural lines

December 8th, 2008 - 12:42 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Dec 8 (IANS) Nanotech may be revolutionising research but it has also sharply polarised people along cultural lines, according to a study. These findings have important implications for garnering support of the new technology, said Yale Law School (YLS) researchers, working in collaboration with a project on the emerging discipline.

The experiment involved a diverse sample of 1,500 Americans, the bulk of whom were unfamiliar with nanotechnology, a discipline that involves manipulation of atom sized particles, with wide commercial applications.

When shown balanced information about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, participants became highly divided on its safety compared to a group not shown such information.

The determining factor in how people responded was their cultural values, according to Dan Kahan, professor at YLS and co-author of the study.

“People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe,” said Kahan, “while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous.”

This pattern is consistent with studies examining how people’s cultural values influence their perceptions of environmental and technological risks generally, said Kahan.

The study also found that people who have pro-commerce cultural values are more likely to know about nanotechnology than others. “Not surprisingly, people who like technology and believe it isn’t bad for the environment tend to learn about new technologies before other people do,” said Kahan.

“While various opinion polls suggest that familiarity with nanotechnology leads people to believe it is safe, they have been confusing cause with effect.”

The findings highlight the need for public education strategies that consider citizens’ predispositions, said a YLS release.

The report was published online in Nature Nanotechnology.

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