Sunday, October 21, 2007

False claims inform consumers as they 'talk nano'

Recently, a fellow journalist asked my advice on how to pitch a consumer-oriented nanotechnology story to an editor of a mainstream publication.

I told her that it's certainly a timely story, since consumer nanotech information will be all over the news this coming week because of a major online event Oct. 23-24. ConsumersTalkNano, is a collaboration between the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports magazine.

Well, that got me going again on the Wilson Center and its highly questionable "consumer products inventory," which claims that 500-plus nanotech products are already on the market. Close NanoBot followers already know my thoughts on the Wilson Center's nano numbers racket. Nevertheless, this next week will see these numbers repeated often in the mainstream media.

I then burdened my colleague with the following rant on "consumer nanotech" and the mainstream media. I'll reprint most of it here:

Now, here is where my own opinions kind of get in the way. I consider the Wilson Center an "interested party" in the nanotech toxicity debate. Even though they are doing a great job of bringing the issue to the front-burner, I find their claims about how many consumer products are already out there to be highly inflated, since they are based on questionable manufacturers' claims.

I've always had trouble trying to explain my feelings on this, so this will be a good exercise for me:

I've been covering nanotech since it first emerged as a "business" rather than a pure science, and from the beginning the so-called nanotech "industry" has been exaggerating, well, first of all, its status as an actual industry, but also how much real "nanotech" is embedded inside consumer products. The interest they have had in exaggerating the claims is simply to make it appear to potential investors that they are not throwing their money away if they invest in nanotech companies, since nanotech is already inside many everyday products.

The sunscreen and cosmetics example is always given, yet I reported a few years ago that, in fact, these nanomaterials have been a part of L'Oreal's line, for example, since back in 1994 or '95. It wasn't until later that anti-nano activists noticed it and publicized it as something new and untested. It has, in fact, been tested thoroughly inside consumer products for more than a decade. It hasn't been labeled "nano" until now, though, and has not been the subject of scare-mongering until very recently.

OK. So, you have the nanotech "industry" exaggerating the degree to which it is already a part of the consumer landscape in order to attract mainstream investment -- in some cases, taking a look at the ingredients of many long-established products, noticing particle size and declaring it "nanotech." A few years ago, this was a good thing, since there was a brief period of investment hype over nanotech, and many companies were remarketing their stuff as nanostuff.

It was so bad for a while, that the nanotech "industry" actually believed their own press releases and, most importantly, so did the anti-nanotech activists. It's marketing vs. marketing.

The truth, however, is practically none of the nanoscale ingredients in existing products have been specifically engineered for any purpose, thus in my mind have nothing to do with the manipulation of "atoms and molecules" to create new and improved products (or even dangerous ones). However, in every single mainstream news story you read, you'll see some kind of sentence defining nanotech as the "science of manipulating atoms and molecules to ..." And then alongside that sentence is the Wilson Center's list of 500-plus products.

The truth is, practically none of those products are the result of any sort of nanoscale engineering and manipulation -- much less, bottom-up assembly. But what is left in the readers' mind is that some mad scientist at Sunscreen Central is manipulating atoms to see how they can poison sunbathers.

Now, however, enough doubt has been placed in front of consumers by those with a stake in raising those doubts, that the "nano" prefix has fallen out of favor. Names are changing again. And even Lux Research, which started out as a nanotech analyst firm, has rebranded itself with the latest trend: yes, "cleantech."

Nano bad. Cleantech good. In fact, however, some of the real nanotech emerging -- the true products of bottom-up assembly and manipulation of atoms and molecules -- are enabling cleantech. It has always amazed me how the image of a truly green technology like nanotech has been manipulated by green activists as somehow being unnatural and dangerous. If they actually looked at the real nanotech research happening, they'd see that these technologies are what they have been calling for for decades to help us get out of this mess.

DuPont, in fact, has always taken the bull by the horns and has actually lead research into nanomaterial toxicity. Recently, they partnered with an environmental group to come up with some guidelines on developing nanomaterials. Here's a recent story on that.

OK. That's my rant on that. Probably went too long, but I think it needs to be said because it gets at how this story can be pitched to a mainstream publication in any kind of thoughtful way. Most will go the easy route and simply do the competing press releases -- that scientists and businesses are jumping into nanotech blindly and consumer-product companies are using poor unsuspecting customers and guinea pigs for untested substances.

Easy story, kind of sexy in a geeky way, and it involves fear of the unknown. Great headlines, and journalists don't need to put much thought into it because the "statistics" are being supplied for them by interested parties such as the Wilson Center.

Now, when it comes to selling a nanotech story to a mainstream editor, good luck with that, since every editor has his or her own notion of what nanotech is based on their own personal interests, what they've read recently or focus of their publication.

The semiconductor industry sees nanotech only through their prism. Same with biotech. Hell, even wastewater treatment. And within that, you'll have various editors who run the spectrum of belief between "nanotech is this cool scifi thing that will allow me to download my brain onto a computer chip or revive me in the year 3067," to "nanotech is simply chemistry renamed and there's nothing new here at all."

That is why I have, for the most part, remained safely behind niche publications and my blog when it comes to nanotech.

And I have probably not helped you at all.

Actually, she said that the info. provided in my rant above was, in fact, helpful. OK. Well, I wish her luck.

Indigestible nanotech claim
Nanostuff vs. nanotechnology
Perception is de facto nano fact

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