Blogger's note: Here's another freebie. It's an article that I wrote a month or two ago. Then it sat in my files, doing nothing, as I became distracted with other concerns. So, unfortunately, this one never saw the light of day. It's too outdated to sell now, but I think there are still some worthwhile points in here about public and media perception of nanotechnology. Enjoy
By Howard Lovy
It took almost literally an act of God to bring the confusing subject of nanotechnology into the mainstream media the past few months. A nanotech-themed survey found that a "significant percentage of Americans" do not find nanotechnology "morally acceptable" because researchers are viewed as "playing God."
It's a good story, since it brings the subject to at least one level where nanotech meets the public. Unfortunately, most media coverage of God v. Nanotech ended up as confusing as the survey, itself, and as convoluted as most nanotech media reports tend to be.
It's partly the fault of a survey that asked for moral opinions about a technology that is not any single technology at all, and is so undeveloped that much of the "information" circulating about nanotech is based on hopes and fears rather than actual science. Media coverage generally reflects this, with different definitions and perceptions of nanotech sometimes even contradicting themselves within the same story. It's what happens when you mix a sprinkling of real science with popular opinion.
I don't mean to pick on science writer Lee Dye, but his coverage of this story on the ABC News Web site, Big Debate Over Small Science, provides us with a good Rosetta Stone to help us translate nanotech from myth to reality. Dye writes:
If scientists could produce a tiny robot that could travel through your body and heal damaged tissue, eradicate disease-carrying microbes, and even wipe out a cancerous tumor, would you support their efforts?
Biotechnology promises to ease our suffering, but many fear the real goal is to create super-humans, and super-warriors.
Nanotechnology comes with great hype, much promise, and some risk. Machines built to operate on such a small scale could be engineered to self-replicate, like human cells, thus raising the specter of a world run amok."
What Dye is describing is a vision of nanotech largely shaped by Hollywood and the writings of futurists, but has little to do with nanotechnology as it is being developed today. In this case, nanotech is being defined as biotech-plus -- meaning, take anything hopeful or frightening (curing disease, horrific warfare) and then take it a step further.
This vision of nanotech was likely what the survey participants were thinking when they answered that they had a few moral problems with nanotechnology. Qualms about biotech are transferred to nanotech.
This problem of "definition" has far-reaching impact on how nanotech is perceived and covered. It is such a broad term that it does not mean any one thing even to companies and researchers developing it. It could be semiconductors, advanced materials, cancer drug delivery vehicles, cosmetics, stain-resistant fabrics.
On top of that, reporters and editors covering nanotech are working with their own definitions. Often, these differing definitions of what nanotech "is" and what is "is not" have a number of different players talking past each other: reporters and sources, reporters and editors.
Here's a good illustration of this definition problem -- again, with the same God v Nanotech story. It comes from Katherine T. Phan of The Christian Post under the headline Americans Reject Morality of Nanotechnology on Religious Grounds.
She goes with what you'd think would be the safest route in defining nanotechnology: directly to the dictionary. But old reliable Merriam-Webster completely flubs it, defining it as "the art of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale especially to build microscopic devices."
Well, the first part represents one vision, one ideal of nanotech, but current technology is not quite up to manipulating atoms in any meaningful way beyond the laboratory in small quantities. In fact, IBM only recently discovered a way of measuring exactly how much force it takes to manipulate an atom. For more on that, read this excellent report by Kenneth Chang of The New York Times.
Yes, companies pushing nanotech will attempt to achieve this as part of their long-term goals. But the sloppy solution they come up with in the meantime, they will still call nanotechnology.
Phan's report also illustrates how nanotech and biotech are confusingly intertwined in public and media perception. Phan works for a Christian publication, so her "localization" of the story for her audience has to be from the Christian perspective. Trouble is, there is a well established body of opinion on biotech issues for conservative Christians, but nanotech appears to be on the radar as simply biotech redefined. Phan writes that nanotech's "application to controversial fields like embryonic stem cell research is where it draws its critics."
Well, no. Nanotech has little to do with embryonic stem cell research. In fact, nanotech is the way around the need for embryonic stem cell research. Repairing cells and killing diseases within damaged organs removes the need to use stem cells to repair or replace them.
Phan almost rises to the task to inform her readers, but it turns out that her mention of stem cell research is cut-and-paste boilerplate for her niche audience.
"Many Christian advocate groups have asked the U.S. government to instead provide further funding for adult stem cell research, which has resulted in numerous therapies whereas research involving embryos has produced none. They have also asked the scientific community to explore non-embryonic alternatives for stem cells including a recent breakthrough technique that re-programs an adult cell to possess embryonic-like qualities."
Many of the recent breakthroughs Phan is referring to involves nanotechnology. One example can be found here.
Some of the best reporting on this story came from blogs, and my favorite came from Ben Worthen of the Wall Street Journal, who wrote:
"Our first reaction was that 70% of people must not know what nanotechnology is – President Bush, who has openly relied on moral views to shape his scientific agenda, has made nanotechnology one of his scientific priorities, after all."
Wired's Rob Beschizza got it right, too, in his blog entry:
"I think he's hyping an angle: religious belief merges neatly into irreligious fear of the new and other objections to science. He specifically chooses to forget about the science-skeptical nature of postmodernists, feminists, environmentalists and countless other non-religious factions."
So, with nanotech comes these issues of perception, myth and definition, how exactly is a responsible journalist supposed to cover the topic?
All too often, nanotech stories begin with what is not known -- usually the dreams of futurists or the nightmares of alarmists. That's going backward. Begin, like any good reporter, by confirming what is known.
We know that most nanotech research focuses simply how materials behave at the nanoscale -- or "fundamental nanoscale phenomena and processes." Along with that, an industry is being built around developing the tools and measurement devices to manipulate and see at the nanoscale. And more is being learned about environmental health and safety of nanomaterials.
None of these elements are ready to have a moral value placed on them yet -- and certainly not a negative one.
How do I know this? I start with what is known.
All three of the categories named above are central focuses of the recently released proposed 2009 National Nanotechnology Initiative budget.
It's not the most exciting document in the world. No predictions of doom, no cryonically perserved heads in stasis waiting to be reconnected with young bodies in 500 years. Not a document that you'd wave in your hands as you interrupt a news meeting. However, journalists who are interested in telling the real story -- where the science and business of nanotech actually is at this point, might want to start there.
It's not all there is, but it is a good place to start.
As for those who contemplate the societal, ethical, religious and moral aspects of a technology that has not yet developed into anything outside the imagination of its proponents and detractors, you'll get studies like God v Nanotech – further contemplation of a navel that is still obscured by its umblical cord.