Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nano report tells us what we already don't know

In their 2005 book "Freakonomics," authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner wrote about the symbiotic relationship between journalists and "experts."

"Journalists need experts as badly as experts need journalists," they wrote. "Every day there are newspaper pages and television newscasts to be filled, and an expert who can deliver a jarring piece of wisdom is always welcome."

And the more "jarring," the better for both. Find a piece of news that creates conflict or goes against conventional wisdom or exposes an "outrage," well then the journalists gain readers and the "expert" or his organization gets to bathe in publicity.

Levitt and Dubner pointed out a problem with this relationship, using the example of a self-serving "expert" who cooked up his own "statistics" to be feasted upon by a gullible media.

The good news is that when it comes to nanotechnology, this symbiosis between journalist and expert cannot reach the level of that kind of deceit. The bad news is that it cannot reach that level because nanotech research and commercialization is in its infancy, and neither the "experts" nor the journalists can agree on what constitutes nanotechnology.

Still, the beast must be fed. And the next best thing to a real expert on nanotech is one who claims to be one based on his or her own agenda. So, the stories that see print and make the airwaves are the ones that focus on dreams or nightmares.

If you think politically, the religious right has a problem with "playing God," while the left does not want the corporate world messing with Mother Nature. Both sides take their lessons from science fiction: take a kernal of fact and extrapolate strange, new worlds via acres of "therefores."

And, meanwhile, in the world of real nanotech research, science advisory panels in both the United States and Britain have recently come out with more reports that pretty much say the same thing. We really need to study nanotechnology more.

There was something for everybody in the latest National Research Council report on nanotech.

From a scientific perspective, more study is good since, as British scientist Richard Jones put it so well in Nature, researchers are "fearing the fear of nanotechnology." They all remember the backlash against genetically modified foods in Europe. That's what happens when you let agenda groups claim the early mantle of "expert."

The nanotech business community, in a turnaround from their position a few years ago, is all for increased funding for environmental health and safety of nanomaterials.

Raymond David of BASF told Reuters that it's imperative that the U.S. get a handle on what's safe and what's not.

The alternative "puts a bit of fear in all of us that all of this effort will not be well received or may go the route of genetically modified foods in Europe," David said. "We certainly wouldn't want that."

No, we wouldn't. If we're going to avoid hysteria and ignorance on a massive scale, then we need to quickly fill the void with real knowledge. And quickly, before more "experts" talk to journalists.

The knowledge void: Here there be monsters
How PR 'spins' the atom
Wilson Center's nano numbers racket

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