Foresight Nanotech Institute Logo
Image of nano

‘Societal Concerns’ and Scientific Accuracy

HLovy writes "If societal concerns are going to be taken into account, we need to look at how the society is being informed. The new American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center authorized by the nanotech bill should ask that question, as well. Any study on "societal impact" of a technology is also, by definition, a measure of the prejudices and preconceptions the public holds — based in part on how the technology is explained to them. To take a reading of "societal concerns" is to measure popularly held beliefs, rather than scientific fact. Those who have assigned themselves the mission of informing society should, in theory, try as best they can to reconcile the two.

Christine Peterson at the Foresight Institute says that it's ultimately up to the scientists, themselves, if they want their story communicated properly. "It is a responsibility of scientists and technologists to educate the public. If they can't stand to deal with the media, they can go directly to the public via the Web and by writing books." But to do that is to also alienate themselves among their colleagues. Carl Sagan, she pointed out, paid a price in reputation among his peers for stooping so low as to try to communicate effectively to the uneducated.

For the complete commentary, please see Howard Lovy's NanoBot."

One Response to “‘Societal Concerns’ and Scientific Accuracy”

  1. Morgaine Says:

    The public? But the public is out of the loop.

    Any study on "societal impact" of a technology is also, by definition, a measure of the prejudices and preconceptions the public holds — based in part on how the technology is explained to them.

    I'm not sure exactly how to phrase this, but there's something not quite right with the underlying premise there. The problem stems from a very fundamental disparity between how western democracies work in theory and in practice. In theory, experts could inform the public and they in turn could elect a government to put their collective desires into effect. Alas, the real world is a very different place.

    In practice, mass public opinion is determined by commercial and political advertising in the media, the majority of it entirely implicit, almost subliminal except to those who are wise to it. Under the banner of "news" we are subjected daily to barely disguised indoctrination to highly one-sided viewpoints and agendas, and under the banner of entertainment and free market advertising we are offered countless and highly varied choices … all from the same carefully filtered menu. In several senses, the public in the west is little different from well treated, free-range livestock, with their room for maneuver and freedom of choice extremely limited if they seek to depart from the envelope determined by business, politics, and law as drawn up by the business/political machine.

    And that's why "informing the public" somewhat misses the point, unless the real intention is actually a lot more complex than it appears on the surface. The public is not actually in the decision loop currently, despite the lip service paid to democracy. You don't have to dig very deep to see the ugly reality either — P2P networks and the music industry provide a pretty clear example.

    That the public should be informed is in my view not even worth discussing, as information is empowerment. The real problem is that the primary barrier to our mid-term future will not be the public's lack of knowledge at all, but something much darker and, yes, pretty evil.

Leave a Reply