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Nanotechnology policy game for public shows bias

Dietram Scheufele writes of an event at the U.K.’s Dana Centre — whose website says “The Dana Centre is sexing up science for the masses” — using a nanotechnology-based card game to get the general public thinking about nanotechnology. Dietram concludes: “Using a card game that defines clear rules for all players and forces them to examine the issues from all angles, may help counter the detrimental group dynamics and informational gaps that often characterize traditional deliberative meetings with members of the general public.” Sounds right.

But as regular readers of Nanodot know, we at Foresight have doubts about how information is being presented to the public in these outreach events. For example, I looked over the card game (PDF), and by my rough count, 35 cards seemed to have a neutral tone, 23 were more negative, and only 14 were more positive. Your count may be different, but I think it’s clear that there are more negative cards than positive ones. Who made that decision, and on what grounds? It’s unclear.

We can see some results of real games with these cards. Go to the Decide website, click on Results, select Nanotechnology. Then you can view results for Europe as a whole, specific European countries (click on the map to select a country), or select Canada, Israel, South Africa, or the U.S. It’s interesting to see the national variations, but we need to keep in mind that the information being fed to the participants has a bias.

Before such procedures will be useful for policymaking or effective public outreach, a lot of work is needed to make them more robust against bias. Maybe a more explicitly adversarial process (as mentioned previously) would be a more balanced way to do this. That’s how we do it when the issue is literally of life-and-death importance, e.g., a murder trial.

The Decide website intro says that the game “provides a structure that helps people feel safe discussing a subject they may know nothing about.” This is good, but it’s awfully easy to manipulate people in that situation, even if one doesn’t mean to do so. —Christine

9 Responses to “Nanotechnology policy game for public shows bias”

  1. Matt Arnold Says:

    it’s unfortunate that their version of the Creative Commons license does not allow derivative versions to be created or we could fix this problem (and also correct their numerous misspellings and other typos). As it is, what if you create your own game from scratch and we play it together when you are a guest of honor at Penguicon? I can provide you with graphic design and printing.
    -Matt Arnold
    Head of Event Schedule
    Penguicon 5.0

  2. Martin G. Smith Says:

    Before everyone get their egos in a knot over whether the game has a bias, or Dana has a bias, or even Foresight has a bias – apply the Three Rule of Assessment.
    1 Look for what is there that should not be
    2 Look for what is not there that should be
    3 Leave your ego/agenda on a peg outside the door
    Tried it? No success yet? Repeat until you get it right. When that happens we all will be making progress.
    Bias declared at

  3. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Matt — Not sure I have time to do a whole new set, but maybe we could use theirs and just leave out a few cards to even things up. Would that work? —Christine

  4. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Martin — I don’t know whether it’s realistic to get people to leave their agenda outside. I’m suggesting we let people keep their agendas and try for more transparency about what those agendas are. —Christine

  5. Martin G. Smith Says:

    Hello Christine
    Agreed – The Three Rules are a ‘Classic’ set I developed in a ‘Psycho/Judicial’ setting and the Third rule is always the most difficult. I suggest that one should be cognizant of one’s bias and if necessary be prepared to declare it, transparency, of course being the go if progress is to be made.

    Nanotechnology has become the ‘Diversion of Choice’ for my crew, who lap up the knowledge as it flows down the Highway of Light. While we sit in the middle of a very sophisticated Rapid Prototyping/Manufacturing facility waiting for the machines to run through their cycle, it is exciting to watch where the technology is going.

  6. Matt Arnold Says:

    Christine – That sounds like a good plan.

  7. brian Says:

    [Pessimistic] While I’m fairly idealistic about public potential for participation, I’m personally wary of any attempt to communicate _risk_ to the public in an ‘effective’ manner–based on what I’ve run accross in risk and participation studies. The public (and experts!) are not rational about risk management in their daily lives or in policy and opinion–this means that in public participation they either don’t realize the lack of rationality or don’t care because issue X is in their back yard. I believe one should try to convey information in a clear manner (showing biases or presenting multiple sides), and listen to public concerns and address them where possible, but otherwise don’t depend on full acceptance.

    [Optimistic] In the case of nanotech, I like the general education focus and hope it is incorporated and packaged with educational system redesign…provided that ever happens. In the mean time, if there are control systems for quality and safety, I prefer an emphasis on the positive side. It should be a policy maker and implementer’s _job_ to represent the best interests of the public–and they can do so in situations where there are systems and interest group support in place.

  8. Nanodot: Nanotechnology News and Discussion » Blog Archive » Sensible Swiss views on nanotechnology benefits, downsides Says:

    [...] However, see also the list of questions asked of participants (page 51 of final report, page 53 of pdf). Although it’s clear that the project has tried to make these balanced, the overall impression given by the questions is negative. How can one avoid this — biasing the questions? It seems to me that, between the information presented and the wording of the questions, it’s very difficult to avoid influencing the participant’s responses. As mentioned here repeatedly, a more explicitly adversarial process might give more accurate results. —Christine [...]

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