Why Isn’t the Public Terrified of Nanotechnology?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 6 2012 4:34 PM

Why Isn’t the Public Terrified of Nanotechnology?

Some conspiracy theorists are convinced that nanotechnology will destroy the world; at least one person has sent bombs to professors researching the field. But most people aren’t terribly worked up about nanotechnology, even as discussions about its safety continue. (In January, the National Research Council’s report on nanotechnology suggested that an extra $22 million to $24 million be spent in the next year to assess potential dangers posed by nanomaterials.)

Susanna Priest, the author of Nanotechnology and the Public: Risk Perception and Risk Communication, is a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who studies public perceptions of new technologies. In the Scientist, she asks, “[W]hy, when uncertainty about risks has certainly not stopped public opinion from turning sour in the past, should nano be getting the benefit of the doubt while so much of bio remains persistently controversial?”


Priest describes two incidents that could have ruined nano’s rep: a cleaning spray named “Magic Nano” in Germany that caused respiratory problems, and a factory in China where workers exposed to nanoparticles (and many chemicals) were found to have died. Neither case has ever been positively linked to nanoparticles; the cleaning spray may not have contained any, and the Chinese deaths could have been linked to the many other chemicals workers came in contact with. However, Priest wonders why these “triggering events” didn’t create public outcry anyway—after all, the public isn’t known for calmly waiting to see what careful research reveals about such stories. Many people were, and are, appalled by the idea of genetic modification. “Simply put,” she writes, “manipulating DNA simply seems to challenge our underlying cultural ideas about how the world ought to be in ways that manipulating otherwise ordinary materials does not.”

Read more on the Scientist.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 


Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company


The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 10:42 AM Scalia’s Liberal Streak The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 18 2014 12:30 PM “Alt-Ac” to the Rescue? Humanities Ph.D.s are daring to enjoy their “regular” jobs, and the definition of academic success is changing. Sort of.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 12:03 PM The NFL Opines on “the Role of the Female”
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 11:48 AM Watch the Hilarious First Sketch From Season 4 of Key & Peele
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 10:07 AM “The Day It All Ended” A short story from Hieroglyph, a new science fiction anthology.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.