Looking forward, emerging technologies like nanotechnology may stand to divide the public, depending on their religious beliefs. Which combinatorial models of communication will be more effective in educating our heterogeneous public about this new technology and persuading them into accepting and supporting it?
Scientists at the ANU have managed to attach coated latex beads to the ends of modified DNA, and then using an “optical trap” to hold the beads in place! Chemists at the NYU have created a nanobot from DNA fragments that walks on two legs just 10 nm long!!
Will adopting a combination of the Deficit Model and the Public Engagement Model be more effective in educating the public and hence generating awareness in nanotechnology? Will a greater awareness, in turn, result in greater support for this new field? On the other hand, the Elaboration Likelihood Model argues that learning is not always part of persuasion and that persuasion occurs only when we have thoughts that agree with the message. Involvement and ability influence the amount of thoughts produced. The more the public is involved in the topic, the more that topic is salient, relevant, or important, the more motivation the public will have to think about the message. So, will frequent public engagement help in creating acceptance for this new technology? However, more engagement may simply generate more heat in the debates. Will it become just a debate of the moment?
Kahan et al. (Nature nanotechnology, 2009) reiterated that the public will select information in a biased fashion that fits their cultural and political disposition. Schedfele et al. (Nature nanotechnology, 2009) cautioned against the potential conflict between religiosity and nanotechnology, especially when the latter enables us to create life at a nanoscale without divine intervention.
In fact, Kahan et al. found out that information exposure does not have a significant impact on the level of support and acceptance for nanotechnology. There was a clear indication that the public select information based on their predispositions and thus become more divided (not less!) even when they are presented with balanced perspectives. Brossard et al. (PUS, 2009) confirmed that support for nanotechnology is not directly related to levels of knowledge, but on risks and benefits perception and the use of media frames. The strength of religious beliefs is negatively related to support for this new technology.
Personally, I feel that while it is important to promote more engagement, it is equally important to focus on how we are going to engage the public on potentially controversial scientific issues. This is particularly important for a multi-cultural and multi-religious society.
At this point, have we ever paused to seek our personal views of the potential and risks of such an emerging technology? Given our different life experiences and religions, I am sure we hold varying perspectives in this spectrum of thoughts. As science communicators, how then do we attempt to communicate an increasingly controversial field of S&T? It’s tricky, yet exciting!