A new study published by the Project on Emerging Technologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars examines how public attitudes toward nanotechnology may evolve as public knowledge regarding the science increases. More specifically, the study researched how preconceived views regarding certain types of media sources may "affect public reactions to arguments about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology."
D. Kahan, et al., "Biased Assimilation, Polarization, and Cultural Credibility: An Experimental Study of Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions," Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, PEN Brief, No. 3, February 2008.
The study begins by noting that the vast majority of Americans have heard little about nanotechnology, but those relatively familiar with the science view it favorably. When supplied with information regarding the potential risks and benefits posed by the technology, individuals tend to polarize along cultural lines:
when exposed to the same body of balanced and accurate information, persons who hold relatively egalitarian and communitarian values infer that nanotechnology is risky, whereas persons who hold relatively individualistic values infer that it is not.
Thus, the study notes that dissemination of accurate information is not enough by itself to overcome long-held biases regarding credibility of information sources:
The delivery of arguments by qualified experts will not necessarily counteract this effect, and indeed could easily accentuate it, because of the tendency of persons to assign greater credibility to policy advocates who share their values and who, as a result, are likely to be espousing positions that fit listeners’ cultural predispositions.
According to the authors, people "are disposed to screen information in a biased way based on its consistency with their prior beliefs or dispositions." Accordingly, the study recommends taking concrete steps to create a deliberative climate that neutralizes predisposition bias. Credibility in the public’s mind depends on trust, which in turn depends on shared cultural outlooks. The study takes the point of view that risk-communication techniques are as important as the truth of the message itself. The authors believe enlightened response to sound information cannot be taken for granted, nor should the expertise of messenger necessarily be expected to generate enlightened consensus about nanotechnology’s potential risks and benefits. Judgment of likeness and cultural affinity with the messenger/media communicating the information may be the most important factors in educating the public about nanotechnology.