Thursday, December 14, 2006


In the December 2006 issue of Science as Culture (p. 349), Arie Rip has an interesting article called "Folk Theories of Nanotechnologists." Rip, who is Professor of Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Twente, makes several arguments, two of which I'd like to highlight. Both deal with the concept of "folk theories," a term which Rip doesn't define as well as I'd like but which I take to mean taken-for-granted ideas that provide orientation for future thought and action. As Rip notes: they are "a form of expectation, based in some experience, but not necessarily systematically checked."

Now, the two ideas - one is the suggestion, which I've made here before, that the story of GMOs does not necessarily make the best narrative to understand nanotechnology. For instance, in Vicki Colvin's 2003 speech to the US Congress, she refers to the "wow-to-yuck" trajectory GMOs took and suggests this offers a "powerful lesson here for nanotechnoloy." While the story may be attractive and provide a way for opponents and advocates to get traction, Rip nicely points out that the analogy is flawed for the simple historical reason that in terms of genetic engineering, "critical debate - the yuck in Colvin's folk theory - was present from the beginning." There was, in other words, no wow-to-yuck; public apprehension about gene tinkering went back well into the 1970s. Nevertheless, media stories and even scholarly papers about nano and risk reflexively cite GMO story and frame it in the context of a (questionable) hype-disappointment cycle.

The second point Rip makes revolves around what he calls nanophobia-phobia. This boils down to the idea that much of the concerns about public fears originates with "nanotech actors and other insiders and commentators." As a result, "concerns about possible public concern is getting a life of its own." One bit of evidence - even among the small part of the population that read Prey, more people finished the book more interested and positive about nanotech.

Rip nicely uses a historical example from the chemistry community in which 1982 studies he did showed that "chemists were more positive about chemistry than the general public, but also that the general public was not very negative about chemistry, and definitely less negative than the chemists thought they would be."

Are those on the inside of the nano-enterprise projecting their own fears about a negative reaction onto the public? And what analogies work best to help us understand nano's past and current context? Rip's article suggests these are issues to consider further.

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