Field of Science

God-damned nanotechnology

Earlier this year this blog reported on different attitudes to nanotech around the world. At the time the guy who did the study - Dietram A. Scheufele at the University of Wisconsin - reckoned that the differences were in part due to differences in the prevalence of religious belief.

Well, now he's done the analysis to back this up, and it's been published in Nature Nanotechnology. It turns out that the level of religious fervour is the most important factor in determining public acceptance to nanotechnology.

The correlation held even after controlling for other factors that influence attitudes to nanotechnology, like science literacy, educational performance, and levels of research productivity and funding directed to science and technology by different countries. And not only are religious countries more against nanotech, they are also less likely to think that nanotech is useful. In other words, their religious-based dislike of the idea of nanotech crosses over and affects their beliefs about the utility of it.

The survey findings, says Scheufele, are important not only because they reveal the paradox of citizens of one of the world's elite technological societies taking a dim view of the implications of a particular technology, but also because they begin to expose broader negative public attitudes toward science when people filter their views through religion.

"What we captured is nanospecific, but it is also representative of a larger attitude toward science and technology," Scheufele says. "It raises a big question: What's really going on in our public discourse where science and religion often clash?" (Press release)

So why do religious people have the heebie jeebies about nanotech? The study doesn't answer that one, although it is likely to be similar to their abhorrence of hybrid embryos. It smacks of human beings getting too clever for their own good and playing god.

But the implications for science communication are clear. This research fits into a wider picture of how public attitudes to science are shaped. Simple communication of facts will not change attitudes to science. You need to change worldviews.

Dietram A. Scheufele, Elizabeth A. Corley, Tsung-jen Shih, Kajsa E. Dalrymple, Shirley S. Ho (2008). Religious beliefs and public attitudes toward nanotechnology in Europe and the United States Nature Nanotechnology DOI: 10.1038/NNANO.2008.361


  1. Tom, the press release on this research also caught my attention and I'd be interested to read the Nature article to find out exactly how they reached the conclusion that negative attitudes toward nanotechnology were linked to religious belief. I assume their survey revealed a lot about the participants' religiosity and their attitudes towards science and technology, and that their conclusion was more than an inference based on an observed correlation.

    If it's true that religious beliefs might impede the progress of nanotechnology, it makes you wonder what other areas of human endeavour are similarly affected by religion.

  2. The paper itself just looks at cross-national correlates of religiosity with various attitudes towards nanotechnology, after controlling for a bunch of factors including trust in scientists. It doesn't go into reasons for the rejection of nanotech by the religious.

    As to whether there's a general effect of religion on attitude to science, it depends a lot on the religion and the particular area of science. e.g. see:

  3. When people reject science it's usually down to them not understanding it and what it's implications are - just look at creationist attitudes to evolution. It's not hard to see how a scientifically ignorant person might turn to simpler narratives. So maybe it's scientific ignorance that leads - in some cases - to fervent religious beliefs, as well as vice versa.


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