Monday, December 15, 2008

Will nanotechnology be new front in culture war?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star 12/14/07

There could be very small problems lurking in your home. Do you have any of these products?: Wilson nCode tennis racket; NDlinx golf balls; a pair of stain resistant khaki pants from Dockers or Lands End; Sharper Image’s antibacterial Silver athletic and lounging socks; POUTlandish Hypermoist lip paint; NewBalance Skye crop sports bra; Fresherlonger food storage containers; FX Diamond razors; L’Oreal or Lancome “microlifting” skin cream; or Behr’s house paint; recently purchased sunglasses with anti-scratch and anti-reflective coatings.

These are just a short list of consumer products that employ nanotechnology. Nanotechnology, according to Wikipedia, “is a field whose theme is the control of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Generally nanotechnology deals with structures of the size 100 nanometers or smaller, and involves developing materials or devices within that size.” A nanometer is very, very small. Too small really to readily understand, but a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Nanotechnology is manufacturing products at the molecular (or smaller) level.
What are the possibilities for improving the human condition beyond the trivial (poutier lips and bouncier balls)? According to UNESCO, vastly improved drug delivery, the precision deployment of anti-cancer treatments at the cellular level, and improved therapies for many diseases, improved water filtration techniques that could deliver astounding health and development benefits to poor nations where major shortages of drinkable water are a daily threat, vastly improved batteries (a major advancement as we try to wean ourselves from using oil for transportation purposes). There are many others.

What is the small problem lurking in your home? According to a recent issue of “Environmental Toxicity and Chemistry” there might be many. Among them: nanoparticles may be toxic due to metals associated with their structure or their structure themselves; ingestions of nanoparticles by insects can affect their metabolic processes; absorption of nanoparticles on algal cell walls can be toxic; some garden vegetables, like tomatoes, can be effected; the list goes on. The point is that something this small can get in lots of places that we don’t know the effects of. Uncertainty is always scary and after about 20 years of development and application, we are just now beginning to carefully examine the “downsides.”

This week three studies were released that according to one of the teams, nanotechnology poses the possibility for another front in the “culture war.” Why? Because it appears that values influence our view of nanotechnology (surprise, surprise, values matter). The Yale study of 1500 US adults found that once learning about the new science, “the determining factor in how people responded was their cultural values. … People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe. … while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous.”

In another study, by North Carolina State University and Arizona State University researchers, Americans were found to be more willing to support nanotechnology when the activity is not seen as “playing God.” So, a better drug delivery system is okay, but “enhancing” human performance is not.

Lastly, a comparative study of the US and European countries, found that in the US and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life such as Italy, Austria, and Ireland, “nantechnology and its potential to alter living organisms .. is perceived as less morally acceptable.” In more secular European societies, like France and Germany, “individuals are … less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.” In short, according to the study’s lead author, “religion was the strongest influence over everything.”

Nano-pollution likely will lead to the unintentional altering of living organisms. Is that okay? How many human lives are worth stain resistant pants, poutier lips, or bouncier balls? How many human lives are worth nano-manufactured cancer therapies that save human lives? Bio-ethicists seem confident that we can come to ethical decisions about this technology. But will that happen before it it used to open a new front in the culture wars, which is arguably a creation only to gain advantage in electoral politics.

It takes two sides to go to war, even a culture war. Proponents of nanotechnology should avoid dismissing concerns arising from religious positions about it. Similarly, those with moral and religious concerns should not move to ban such technology because that would leave the leadership in its development to countries without the moral “breaks” we have in the United States.

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