"You don't normally get that reluctance," says Terre Satterfield of the University of British Columbia in Canada, lead author of the study and a collaborator with CNS-UCSB.
It's important to study how people perceive risk, and not just expert assessments of actual risk, Herr Harthorn says, because it's "a much better way to understand how people are going to behave and respond."
"It's not true that if a technology has benefits it will automatically get accepted by the public," adds Milind Kandlikar of the University of British Columbia. He is also a collaborator with CNS-UCSB and a co-author of the study, along with Joseph Conti, a former graduate fellow with CNS-UCSB, and Christian Beaudrie of the University of British Columbia.
Public perceptions of risk depend on various demographic and cultural factors; for example, wealthy, well-educated white men tend to think of new technologies as less risky. Public opinion also is easily swayed by catastrophic events like the Chernobyl accident, which galvanized opposition to nuclear power, and by news like reports of deaths from Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Europe, or from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or swine flu (the H1N1 virus).
"It's much easier to destroy trust than gain it," Satterfield says, so after an event like a nuclear meltdown or oil spill, leaders need to "take responsibility for any consequences quickly and clearly."
Because nanotechnology hasn't made big news, it offers researchers a chance to study how people judge new technology before controversy arises. "The future is yet to be written. Judgments could go either way," Satterfield says.
|Contact: Barbara Herr Harthorn|
University of California - Santa Barbara