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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Nanotechnology and Zero Net Energy Housing > Inaccurate Reporting Bad for the Advancement of Nanotech

Brandon Engel

Scientific illiteracy remains a pressing issue for the scientific community. How can reporters help to educate the public, rather than merely reinforcing ill-informed prejudices?

November 14th, 2014

Inaccurate Reporting Bad for the Advancement of Nanotech

It's hardly a secret that the United States, historically, has an issue with scientific illiteracy. Modern mass media, sadly, does much to exacerbate this, and digital media specifically is a sort of double-edged sword. Digital media has created a world where speed is almost uniformly favored over accuracy. And while it has empowered the average reader in some ways by opening up the forum to them, this has also diminished the role of conventionally trained journalists, who would, ideally of course, serve as the gatekeepers for pertinent information.

Things move too quickly, and while social media does perform some small service at boosting scientific literacy for some users, it also does a tremendous disservice to less discerning users by perpetuating falsehoods and oversimplifications. One of the casualties of factual inaccuracies in modern media is nanotechnology, which could, contrary to the stigma that mass media has created around it, yield countless advantages for the general public.

For example, if you examine international media coverage of nanotechnology during the first decade of the 21st Century, you begin to notice some disturbing trends. Examining media trends in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, what becomes abundantly clear is that perceived risk factors dominate the international headlines, while comparatively little is written about the potential benefits.

It would be unfair, however, to place blame for the stigma surrounding nanotechnology squarely on the internet. Looking at case studies from the past, it becomes clear that the stigma surrounding nanotechnology is about as old as the earliest developments in nanotech research itself especially when it comes to medical or agricultural applications of nanotechnology. Consider how the media responded to reports of patenting a method for transferring DNA in the early seventies. Part of what is significant about that case study is that the earliest opposition came, not from a public whose distrust was fueled by dubious media reports, but from the scientific community itself. A moratorium was passed against such experiments with DNA until the risk factors were better understood.

This aversion to nanotechnology became even more pronounced (and more reflective of public sentiment) in the nineties, when consumer groups in England protested the import of Monsanto-cultivated genetically modified produce. An effort was made, in earnest, to expose the toxicity of modified foods. This event, and the controversy from around the same time surrounding Dolly, the world's first artificially cloned sheep, helped to set the stage for a media circus which elicited knee-jerk reactions from the public, rather than enriching public discourse about these advancements and their potential benefits to society, such as: experimental medical procedures which use microscopic robots to fight cancer, or nano-engineered materials in food containers that could minimize the inflow of oxygen or moisture, thereby keeping consumables safer.

There are a lot of things that could be said in defense of nanotechnology. The issue, by and large, is that, in media, the positive always seems to be eclipsed by the negative. And it's not merely the inevitable consequences of a mass media that's been largely democratized by the internet conventional mass media has itself failed, as the quality of reporting seems to have dwindled in recent years. This is perhaps, itself, in some ways correspondent to the proliferation of social media, and the new media ecosystem where publications are essentially always on one rolling deadline. Regardless, higher ethical standards and better fact checking are of crucial importance. We live in an age when even media outlets that were previously considered trustworthy like ABC have been coming under scrutiny a lot recently for erroneous and contradictory reporting. ABC's Brian Ross, who was recently dubbed the most error prone reporter in the United States, has even created for situations where sloppy reporting has led to very serious consequences for innocent parties.

The general public deserves better. With the internet re-tribalizing many segments of society, it's imperative that conventional reporters do their job diligently, and work to enrich public discourse, rather than reinforce uninformed atavisms.

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