Emerging technology: knowledge and opinion

Note: I have joined the “virtual class” component of Dan Kahan‘s Science of Science Communication course at Yale University. As part of this I am endeavoring to write a response paper in reaction to each week’s set of readings. I will post these responses here on my blog – my paper for week eight is below. Previous responses are here. I will also be participating in the discussion on Kahan’s own blog.


This week, two interlocking sets of questions have arisen for me:

  1. Is it problematic that many tests of opinion reflect the ad-hoc opinion people form about something they don’t know about or don’t understand?
  2. How are we to weigh the relative importance of the opinions of know-nothings, know-slightly-somethings, know-quite-a-lots, etc?

Nanotech vs. GM foods vs. fracking

These questions came about because the various emerging technologies under discussion – nanotechnology, genetically modified food and fracking – seem to have different profiles in terms of how much people know about them, versus people’s opinion of the risks involved or the advisability of the technology. (We’ll put aside discussion of GM mosquitoes for now, as they’re a bit more of an isolated case.)

From a completely unsystematic review of the literature I happened to have at my fingertips, I drew up this rough approximation:

  • People know the least about nanotechnology, and their feelings about it are pretty neutral.
  • People know a bit more GM foods, though roughly half the population still knows close to nothing. On GM foods, average opinion ranges from neutral to very negative, depending on the question being asked.
  • People’s knowledge of fracking is roughly equal to their knowledge of GM foods. Opinion tends to the negative but I don’t have a strong sense – one study I looked at had only 22% in favor but another 58% undecided. Pew found 41% in favor of expanding fracking.

(By the way, where you really see the big risk-perception differences is when you compare the polarization on these issues – that is, how risk perception correlates with ideological outlook. That’s one more variable than my brain can really handle in this early stage of theory formation, so for now let’s just put it in a nearby cubby, as a reminder to come back and visit later.)

Is know-nothing opinion data meaningless?

Now here’s the point where you might expect me to say, “Hang on – let’s get into the numbers, and let’s disaggregate them. If we want a true sense of public opinion, let’s only look at the favorability among those familiar with the technology – because if they don’t know what they’re judging, how can they judge?”

That certainly seems the tack taken by many social scientists. George Bishop’s book The Illusion of Public Opinion discusses the many ways that the public’s lack of knowledge confounds opinion polls, especially when paired with bad survey design. Good researchers word their questions carefully to try to elicit a true opinion – though there are arguably limits to what they can do.

Dan Kahan has called out a Pew poll on GM food as one example of bad survey design producing meaningless “opinion” data – and I think he’s mostly right. But I would argue it is actually quite important that we measure the opinion of the “know-nothings” (or at least, “know-next-to-nothings”) and “no littles.”

This is because people do hold opinions about stuff they don’t understand. They do it all the time!

From a purely logical point of view, of course, this makes no sense. A proposition needs a clear reference to have meaning, you might say. But people aren’t very rational. They don’t make a lot of sense. They have limited time for learning about the world around them, and somehow are expected to produce opinions on that world. (A nasty pairing that Walter Lippmann observed back in 1922, but which is all the more true today due to increasing technological complexity and the demands of social media.)

A philosophy of Subway

Take this example. The website I Fucking Love Science posted this manufactured meme on Facebook:Safeway water hoax   To which a few people reacted like this:

Just on the basis of this one hoax meme, some people started to proclaim their intention to boycott Subway. Whether they’d really follow through, I don’t know. But what’s interesting is the object of their concern.

A philosopher might say that for these commenters, the reference of “DHMO” has been displaced. The true reference of “dihydrogen monoxide” is the substance water, which ordinarily could be understood through use of various names, or “senses” – such as “water,” “H20,” and so on. But for these commenters, the reference of “DHMO” is something like “this chemical that has all these bad properties.” The commenters then form their opinion using their own reference for DHMO.

But if a pollster came and asked them for an opinion such as “should we ban dihydrogen monoxide from our food,” he probably wouldn’t probe that deeply – and would just be measuring their opinion about the true reference, water.

That’s wrong and it’s also right. It is wrong in the sense that if you want to know what people truly think about water, you’ll have failed. But if you want to know what policy action they want taken about water, it’s relevant. People will spread their misconceptions to others, have them in mind when thinking about and voting for politicians, and draw on them when grocery shopping. Probably when it comes to DHMO, they won’t get very far before someone corrects them. But other misconception-based opinions, whose errors are more subtle, have real power to shape policy.

Kahan encountered a variant of this when his colleague briefly defined fracking for a woman who hadn’t previously heard of it:

It’s a technique by which high pressure water mixed with various chemicals is used to fracture underground rock formations so that natural gas can be extracted.”

“Oh my god!,” the receptionist exclaimed. “That’s sounds terrifying! The chemicals—they’ll likely poison us. And surely there will be earthquakes!”

The receptionist doesn’t know all the ins and outs of fracking. She probably has some misconceptions – for example, thinking that the chemicals make up a large proportion of the injected fluids. But now “fracking” has a reference for her, one that may have inaccuracies, and she’ll use that to shape her opinion. (In fact, clearly she already has.)

GM food sells like crazy – so what?

People don’t always run with their misconceptions, of course. Sometimes, a misconception can actually keep one from acting on an opinion. As Kahan says of GM foods, “People consume them like mad.” That’s because people’s bundle of misperceptions includes the idea that GMs aren’t already widespread in our food supply – which they are. In a survey by Hallman et al of 1,148 Americans, only 43% knew that food with GM ingredients is current for sale in supermarkets, and only 26% thought they had ever eaten GM food.

I would warn against drawing too much inference from people’s food consumption. The fact that “people consume them like mad” doesn’t tell us that people are OK with GMOs, because if you don’t know that the thing you fear is in your food, you don’t know not to eat that food. People could still be anxious about GMOs, and in fact, they appear to be: in Hallman’s study, only 45% agreed that it was safe to eat GM foods, 59% said it was very or extremely important for food with GM ingredients to be labeled, and 73% said such labels should be required.

Know-nothings and know-somethings

Of course, there are shades of ignorance, and maybe we can begin to distinguish the ignorance levels for which we are interested in attitudes, from those where attitudinal data is just plain useless.

One key instance: if you literally have not heard of something before, than any data purporting to measure your attitude is invalid. The poll is only capturing your attitude towards something of which you are being informed in a highly artificial environment. This might give some indication of “how you would feel about thing X, had someone just happened to tell you about it in the real world” – but probably not a very good indication, and in any case we’re not interested in “what would people say if told X.” In this paper I’m genuinely only interested in “what people think about X” – and doing so in a way that acknowledges that people’s knowledge is almost always incomplete, or wholly or partially wrong.

This component, the “know-absolute-zeros,” seems to form a larger or smaller component depending on the technology involved, and I wonder whether that can account for some of the variation in average opinion and, potentially, polarization levels. I promise no answers, but let’s at least look in that cubby before we call it a day.

Polarization: what’s normal?

Kahan asks the question of why nanotechnology didn’t end up polarizing public opinion. My proposal: nanotechnology simply didn’t get enough media coverage to make people fear it.

There are several mechanisms by which media coverage – even if it does not exaggerate the risks of a technology – could heighten concern among those inclined to be fearful. When coverage is scant, people don’t receive the signals they need to categorize or prioritize an issue as one for possible concern.

On the other hand, GM foods and fracking are more frequent subjects of media coverage. And the difference between these two issues is, I think, the anomaly to explore, rather than nanotechnology.

These two technologies seem to have similar rates of familiarity (ie, about half of Americans have no idea about them) and yet different levels of concern. For GM foods, I’d say the level of concern appears high, as cited above. With fracking, levels of concern appear lower. In a survey of 1,061 Americans, Boudet et al found a mean position of 2.6 – between “somewhat oppose” and “somewhat support.” More than half were undecided about whether to support fracking or oppose it.

It gets weirder, though. GM foods, while they elicit a lot of concern among the population as a whole, aren’t very polarizing at all. Science comprehension reduces concern among both right-wingers and left-wingers – very unlike the pattern for say, climate change. But for fracking, polarization increases with science comprehension – a pattern one would normally only expect for a much more mature technology.

Reflecting on that receptionist, Kahan says, “It turns out that even though people don’t know anything about fracking, there is reason to think that they — or really about 50% of them– will react the way she did as soon as they do.” Indeed. The key now is to figure out: 1. Does that make fracking normal or abnormal? 2. What does that tell us about how people form opinions? and 3. What does that tell us about how we should be communicating with the public about emerging technologies?

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