Over the years, I thought I had become accustomed to mainstream journalists making a hash out of the subject of nanotechnology. I've even had the misfortune of watching videos starring famed TV physicists making bizarre predictions about the problems that will ensue from the changes brought on by nanotechnology. I thought I had steeled myself so I would not be bothered by these sorts of things anymore, but along came the latest mishmash of half-informed scaremongering.
It’s a perfect storm of wrongheadedness. It was penned by Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D., a noted author and “science evangelist,” giving it an air of veracity. But that doesn't keep the piece from going wrong right from the outset. You can find the first misstep in the second sentence: “By miniaturizing matter, science fact will look like science fiction.” Okay, once and for all: Nanotechnology has nothing to do with miniaturizing matter. Nanotechnology is not the real-life version of the 1960s sci-fi film “Fantastic Voyage.” We are not shrinking matter.
Ramirez apparently skimmed the wrong articles to mine that nugget of information. The rest of the article, as far as nanotechnology is concerned, scans about right; it includes all the typical references you would expect from someone who skimmed some articles on nanotechnology: gold is red at the nanoscale, using hair to visualize the nanoscale, et cetera.
This is not to say Ramirez does not fudge some other references to nanotechnology for dramatic effect. For example, there's this gem: “Do we want small particles—which we can't imagine let alone see—swimming in our water supply and covering everything around us?”
Swimming? Covering everything around us? Really? The "scholarly paper" she must have been referencing is Michael Crichton’s novel “Prey.” Outside the world of fiction, man-made nanoparticles are not going to cover everything.
While these egregious misstatements of fact got my blood boiling, it’s the main thesis of the article that is perhaps the biggest problem. Ramirez’s argument boils down to the idea that pursuing technology has unintended consequences that, in balance, are bad for us. This is a popular meme among so-called environmentalists. Ramirez suggests that the automobile, while likely considered a really great idea at the time of its invention, brought on obesity because it eliminated an alternate course of history wherein we would have been walking or cycling. I suppose this line of argument appeals to a certain segment of the population that would like us to return to the bucolic times before all the inventions of our modern age. Sigh. Why can’t these technology-for-dummies summaries ever be informed or reasonable?
To address the crossroads that Ramirez believes we are approaching with nanotechnology (where it could potentially be the next thing to blame for our obesity), she suggests public engagement and dialog about its impact. Really? What a novel idea. Too bad it seems to have escaped Dr. Ramirez’s skimming that there has been so much public engagement for years now that research has been looking at whether it has any usefulness. It also doesn’t help matters that the very people that will accept Ramirez's line of thinking are the ones who have boycotted public engagement efforts.
Worse yet, the article was published in the perfect vehicle for wide dissemination: the Huffington Post, which is as mainstream as it gets. So a lot of people are apt to read the article and be misinformed. The Huffington Post is developing a rather poor reputation for its coverage of nanotechnology. And it's a pity because there are lots of brilliant commentators on the subject of nanotechnology’s potential impact—people who could provide well-reasoned and substantiated arguments on the topic. Ramirez's article, unfortunately, does neither.
Photo: David Monniaux/Wikipedia
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.