September 11, 2012

Welcome To NanoBot

So, first a nanosecond about me: I’ve been writing about nanotechnology for more than a decade now, attempting to make this stuff understandable to a general audience. I am not a scientist. I am a journalist. So, in my obsession and fascination with nanotech, I try to make myself understand it by talking to a lot of really smart people and then translating what they tell me into words that I can understand and, hopefully, the reader will, too. Any questions about nanotech in the news? In fiction? Send me an e-mail and I’ll see if I can help distinguish fantasy from reality.

Google my nanotech work for more information.

That out of the way, let’s move on to the subject of the week: nanotech terrorism. Nature has a fascinating, in-depth look at why nanotechnology researchers in Mexico are fearing for their lives and limbs from anti-technology terrorists sending explosives. Nature reports that “an eco-anarchist group calling itself Individuals Tending Towards Savagery (ITS) claimed responsibility” for an explosive package sent to a research lab in Mexico that badly injured a scientist.

The group also published a “a 5,500-word diatribe against nanotechnology.” Further down in the story, Nature correctly pointed out the work of one group in particular that has helped set the stage for this kind of violent, ignorant nanotechnology extremism:

“Some researchers in Mexico say that more-moderate groups are stoking fears about nanotechnology. One such body is the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC, pronounced et cetera), a small but vocal non-profit organization based in Ottawa, Canada, which was one of the first to raise concerns about nanotechnology and has to a large extent framed the international discussion.”

I have been warning about ETC Group’s activities for the past decade now. ETC does no research on its own. What it does is take bits of actual research, along with excerpts from science fiction, distill it through its own anti-technology filter and spit out reports and statements that urge research bans on nanotechnology (as if nanotech was any one thing at all) based on the straw nanotech monster it has created.

The trouble is, as Nature reported, ETC Group was one of the first to question nanotech and has “framed the international discussion.” So, much of the media have gone along for the ride, taking ETC Group at its word that there is the potential for out-of-control nanoparticles to gum up the environment and become toxic to people and animals. There is little research that actually confirms this (if you get at the roots of most news stories written on the subject, the “researchers” who are concerned about these issues are largely those who have not actually researched it and the stories reflect the opinions of agenda groups like ETC). And while there is legitimate research going on in nanotoxicity, what ETC does is dangle doomsday scenarios from science fiction and present it as real possibility. This leaves fertile ground for the imaginations of eco-terrorist groups like the one that struck in Mexico.

A largely uncritical media is along for the ride. A few years ago, I pointed out that even NPR had trouble distinguishing between Michael Crichton’s novel “Prey,” which depicts out-of-control nanobots, and concern over real nanoparticles in sunscreen. I write:

When Adams brought up Michael Crichton’s “Prey,” which he described as “nanotechnology gone wild” with “swarms going after me,” Flatow missed an opportunity to differentiate between the far-off (or far-fetched) fear of the Crichton variety and the more-legitimate near-term ones. Flatow, without skipping a beat, answered the “Prey” comment with, “This is the deep fear that many people have about nanotechnology.” He described the concerns over nanoparticles and toxicity, as if the Crichton book had anything to do with it. …

Flatow was confusing the Royal Society with the radical, headline-seeking, anti-technology ETCGroup, which long ago recommended taking sunscreen and cosmetics off the shelves.

Chalk up another victory for the ETC Group, which has again proved that if you repeat selective information over and over again, it not only magically becomes “the truth,” it’s even placed in the mouths of others. I expect most of the mainstream media to parrot the ETC Group line and leave its assumptions unchallenged, but I do expect better from NPR. More here.

It’s a mad, mad, mad world, where truth and fiction go hand in hand. Tune in for my next blog post, when I delve into what’s real and what’s fantasy about nanotechnology in sunscreen.

Image Credit: agsandrew / Shutterstock

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