The affect heuristic and risk management principles

Continuing still with the article by Marchant, Sylvester, and Abbott (Risk Management Principles for Nanotechnology) but first a comment about the report released yesterday by the US National Research Council. I haven’t had a chance to look at it but the report coverage points to agreement between a surprising set of stakeholders to the effect that there is no appropriate governance (regulation) of nanotechnology. The stakeholders include scientists, industry heavyweights such as BASF and Dupont as well as non-for-profit organizations (American Chemical Council and Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies). They didn’t mention any activist groups in the materials I’ve seen but I can’t imagine any disagreement for those quarters.

It’s intriguing that this panel report from the US National Research Council has been released the same week that Nature Nanotechnology has published data from ‘the [sic] Cognition Project’ at Yale Law School warning about possible ‘culture wars’ and Dietram Scheufele’s latest findings about the impact religion might have on the adoption of nanotechnology. It’s possible that someone is masterminding all of this but I think there’s a more likely scenario. Most of the people of the involved know each other because there’s a loose network. They are concerned about the potential for problems and when they talk to each other they find out about each other’s projects and encourage them. At some point they may have decided that it would be a good tactic to release reports and publish in Nature Nanotechnology at roughly the same time. Consequently, they got lucky and the various media cooperated unknowingly with this impromptu plan. Conversely, nobody talked to anyone about these various projects and they got lucky. What I don’t believe is that they developed some master plan and carried it out.

On to heuristics. As I understand the word, it means guidelines (more or less). In this paper, the authors discuss two specific heuristics that relate to risk perception. (If you’re going to manage risk, you need to understand how it’s perceived.)

Where nanotechnology is concerned, ‘Affect” is considered to be an important heuristic when examining the public’s perception of risk. (Affect is how you feel about something.) Here’s something interesting from the paper,

… numerous studies have shown that where individuals believe a technology has high benefits, they automatically believe its risks are low. This negative correlation has been shown to affect both lay and expert opinions, and is robust even in the face of countervailing evidence. … In short, how individuals feel about a particular stimulus directs how they perceive its dangers or benefits. p. 48

What fascinates me is that your knowledge about the topic be it expert or amateur is still heavily affected by whether or not you believe the technology is beneficial even when evidence suggests that the dangers are huge.

There’s more about ‘affect’ in the article, if you’re interested, get the journal Nanoethics, 2008, vol. 2, pp. 43-60. Meanwhile, there’s another heuristic that the authors are using to build their case for a new risk management principle. The other heuristic is ‘Availability’ and more about that tomorrow.

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