Lately, I've been revisiting that old conundrum in communications: what brings about acceptance of a new technology? I've been reflecting on this in the context of an interesting project I'm involved with, on genetically modified (GM) crops and biotechnology. It is a fascinating research project exploring how radio broadcasting is currently being used in Kenya and Burkina Faso to communicate about this contentious topic. (The research is run by ISAAA and financed by the IDRC in Canada).
So, whilst doing a little reading on the subject of biotech communication I came across an article from 2007 (PDF), by two German science journalists, Thilo Spahl and Thomas Deichmann which rang very true. They observe:
'...whether humans fundamentally embrace, criticise or refuse a particular technology has very little to do with the actual quantity of their knowledge on the subject... instead acceptance has more to do with the manner in which a topic is addressed and by whom, as well as with the basic attitude of politicians and citizens towards innovations.'
Spahl and Deichmann's argument is common-sensical and wise. For me, it speaks directly to my own experiences on those occasions when I have made a conscious decision in favour or against something contentious.
I remember, for example, agonising about allowing my young son to be given a new vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. This was the famous 'MMR jab', over which there was much controversy in the UK about 10 years ago. Troubled by stories of links to autism in the press, I didn't know what to do: to vaccinate or not to vaccinate? The story was complicated by the fact that our then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had a young son too, similar in age to my own son...and he was keeping quiet about whether his son was getting the jab or not. Blair was probably just wanting to keep his family affairs private, but to me that smelled fishy. Why didn't he come out and say 'Yes, my son's having the jab - see! It's perfectly all right'? So I was influenced by the basic attitude of a politician. But then I was also influenced by my doctor and those around me, for example my sister-in-law and her own child. She'd gone for the jab and her son was fine... In the end I went for the jab, and all was well. And the scary autism link, that the press had made much of, turned out to be almost completely discredited.
So, returning to those German science journalists, it does seem very true that our acceptance of new things does not depend on how much we know or think we know about that thing, but who tells us about it, how they tell us, and whether we trust them. (Whether I was ever right to trust Tony Blair on anything was, of course, called into question over Iraq and the 'weapons of mass destruction' ... but that's another much bigger and longer story).