Is nanotechnology a ground breaking powerful new technology? Or is it neither new nor really a singular technology? We are told that it heralds “the next industrial revolution”. Will its effects be revolutionary? Or familiar and incremental? Is nanotechnology’s development inevitable? Or precarious? Are its implications nothing to be afraid of? Or are they so profound as to give cause for alarm? Does nanotechnology raise important new ethical issues or not? Australian ethicist Dr Robert Sparrow provides a detailed new critique of the contradictions inherent in the emerging debate about nanotechnology.

Sparrow writes: “A not-so-subtle hypocrisy pervades discussion of nanotechnology. Enthusiasts for nanotechnology make one set of claims when they want to advertise and promote this technology and another, often directly opposed, set of claims when sceptics about the technology question their enthusiasm. As a consequence, the terms of the debate about nanotechnology shift so as to hamper substantial critical engagement about the future of this technology…

“A proper critical assessment of the impacts, costs, and benefits of the adoption of nanotechnology will not be possible until we can clear away some of the hype around it and adjudicate between the competing claims made on its behalf. If there are only different nanotechnologies, if they are already familiar to us, if we have a choice as to whether to develop them, and if they are adequately regulated by existing institutions or something like them, then there may well be nothing to be afraid of and no significant ethical issues that we need to resolve.

If, alternatively, nanotechnology is a revolutionary new technology, the development of which appears to be inevitable, and which raises profound challenges to our regulatory systems as well as new ethical issues, then we would do well to proceed cautiously, if at all. Working out which of the very different claims made about nanotechnology are true is therefore essential if we’re to be able to make informed decisions about it.

However, the real problem arising from the existence of the contradictory claims I have highlighted is not so much that it is hard to work out which of them is true but that the combination of them functions to close down the space in which critical engagement with them might take place.

Changing stories allows nano-enthusiasts to avoid having to discuss the full implications of their original claims. When advocates for nanotechnology want to drum up interest in it, or funding for it, they talk about nanotechnology and argue that it is revolutionary; when they want to defuse fears, they insist there are only nanotechnologies which are already familiar.

When they want the public to accept nanotechnology they argue it is inevitable; when they want the government to provide more funding, change the laws, or educate the public to be more enthusiastic about it, they argue it is precarious. They allow that nanotechnology requires regulation but ignore the problems with the institutions that will be doing the regulating. While they routinely acknowledge the importance of ethical issues, they seldom acknowledge the possibility that these might constitute a reason to turn away from developing nanotechnology.

This pattern of claims reflects an attempt by advocates for nanotechnology to have the best of both worlds across these areas. It also functions to continually defer sustained ethical discussion of any of them. As billions of dollars of public money are poured into nanotechnology research and as the products of nanotechnologies start to be introduced to unwitting consumers and to the environment, we can ill afford to defer discussion of the issues raised by nanotechnology any longer.

It is time to hold all those involved in debates about nanotechnology to the claims they make and to highlight and condemn hypocrisy of the sorts I have identified here. If enthusiasts for nanotechnology try to change their stories when critics respond to their original claims, we should recognize this as a sign that they are more concerned about getting the public to embrace nanotechnology than they are about participating in a genuine debate about it.

Yet a genuine, open and vigorous debate is precisely what is required if we want to continue to claim to be a democratic society while pursuing a technology with potentially widespread and profound social and environmental consequences. My hope is that this essay will help concerned individuals and organisations generate and participate in such a debate by identifying and responding to the hypocrisy which currently bedevils discussions of nanotechnology.”