Two reports out this week hint at a new political alignment in the coming decades. Both reports focus on nanotechnology, but have implications well beyond.
Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows a strong correlation between moral doubts about nanotechnology and embrace of religion.
In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.
"The level of 'religiosity' in a particular country is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not people see nanotechnology as morally acceptable," says Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and the lead author of the new study. "Religion was the strongest influence over everything."
At the same time, Yale researchers have determined that doubts about nanotechnology align with larger cultural views about commerce and equality.
The determining factor in how people responded was their cultural values, according to Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor at Yale Law School and lead author of the study. "People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe," said Kahan, "while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous."
According to Kahan, this pattern is consistent with studies examining how people's cultural values influence their perceptions of environmental and technological risks generally. "In sum, when they learned about a new technology, people formed reactions to it that matched their views of risks like climate change and nuclear waste disposal," he said.
This combination shatters the Right-Left stereotype that dominate American politics. Religiosity is typically seen as conservative, while worries about economic inequality fall into the liberal bucket. Yet both map to strong concerns about nanotechnology.
(It's important here to note that "nanotechnology" has been somewhat corrupted as a useful term, and gets used to mean everything from dumb nanoscale particles to scary Drexlerian nanobots, often without clear distinction. It's unclear, without access to the relevant journal articles, how nanotechnology is defined in these studies.)
If the opinions uncovered in these surveys does map to larger views on science and technology, it suggests the shape that a new political alignment might take. Party politics aren't static; partisan evolution means more than just flipping which party means "right wing" and which one means "left wing." There could well be a reshuffling of positions in the coming decades, especially if religious evangelicals begin to see faith-as-stewardship as being more important than faith-as-moral judgment.
One pair of surveys does not necessary portend a massive cultural shift, but it does offer a distant early warning of a possible change. This is definitely worth watching.