We know we are ambiguous. So often we change our minds, forget what we said, and don’t walk the talk. Even worse, we sit on the fence, put things on others, and leave them in limbo. We should’ve known that our rationality is limited since before Herbert Simon. Yet, few have doubted thus far that the public can show their clear attitude on complex and uncertain issues, and policymakers can make a decision based on their yes-or-no answers as ‘democratic’ evidence.
I’m not talking about Brexit, but bioethics. Take a trolley problem. Which do you choose in the situation that A will be saved if you run over B? Here you’ve got ambiguous. Much clearer is that this shouldn’t be an either-or situation. An American hero can save both A and B. The same can apply for emerging biotechnologies. It is not good or bad, agree or disagree, permissible or prohibitable. As often said as ‘dual-use’ technologies, we must steer the socio-technological development by engaging wider publics and reflecting both positive and negative aspects of the technologies.
Yes, this is a classic answer in a textbook of science and technology studies. The thing is, we are not sure who and how to steer the development. Too many cooks spoil the broth, or ‘too many captains steer the ship up a mountain’ in Japanese. Civic captains in the sea of democracy not just face contrasting views on a contentious issue, but more simply, they are not sure about the issue and their own views. The reason might be “I agree and disagree”, “I don’t think I can make a judgement”, or “I cannot judge at this time”.
My recent co-authored paper revealed that 80% of the population hold these intermediate attitudes on synthetic biology and genome editing. It is hasty to say that this is because they are Japanese, who are likely to select neutral, moderate and ambivalent answers. More interestingly, our analytical results show that their ambiguous perceptions clearly relate to how they find things like hair, friend and nature as a part of themselves, and what they mean by ‘future generations’. Those who postpone judgement are likely to have a narrow self-concept and set future generations in the distant future. A supplemental analysis confirmed this inverse relationship between self-concept and opinion on future generations.
So, what are the implications of this study? It is quite new to focus on cognitive aspects of ambiguous public answers in ethics and policy studies. Also this is probably one of the first endeavours to empirically explore how people perceive future generations. Apart from such novelty, diverse and nuanced public responses are expected to effectively serve policy making in the complex, dynamic social systems in which new technologies will emerge, as compared to aggregated responses by public surveys. Ethically and politically speaking, all of us should be aware of our relations to objects including other persons, animals, artefacts, ecosystems and future generations.
I’ve never been a climate sceptic, but how dare you are sure about implications of emerging technologies, future generations and ourselves? Let us calm down and create more sustainable and collaborative places and spaces. One of the salutary lessons from a number of public engagement exercises is to pay attention to the design of local places and living spaces where people can interact and discuss by themselves and the mobility of their cognitions and behaviours. Ambiguous and uncertain evidences can be informed in policymaking only when developing our learning, communication and network processes.
Aiko Hibino, Go Yoshizawa & Jusaku Minari, Frontiers in Sociology 4:81, 17 December 2019.
Synthetic biology and genome editing have become increasingly controversial issues, necessitating careful attention and engagement with the public. Our study examined ambiguity in public perception about emerging biotechnologies through the use of several intermediate response options in a survey. To understand the relationship between respondents’ thoughts and attitudes, we also examined how respondents’ indecision is related to their cognitive concept of “self” as well as their interpretation of “future generations.” An online survey of 994 respondents living in Japan revealed that around 80% hold intermediate attitudes (two-sided, non-judgmental, or reserved attitudes) toward synthetic biology and genome editing. These results revealed that respondents who have a narrow self-concept tend to postpone decisions about the application of emerging technologies. In contrast, those with a broad self-concept tend to adopt an ambivalent attitude and are more short-sighted, but make judgments based on the impact of their decisions on current and future generations. This study thus demonstrates that public views are more diverse and nuanced than those obtained from conventional public surveys for policy making.