Don't Believe the Hype: Do Emerging Technologies Fall Foul of Their Own PR?

26/11/2014 12:59 | Updated 25 January 2015

'Hype' might be more likely built up around the latest boyband, but many emerging technologies also rely on good marketing to bring in investment and support. Science might not get the queues (apart from the Apple store) but in the same way Apple has fumbled with the iPhone 6, many technologies are subject to a major backlash. So are emerging technologies being wounded by their own grand claims?

The queue at the Covent Garden Apple store for the iPhone 6 on release day. Science is universal, right? Well, maybe it's not that simple. Science is different everywhere. Whereas the actual scientific information may be the same, the social, political, and economic factors that surround science mean that it can be different across the world. One notable example of this is the Thalidomide disaster of the early 1960s.

The precautionary principle is important in this case as it states that when risk is uncertain but plausible then actions should be taken to minimize the potential (or theoretical) harm. With reference to pre-natal care the precautionary principle is generally accepted as a good thing. The Thalidomide scandal highlights the potential consequences of ignoring that principle. Ultimately Thalidomide's aggressive marketing caused it to be hastily approved in the UK and elsewhere despite the improper testing. By contrast in the USA FDA scientist Dr. Frances Kelsey did not allow it to be prescribed without further testing so as to ensure that US citizens were protected and the drug was fully tested, this was largely due to the fact that alternatives were available.

But what about the bigger ideas? The ones that are heralded to save our planet or solve our neo-Malthusian problems of overcrowding and resource depletion, where we're told the only alternative is destruction? Geoengineering is heralded as a way to solve our manmade environmental problems, created by our own 'innovations' and use of fossil fuels. When will we stop having to create technologies to cure the ailments caused by our previous technologies? Will Geoengineering cause us to be lax in our efforts to reduce carbon emissions? What will happen if this occurs and the Geongineering tactics do not work? All of these are relevant in the discussion of risk, but are we overstating the risks of Geoengineering and other emerging technologies because the benefits are being overstated?

The 'novelty effect', as outlined by Rayner, implies that the marketing of emerging technologies is falling into the same trap over, and over again: the 'novelty trap'. Nuclear Power explains this 'trap' pretty neatly. When it was first publicised Nuclear power was heralded as a change in technology of grand proportions to provide the power we need without using fossil fuels. It was lauded as being revolutionary, and "too cheap to meter". But the reality was very different, unexpected costs incurred and the construction and running of plants created a multitude of potential dangers and health risks. In order to placate critics advocates of Nuclear Power argued that Nuclear Power was "just a giant kettle, a new way of boiling water", harking back to the past to appease worry.

When Nuclear Power was proposed as a revolutionary technology it created an atmosphere of fear as its benefits were overstated. To ease the minds of the public those in the industry downplayed this revolutionary aspect in favour of a 'we've been doing this for years' line of argument. Supporters of Nuclear Power were forced to distance themselves from their own PR promises. Nuclear Power became a victim of its own hype. As a result public opinion differed across Europe, resulting in varying investment and uptake.

GM crops suffered much the same fate. The New Scientist believe that the public opposition to GM crops means that it is not economically viable due to negative public attitudes towards it. This is because the risks attributed to emerging technology such as GM crops, Geoengineering and Nuclear Power were considered and proposed in relation to the scale and promises made by the industry itself in order to gain funding and investment. At first the companies had heralded great change but after receiving criticism they then downplay their work as a continuation of past practice to hide from regulators and appease public fear.

Public perception of emerging technologies shouldn't be understated. We may think that the government can make informed decisions about new technologies however as it stands the UK government only has one MP - Julian Huppert - that has come from a scientific background. With an election always looming can we always trust politicians to make the right decisions based on evidenced science? Mark Henderson says we can't. Science is often chosen by politicians to support conclusions not to draw them, "what politics really values isn't evidence-based policy. It's policy-based evidence".

The hype heavy marketing and grandiose claims of emerging technologies can cause them to be associated with risks that are difficult to shake off. The tide of public opinion dictates policy. Once the public turns against an emerging technology it's difficult for any MP or party to stand against them. Do politicians have a duty of care to take an evidenced approach to emerging technologies or should they aim to represent public opinion on scientific issues? Does the lack of scientific education in Parliament mean we're unable to trust MPs to make the right decisions for us?

Emerging technologies create hype around their potential and subsequently undermine their own claims when questioned. This can turn the tide of public opinion against them and ultimately mean that vote-hungry politicians turn against them also. Whilst I love to engage in political cynicism, the novelty trap and importance of public temperament in the governance of science, once again, demonstrates why science isn't the same everywhere and highlights how emerging technologies can fall prey to their own PR.