The feature article on ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) in nanotechnology (Physics Today, October 2008, page 38) struck me as extremely enlightening. I liked the balanced tone of Cyrus Mody’s text, including the application of the term “folk theory” to all sides. Other fields of science, and science policymakers, would probably do well to learn from the example of ELSI nanotechnology research.

In my own field, climate research, something keeps astonishing me. Many people I talk to still believe that there is a debate about the existence of the greenhouse effect due to carbon dioxide. But I remember seeing the effect demonstrated on TV, notably by Pieter Tans, a leading researcher from the Earth System Research Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mody’s article made me realize that the lack of belief in fundamental physics laws might not have to do with a lack of understanding or education. Disbelief might rather be the result of distrust—the same distrust Mody mentions toward genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology. In the case of the greenhouse effect, people are wary of the complicated climate models that only a few experts understand.

The contribution of climate science to society is not through development of mitigation technologies such as renewable energy, but through development of tools that allow better anticipation of what the future might bring (see how I avoid the term “prediction”). Climate science by itself will not lead to fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The mitigation of climate change is a job that policymakers and the general public need to put into action. However, given this limited but distinctive role of climate research, it is all the more important that the public have faith in the scientists who use those predictive tools. A prophet nobody will listen to is useless. But these are just my own observations; Mody’s article convinced me that it is possible to do systematic and objective research that will pinpoint the misunderstandings and gaps in perception between scientists and the public.

What ultimately persuaded me that there is a parallel case between nanotechnology and climate science was when Mody mentioned Michael Crichton’s anti-nanotech novel Prey (Harper, 2008) and reminded me of the controversy surrounding his State of Fear (Avon, 2005).