Friday, 13 April 2012

Playing Games

When the new action-packed Hollywood blockbuster The Hunger Games made a spectacular debut on the silver screen recently, it catapulted issues of science, society, and politics into discussion forums and teenage chat rooms worldwide.

Based on the first novel of the  bestselling The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the movie is set in a future world that is hopelessly divided into two broad groups – one of a well-fed, entertainment-addicted ruling elite that uses high-technology to control an impoverished, largely-hungry mass of people. 

So desperate is the situation of the oppressed classes, that each of the 12 districts they inhabit are forced to give up a young male and a young female to go into an arena every year where the 24 combatants fight each other in a televised festival of death until only one victor is left.

So what has this got to do with public understanding of science, you might ask. For one, the movie, as indeed the entire trilogy of novels, places science and technology at the heart of society. Whether the view of science is utopic or dystopic depends at least partly on social and political pulls and pressures that policy makers are under and whether governments choose to use or abuse technologies.

As Alan Boyle notes in his insightful blog, “The technological divide between the rulers and the ruled is at the heart of The Hunger Games”. Within the dystopic setting of Collins’ novels, it is the oppressive ruling elite that make use of new technological innovations ranging from magnetic force fields and genetically-engineered creatures designed to intimidate foes to sophisticated surveillance devices such as tracker jays and humanoid spying birds called jabberjays. In contrast, the protagonists of the oppressed classes have only mundane bows and arrows and knives as their weapons of self-preservation.

As our guest blogger said last week in the specific context of new reproductive technologies, novels, movies, and television shows are for many people a first introduction to unfamiliar technologies and, therefore, an exposure to potential legal, social, political, and emotional implications these technologies have on life and society.

Of all the themes explored in The Hunger Games, genetic engineering is probably the most obvious one. The motif for the central protagonist of the trilogy, a resolute 16-year-old girl who takes on the establishment, is that of a mockingjay – also the title of the last novel in the trilogy. When the genetically-engineered jabberjays deployed by the elite to eavesdrop and transmit recorded conversations of rebels outlive their utility and  are left to die, they mate with mockingbirds to create a new species of mocking jays. 

Clearly, as we have seen with some GM crops, including GM corn, genetically engineered organisms are hard to contain and can adapt to the environment in unpredictable ways.

Genetic engineering has been a major topic of consideration by scholars working in the area of public understanding of science. It is now well established that in Europe, for example, perception and acceptance of GM technology vary according to type of application, with many people tending to be supportive of biotechnology for medical purposes, while opposing or expressing deep ambivalence about biotechnology for agri-food.  

PUS has several recent articles from different parts of the world on the topic. In a forthcoming article (now available online), Henrik Mielby, Peter Sandoe, and Jesper Lassen of the University of Copenhagen, talk about their Denmark-based research that looks into “The role of scientific knowledge in shaping public attitudes to GM technologies”.  The authors found that higher the scientific knowledge people demonstrated, the more likely they were to make a distinction between their acceptance of GM technology for medical reasons and rejection of it for food or animal feed purposes. They were also more likely to ignore differences between transgenic and cisgenic food crops. In contrast, people with less scientific knowledge tended to make a distinction between transgenesis and cisgenesis on the basis of the ‘naturalness’ or otherwise of the respective 

In a Japan-based study (available online), Izumi Ishiyama, Tetsuro Tanzawa, Maiko Watanabe, Tadahiko Maeda, Kaori Muto, Akiko Tamakoshi, Akiko Nagai, and Zentaro Yamagata explore “Public attitudes to the promotion of genomic crop studies in Japan: correlations between genomic literacy, trust, and favourable attitude”. The survey of 4,000 people demonstrated that half the respondents supported “crop-related genomic studies”, while 6.4% disapproved. This research also highlighted significant gender differences in attitudes towards biotechnology, with women significantly more likely to have negative attitudes compared to men. Such gender differences have also been reported for the United States and Europe.

Finally, in Canada, Mary Roduta Roberts, Grace Reid, Meadow Schroeder, and Stephen Norris found, in an exploration (article available online) of the relationship between knowledge and attitudes to trust in science and technology that, among other things, “trust in generalized science and technology  affects trust in specific technologies, but not vice versa.” Thus, it is entirely possible to be distrustful of specific technologies while trusting science and technology as a whole. This research also demonstrated what has been argued elsewhere that greater scientific literacy does not lead to increases in scientific trust. Rather,  trust in science and technology is likely to improve if there are opportunities for the public to engage with scientific experts.

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