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Unethical Nanotechnology
Sascha Vongehr   Jan 24, 2011   Ethical Technology  

Sascha Vongehr is a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the National Laboratory of Solid State Microstructures and the Philosophy Department of Nanjing University. This is his first article for the IEET.

In connection with his appointment as a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Dr. Patrick Lin writes that he is:

...skeptical about the technoprogressive enthusiasm for emerging technologies, and therefore I don’t consider myself to be a transhumanist. But they [IEET] reaffirmed their gracious invitation and welcomed a potentially dissenting opinion, which they recognize as important to keep everyone honest.

This openness of IEET is highly attractive to me, and I take encouragement from it in writing my first of several articles for the IEET blog. I will reveal directly what I try to arrive at with my contributions rather than going through a stealthy phase to enable confrontational content at a later stage.

My own interests overlap with those of many people involved with the IEET at several points:

1. Nanotechnology (ethics, dangers)
2. Cognitive Enhancement (also related to lifespan enhancement)
3. Philosophy of Mind (machine consciousness & person hood, simulation hypothesis)
4. Generalized Evolution (emergence, what the future holds, and what we can do about it)

Thus, I will prepare a series of four brief articles and will take your feedback in order to decide what to concentrate on in order to best meet the interests of the IEET audience. Today, I start with nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology has been my own field of research for 12 years now. It is one of the, if not the most important emerging technology, and it is widely believed to be the vital ingredient for many of transhumanism’s most desired transformations, be it slowing down aging, computer to brain network-neuron interfaces, or the development of ever faster (quantum) computers. Nano is still the big buzz word and I am afraid to be the uninvited party-pooper.

I do not so much take issue with the more apocalyptic dangers, such as horror scenarios of self-reproducing nanotechnology turning the whole planet into a gray soup of nanobots, or the total lack of co-evolution of our Pleistocene bodies with non-organic nanostructures. The more general problem in which people interested in the ethics of emergent technologies are surely interested in is that nanotechnology is widely acknowledged to be potentially dangerous, and so the discussion needs to address oversight. For example: Can one trust the nanotechnological field to be effectively self-monitoring, self-regulating?


Nano-porous micro-carbon sphere only 500 nanometers in diameter and with metal nanoparticles in its interior

We make such highly catalytic (bio-active) structures with help of a conventional kitchen microwave oven, 10^14 at a time, easily scalable. The metals involved here are from solutions with low concentrations (like in foods). Vitamin C can be the necessary so-called -reducer’ (turning salts into metals) and it occurs in high concentrations in many foods. We do not know why microwaves are necessary or what such compounds would do if digested, nor are there tests for unknown nano-compounds in microwaved food. (Image credit: author’s original research, all rights retained)

For that, it would be nice to have some indications for nanotechnology being an especially trustworthy field, open to criticism and rational discourse, upholding the scientific ideals, scientific method, and integrity. However, I cannot but report some very disconcerting insights: nanotechnology probably comes in last when racing after those parameters. We should be worried!

My disappointment with ethical aspects started early on in the new field (after leaving high energy particle physics) when I witnessed how experimentation is done and how the publishing game works in nanotechnology. These issues have only worsened over time.

However, nothing compares to how bad it turns out to be if you try your luck on critical work in this field. Looking back over the years, my personal experience adds up to a very odd picture: An almost strict anti-proportionality between the significance and scientific rigor of work on one hand and the ease of publication on the other.

Critical articles have been rejected over and over again. It took almost five years to publish on dubious statistical methods employed in a sub-field I know extremely well and have contributed interesting discoveries to. And no, it was not by finally passing proper peer review; but I am not at liberty to discuss details, except for that the journal is a Chinese one that nobody in the field reads.

Scientific work is seldom if ever rejected for actual mistakes, which may perhaps not surprise many readers after the recent obviously flawed claims about arsenic-based life forms made it all the way to Science, NASA, and many news front pages (these claims were obviously flawed due to the fact that macromolecular biochemistry depends crucially on the bonding angles it evolved with, so I for one rejected the work the very day it was announced).

Critical work is plainly unable to overcome potentially criticized people’s power over the whole publish-or-perish (what I like to call POP-science) process and so called -peer review’. Critical work is effectively made invisible, and blogs can at most catch the tiny tip of the iceberg.

Call me a masochist if you like, but we tried another project that directly showed flawed conclusions being drawn in specific published papers. Such criticism (at least that is supposedly usual practice) should be published in the same journals as the original work, of course. However, the sociological aspects constraining nanotechnology made sure that we needed two years in order to finally be able to publish it in a journal that, again, nobody in the relevant sub-field reads.

Sure, you are free to assume that our work is really bad, but consider that we encounter few problems in publishing much less rigorous or significant reports in prestigious journals. The most prestigious journal in the field of microscopy just published an article by us, and the work even spawned a book chapter; this work took a tenth of the time to complete and is far less significant than the two critical papers mentioned above, but we encountered no problems in publishing it.

Please do not get me wrong - I am not out to receive your pity. My point is strictly to show a moral deficit, especially in nanoscience. Conditions are worse than in medicine, or say quantum gravity, a field that I have also personally worked in. To do so, I am now on a third project of criticizing a widely hyped recent discovery and relating it with the nanotechnology culture of much flawed research and largely non-reproducible experimental -results’. Working in the field, I know exactly what I am talking about, and I have tentatively criticized some of it before on the Web (see, for example, here, here, and here).

In the newest project, we discuss in detail that it is especially fields like nanotechnology where experimental results lack reproducibility, and “theory” is often a pseudo-scientific tossing about of meaningless formulas. Scientific integrity as such (say concerning plagiarism, cheating, the value of honest statistics, importance of meaningful accuracy estimations and reproducibility) has been bred away by the nature of nanotechnology’s subject matter combined with a selective environment that is almost pure publish-or-perish (POP-science) culture.

In other controversial, ultra-competitive fields like high energy particle physics, POP undermines the science too, but reproducibility (for example) is still highly valued. The mathematics of a string theoretical paper can and mostly will be checked. In nanoscience, this looks very different.

Publish-or-perish culture turned science into an endeavor where deception is vital to get ahead, and nanotechnology ranks as one of the worst. A scientific field that has evolved this far into being a structure wherein deception is basically systemic cannot be trusted to self-regulate.

This is not a conspiracy theory - it is plain evolution and sociology. It’s not about bad people I abhor because they have crossed me. No, these are normal people getting on with their stressed lives. The idea to criticize or be at all concerned about potential dangers plainly does not cross their minds.

If significant reader interest should exist, I will develop this notion further here instead of letting it rot again for years in my drawer.

Sascha Vongehr is currently affiliated with the Philosophy Department of Nanjing University (NJU) and the National Laboratory of Solid State Microstructures, NJU.


I would love to see more on the critical side of Nanotech, and some realistic criticisms, sans panic button Initiatives.  Please share.

We could always use more on the science of nanotech.

A bias towards exaggeration appears to be built into cutting-edge research, but at what point does it go from harmless, to inaccurate, to untruthful?  Nanotech has gotten a lot of press, both good and bad, over the past few decades.  If the field is as fundamentally flawed as Sascha claims, then it will take more than tweaking the incentive structure to save it.

I’m also interested in what you mean by a ‘non-replicable result’.  Non-replicable as in there’s no reasonable way for another lab to justify spending time and money on it, non-replicable in that it depends on unreliable phenomenon somehow, or non-replicable like a Weber bar (ie, totally false)?

More, please.

Why not start a Wikileaks for rejected papers? A lot of it may complete bollocks, but those worthwhile and potentially valuable papers that get rejected for unclear reasons may still get exposure. Possibly only allow submission if the paper is accompanied by the comments from the journal which justify the rejection.

I’m not a scientist, so this may all be crap or undoable.

@ Pendula: Thank you for your interest. Not sure what “sans panic button Initiatives” exactly refers to, but if it is about luddite nonsense, no fear necessary.
@ Sven Van Echelpoel: 1) Yes, a WL for rejected papers will be swamped with pseudo-science. 2) The point is, as I would like to stress again, not about a few rejected papers, but about the wide spread assumption that there is peer-review and scientific method and all that, so that a WL or some such is not necessary. In order to have the public trust science, these mechanisms must be in the belly of science and not be added from the outside by blogs or suchlike.
Sure, we can work on WL-like structures, too, but this just supports the main point: You cannot trust the structures under the label “science”, and some sciences are worse than others while at the same time being potentially very dangerous.

This BBC Horizon episode totally corroborates your views regarding peer reviews, and of sensational science. Check out especially views expressed @ approx. 40 mins. The programme also highlights much on the climate change propaganda wars and the need for science to be more open and communicate with the general public.

Science Under Attack

Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse examines why science appears to be under attack.


@Vongehr   I was indeed referring to just that.  I tire of endless knee jerk fear mongerring.  It will be nice to see an informed criticism and you seem to have level headedness on your side.

To be honest, considering the casual dismissal’s I’ve received on this site when I have tried to point out significant biases in many “peer-review” journals due to “consensus science” suppression of dissenting views, I’m actually kind of amazed you haven’t been howled down for pointing out this is just as true of nanotech as it is for most other fields.

I violently dislike the entire PoP process, mainly because the system is almost designed to be abused by “high status” actors who can anonymously reject any evidence or papers which do not confirm to their personal worldviews, or which could undermine their professional reputation or threaten their grant funding.  MIT deliberately published null findings for Cold Fusion, and Eugene Mallove, the PR director who released the report, resigned in protest when he discovered that they had found POSITIVE results, and then raised their baseline readings to hide them.

PoP science is just too easily abused. We seriously need to discuss a method of peer review that allows the benefits to be retained, but eliminates the abuses.

The possibility of creating new, yet to be identified, nano-particles using a conventional microwave is intriguing.  I personally have not used household microwaves for a number of years due to issues raised by the synthesis and metabolism of these quasi-particles being created/mutated.  More research into this subject is needed for public safety.

It’s all about the money! As commercial interests and funding drive POP, and funding is critical to nanoscience right now, it’s a straight line to me that publication would be biased toward dismissing the negative/questioning studies. As many here have noted, it’s no different than pharma, cancer research, and behavioral studies where it’s FOP, funding or perish. As a sociologist of science I know that researchers are rated and rewarded based on funding amassed, not on accuracy and motives. I know of those on the nano-periphery, materials scientists and journalists who also cheer ANY nanoscience onward to avoid risking loss of funding or lab space. I’d be extremely interested to see rejected papers, esp. when the peer review seemed vague, immaterial, unsubstantiated, or flawed.

You need Watson, my dear to correct your incorrect equations.

Dear Laurence Arnold,

Regarding the above article I guess the correspondence I had with Nobel laureate Prof. ´t Hooft is of interest to you because there is `Unethical Theoretical Physics`.

The correspondence can be read;


Carel van der Togt

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