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When more information IS a risky business

by Jaron Porciello

Jaron Porciello, Associate Director for Research Data Engagement in International Programs, Cornell College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (Photo credit: Serge Petchenyi)

As a librarian at Cornell University I’ve had great opportunities to work in both information-scarce and information-rich environments. I’ve negotiated with science publishers to donate materials to scientists working in low-income countries; in these same countries I’ve worked alongside librarians whose policy is to say “Yes, we’ll take anything!” to any resources offered. As a result, they are left with libraries filled with irrelevant piles of books and old journals, making the dearth of useful information even more palpable. Even in library collections as expansive as Cornell’s, I’ve watched as students panic when presented with too vast a choice of materials to sort through. 

In both of these environments, the result is the same: more information for the sake of information clutters and distracts. Information must be relevant and framed in such a way as to help a person come to accurate conclusions based on the whole story.

I reflect on this after reading the New York Times February 25 Editorial on GMO labeling, wherein the editorial board flippantly asserts: “There is no harm in providing consumers more information about their food. A study published in the journal Food Policy in 2014 found that labels about genetic modification did not influence what people thought about those foods.”

In fact, our perception of risk changes according to what information is provided and how that information is framed. When information isn’t relevant or fails to present the entire story it has the potential to cause more harm than good. Framing the question as, “what is the right information to present to the consumer?” is a conversation that deserves sustained attention. Loud calls for more information, without equally emphasizing the need to make thoughtful decisions about what information we share, simply contributes to further information inundation.

Jayson Lusk, co-author of the 2014 Food Policy paper cited in the Times editorial, further discussed the results of his study on his blog:

What we found (in the context of an internet survey) is that the addition of GMO labels didn't make people more concerned about GMOs than they already were. That is, the addition of a label didn't seem to send a signal that GMOs were more risky than consumers already thought they were. However, we did find that consumers would attempt to avoid foods with a GMO label. Consumers' choices in our stud[y] implied they were willing to pay as much $1.98/lb to avoid an apple that has a mandatory "genetically engineered" label relative to an unlabeled apple.

Given the amount of thoughtful analysis that has been done on the issue of food, consumer decision-making and labeling, I question why the Times did not present a more thoughtful position in its editorial statement.

David Just, a behavioral economist at Cornell, has written extensively on the environmental factors and emotions that drive economic decisions. In July 2014 congressional testimony on the benefits of agricultural biotechnology, he stated:

Consumers have developed misperceptions regarding the benefits of biotechnology in part because industry does not explain those benefits to them. Industry has focused understandably on marketing the benefits of growing these crops to farmers, leaving consumers with a latent understanding of why genetic modifications are introduced into the food supply to begin with.

He continues,

When the same choice [between conventional and GMO foods] is presented in such a way that consumers can understand the reasons for genetic modification, they overwhelmingly choose GMOs. For example, consumers would rather buy poultry that has been genetically modified to resist disease than chicken that has been fed antibiotics to accomplish the same purpose.

How do we respond to policy trends towards more open and transparent data while ensuring that we make available the right information at the outset?

We can look to a 2013 policy memo from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for an example of how agencies may try to address this challenge.  Titled “Expanding Public Access to the Results of Federally Funded Research,” the policy requires Federal agencies that have research and development budgets of more than $100 million to make publications and data openly accessible to the public. Given that subscription journal prices continue to rise each year and outpace increases in library budgets, and the cost per journal article (without a subscription) ranges anywhere from $20-$30USD per article, this policy will hopefully help people gain access to important information in medicine, agricultural, and other fields.

Yet, the aspirational notion that the average American taxpayer will benefit from unfettered access to researchers’ data ignores the fact that scientific data is incredibly complex and unstandardized across disciplines.  To analyze and understand this trove of date requires sophisticated computing and organizational skills. Even librarians like myself often lack the expertise to navigate this sea of information. So I wonder sometimes about the practicalities of this policy. Do I feel better just from having access to it? 

From the outset we should be asking: who really stands to benefit from mandatory “open information” policies? In the case of open access to data from Federally funded research, is it the taxpayer? Or, the scientist or agency? In the case of uncritical GMO labeling, is it the consumer who gains from GMO vs. GMO-free labeling, or is it the competing producers whose practices may be less appealing to consumers when scrutinized beyond the mandatory labels?

Merely calling for more information, without discussing what information we share, why we are sharing it, or how we plan to share it can lead to more confusion than understanding.

Finally, our everyday language often reveals how we think about information versus data. We describe the ideal state of information as open, free, accessible. And data? Well, its adjectives need a PG-13 warning! Raw, open, big, pure, linked, hard; we want to mine, dredge, extract data, in order to analyze, evaluate, manipulate, and massage it. You get the picture. Too often our fantasies about open information and raw data are predicated on the assumption that mere access can lead to fundamental truths.

Perhaps we need to talk about how to get more of the right information. And that is — unlike the GMO labeling the New York Times Editorial Board seems to have changed its position to support — a step towards a more productive conversation. 

 

Jaron Porciello is the Associate Director for Research Data Engagement in International Programs, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, at Cornell University. The views expressed here in no way represent a position on GMO labeling by the Alliance for Science (or by Porciello). 

 

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