Sunday, April 21, 2013

Too much and not enough

I've been thinking about informational issues for several years. Part of the motivation for this arose during the vaccination scare, which was at a fever pitch around the time my son was born.

That controversy, which is still ongoing in some quarters, is basically over whether vaccines are safe. The specific issue that was most prominent in 2006 was whether thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative commonly used in childhood vaccines, contributed to autism. This was based on a study that was later discredited and retracted, but not until well after my son received his vaccinations. There have been other allegations, like multiple simultaneous vaccinations causing neurological damage. Jenny McCarthy led the charge against vaccines, and there was all kinds of supposed information supporting one side or the other, from a variety of sources. I spent a lot of time trying to come to a conclusion that I could feel confident about. A lot. In the end, it came down to talking to my son's pediatrician, a very reasonable person. He pointed out that he and I both had vaccines containing thimerosal when we were kids, and besides, vaccines no longer contained thimerosal. (The medical establishment was never on board with the alleged connection to autism but supported discontinuing thimerosal as a preservative, presumably to reassure nervous parents.) He wasn't smugly dismissive of the concerns, but he seemed certain that there was nothing to them, and I stopped worrying about it.

Two things about this episode really stuck with me. One was that there was no safe way to go amidst the uncertainty. As a parent, I can totally understand excessive caution from the perspective of "take no chances where my kids are concerned." In this case, there was no way to do that. It was a choice between not having the vaccines and risking disease, or having the vaccines and (supposedly) risking autism or something else horrible. The other striking thing was that I, a reasonably intelligent person, could not come to a confident conclusion after spending hours and hours going through publicly available information. At the time, the Lancet study carried a lot of weight, and I was not willing to go along with the medical establishment without a second thought (my impression is that they are perhaps too conservative about new information). It's a rather different situation now. The credible-sounding anti-vaccination info pretty much crumbled after the Lancet study was shot down. There are still plenty of claims about the dangers of vaccinations floating around, but it is much easier to feel confident that these claims are baseless.

This led me to some research, still in progress, that tries to get at various aspects of how individual information processing affects public consensus (or lack of it). The thing that has really bothered me, though, is the difficulty in assessing publicly available information, even for that mythical unbiased person. Take global warming, for example. This is another area where I've read a lot, and there is clearly a scientific consensus about a few things. Getting this across to the general public is complicated, for several reasons. One is that it's not even obvious what the statement that "global warming is a problem" is supposed to mean, because it's really in three parts: (1) atmospheric carbon levels have been increasing dramatically; (2) this increase is largely human-generated; and (3) this leads to elevated temperatures, which are causing and will cause significant problems in the future. Another complication is that there is a lot of uncertainty about (3): although the best-case scenario is still pretty bad, the uncertainty creates a temptation to dismiss the whole issue. Finally, consensus does not imply unanimity: there are studies that contradict one or more of the three statements above, but they are a tiny minority, and some of them are suspect (e.g. because they were funded by an oil company). I like to make the comparison to smoking causing cancer. One similarity is that the precise statement is complex: smoking raises the probability of cancer significantly, which is not to say that smoking is either a necessary or sufficient condition for cancer. Also, there was a scientific consensus (but not unanimity) long before there was public consensus. [I'm mulling over a thought about the best way to define "consensus" in these contexts.] It was fairly easy for tobacco companies to exploit the complexity and uncertainty associated with the issue in order to delay public consensus and political action. It is perhaps easier to do the same thing for global warming because the observable damage is not only uncertain but is also in the future.

At the same time, I think that the amount of willful denial of global warming is probably very small. It is easy to argue that many views of global warming are biased; people often choose up sides based on a number of psychological factors without much of a nod to reason. However, people are not generally conscious of these factors. I think that, by and large, the propagation of falsehoods about global warming (as well as vaccinations, and lots of other issues) is coming from people who honestly believe that they are on the side of truth. All this well-intentioned propagation of misinformation alongside facts is what makes it so difficult for even a theoretically unbiased person to figure out the right answer. It can be done, and one does not have to be a climatologist to come to a confident conclusion: an intelligent person can understand the conclusions of peer-reviewed research, if not the details, and there are plenty of non-technical sources that make lots of concrete reference to peer-reviewed research. You just have to be willing to spend 30 or 40 hours exploring if you want to get a fairly comprehensive view. Of course it's more appealing just to trust one or two sources, which could be anything from Fox News or the Huffington Post to one's favorite politician to one's cousin's neighbor's son-in-law.

So for a while I was focused on the idea of establishing an informational clearinghouse. Say you hired a few college graduates, responsible and intelligent but with no particular expertise, to research complex and controversial issues. E.g. spend the 30 or 40 hours gathering info about global warming and write a detailed report with lots of links and references, as well as an executive summary, to be posted online and updated as necessary. Summary statements would be things like "There is a preponderance of evidence that ________, and here's what we mean by that, and here are the implications of it, and there is lots more detail in the report." The idea would be to help anyone who is interested obtain an informed view that accounts for the weights of evidence in different directions, whereas a casual perusal of popular sources easily creates the impression that the whole thing is still very up in the air. The really crucial aspect of this clearinghouse would be credibility: the research team would have to be very thorough and to strive to be as objective as possible. This would include acknowledging all sources of information, but also being able to defend a position on how credible any given source is. For issues that really are dominated by disagreement, that could be stated also. The clearinghouse would not be tasked with uncovering a definitive answer to any question, but rather to present the current state of our understanding of an issue. Obviously the information could be used for political purposes, but the clearinghouse itself would have to be free of political influence. Making all that happen would be tricky, but I think it would be feasible.

My enthusiasm for this idea came and went over a period of months (I'm learning to be more circumspect about these save-the-world kinds of ideas, which thankfully is becoming easier as I get older). I went so far as to write up a proposal and send it to Google. The waning of enthusiasm came with the realization that the subset of the population that would actually trust and use the clearinghouse would probably be relatively small. I still think it would be great to have a single go-to source like this, but I'm sure that many would find ways of disregarding its conclusions. This post talks about problems with the very idea of an informational authority, but I'm not sure how readily these criticisms would apply to the clearinghouse idea. Anyway, the more important issue is not whether good information is available, but how people process all of this available information, and why people think what they do. What to do about all of this, especially in terms of public policy, is a continuing interest to me, and I'll post more about it.

1 comment:

  1. Here's the best (sober, referenced) clearinghouse I'm aware of:

    For real-time responses there's

    ...and I'm not sure what to think of this attempt to 'gameify' the debate, but you might add it to your mix of how & why: