Asymmetry of Misinformation

Karl Frankowski | Flickr | cc

A recent Paul Krugman post describes how critics of Obamacare stay misinformed, not always through incorrect information, but rather what is emphasized in the reporting that they see and what is left out.

But there’s something I’ve noticed from the combination of reactions to what I write and researching past coverage of Obamacare. It goes like this: a lot of the untrue beliefs people have about Obamacare come not so much from outright false reporting as from selective reporting. Every suggestion of bad news gets highlighted — especially, of course, but not only by Fox, the WSJ, etc.. But when it turns out that the news wasn’t really that bad, these sources just move on. There are claims that millions of people are losing coverage — headlines! When it turns out not to be true — crickets! Some experts claim that premiums will rise by double digits — big news! Actual premium numbers come in and they’re surprisingly low — not mentioned.

The result is that most news consumers — who form impressions rather than trying to work out details — have the sense that it’s been all bad news.

It seemed an apt and parallel description to the asymmetry of information in the two discrete ecosystems of information around the GMO issue.

While Anti-Anti-GMO folks tend to be aware of the information that the other side is looking at, that is rarely the case going in the other direction. The science community spends a great deal of time debunking the poorly conducted studies that are trumpeted and over-interpreted in Sustainablepulse, GreenMedInfo, the Organic Consumer’s Association, Food Democracy and the various GMO Free websites. So we are aware of what is being circulated in the anti-GMO community. The folks who read those sites are often not even aware that an alternative ecosystem of information exists. They frequently don’t realize that the studies they are circulating have been roundly critiqued, if not completely discredited. They continue to circulate things like the 2009 editorial by Scientific American on the ability of independent researchers to access biotech seeds without realizing that the issue has been resolved. They often continue to believe things like the urban myth that biotech crops employ the terminator technology. Readers of often believe that China is giving up on biotech crops, because they have rejected select shipments with crops they have yet to approve or that they have abandoned some research trials. This is seen as evidence of some safety issue with biotech crops, rather than leverage in trade policy and the fact that research trials are ended all the time when they don’t bear the results that had been hoped for. People who get all their news from anti-GMO sources rarely understand that there is a lot of research on biotech safety, much of it by independent sources.

This is where the mandatory labeling campaigns are undermining the anti-GMO cause in the long run. By bringing the issue to the fore and calling the question, the hermetically sealed ecosystem of misinformation is challenged, ruptured and exposed. It becomes harder every day for all but the most committed people in the debate to stay sealed in their bubbles.


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