August 20, 2007

Media Risk Feedback

Cognitive HazardI have an entry over at Overcoming Bias about Media Risk Bias Feedback: when there is a public concern about a possible risk, researchers get funding to study it. They report their findings, which are in turn reported to the public through the media. If it looks like a risk, the public will demand more research and funding for fixing the risk. Unfortunately media tends to overreport newsworthy risks, and people tend to notice risks more than non-risks. I calculate under what conditions this could lead to a feedback, where regardless of whether there is any real threat people become convinced there is one. It turns out that if the scientific question is relatively hazy it is surprisingly easy to get this feedback going.

In real life there are doubtless even more factors, like people adding ideological dimensions to their risk estimates, vested interests (on both sides) and more feedback loops. But the basic conclusion seems to be robust: misinformation cascades about technical risks (because they are risks, and hence salient and prone to availability biases, and because their technical nature leads to several layers of possibly biased filtering) are not improbable, and that should make us much more sceptical and careful in going to primary sources when we hear the latest scare.

Posted by Anders3 at August 20, 2007 06:00 PM