Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"The More Information the Better"?

Take a look at BARRY MEIER's May 23, 2007 NYT article "For Drug Makers, a Downside to Full Disclosure." It's about how GlaxoSmithKline made drug study data available online as a part of the settlement of a lawsuit from a few years back. The "story" of the article is that a scientist stumbled on the data, analyzed it, discovered that a drug posed a health threat, and published the results. This then leads to the big question of the pros and cons of public disclosure, selective publication of results, who has the expertise to analyze and interpret, and so on.

A quick list of sociology of information issues that come up here:
  • If datasets contain "information" that could serve the public interest but that might not be extracted by private actors should that data always be made available?

  • How should we think about the disincentive to collect data to begin with that will likely emerge if corporations have to always consider the downside of a third party discovering in it information that is contrary to the corporate interest?

  • Where do we put the inevitable disputes that will arise over which experts extracted information from data in the correct manner? Does the "more info is always better" stance merely push social uncertainty up one level?

  • The article also notes that "Roughly a decade ago, some experts raised concerns that doctors were not getting the full picture about a drug’s risks and benefits because they tended to hear or read about only those trials in which the medication showed a benefit." This raises two issues. First there is the obvious one: "deliberate" bias in terms of what information gets passed on. But there's a second one too -- we need to look at the social networks and channels through which information passes. The more these structures are institutionalized, the more likely, I suspect, there is a built-in bias to what information gets through. Public disclosure might disrupt this just enough to make it a little more likely that the benefits of "marketplace of ideas" and "truth will out" will be realized.
What do you think?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Democracy and the Information Order I

Consider Adam Liptak's front page article in the Times today. It's about a website that publishes information about people who agree to be witnesses for the government. The information, it seems, is all gleaned from public documents so there's no big violation of privacy type question here, but it does bring up lots of questions and not just the obvious ones.

On the one side, you have prosecutors pointing out that this might massively de-incentivize (sic) truth-telling. Seen more economically, we might speculate that it will just make it a lot more expensive (since part of the impetus for the website seems to be focusing on the "deals" that are offered for information).

So, it's interesting to the sociologist of information in that it makes us think about the way that transactions in (presumably) the truth are valued and how secrecy about who is doing the truth telling and why affects the "price," not to mention the perceived veracity.

If you think only about whistle-blowing and organized crime prosecutions, it's easy to lean in the direction advocated by some judicial policy makers: information about informants and deals should perhaps be sealed or in some way less accessible to the general public.

But if you think for a moment about the democratic functions of the legal system, especially the role they have in fostering openness in the information order, you might not be so sure about that.

If you go further and think about other places and other times, as depicted, for example, in the recent film " The Life of Others" ("Das Leben der Anderen"), then the idea of "outing" informants might seem like even less of a good idea.

We are reminded, in any case, that new technologies change the meaning of the phrase "it is known that...."

Tooting My Own Horn

Well, the sociology of information has made it to the big time now. John Tierney has a piece ( in the New York Times Science Times section about my work on notification.

He's also got a bit on it in his blog, Tierney Lab, where readers are posting examples of botched notification. So far, the stories people have contributed are pretty awesome. I plan to spend some time analyzing them and then posting a response.

O.K., back to work.