Information: What do you know and how do you know it?

Look, every day we filter through large amounts of information to find out what we want to know. We use that information to make decisions, but those decisions are not equally important. When we make important decisions (the new house, the new car, the spouse, the children) we believe that we’ve understood the information we have received.

But there’s always information bias. We cannot get away from it.

I get my national news from the New York Times. I don’t expect them to be right all the time, but I don’t end up throwing the paper on the floor in disgust, either. My viewpoint – the information I’ve absorbed and the bias it carries and reinforces – is different from my mother’s. She gets her national news from TV, primarily Fox News.

The source of information affects our perception the quality of that information, too. My mother cannot get home delivery of the Times – although she could see it days after publication if she got it through the mail. So every day she reads the ‘local’ paper – published in another community – and once a week she gets the hometown paper. She devours the news, but it often depresses her and makes her angry. She often says that she never hears good things about the president or the nation.

How does this relate to local government?

I’ve set myself a hurdle, here. I don’t want to write about specific local issues that might come before me on Council. But here’s an example of information flow:

A few months ago a couple of residents came to the Caucus to request a moratorium on DTE’s Smart Meters. Before this occurred, my knowledge of smart meters was limited. I’d asked about privacy issues (what data is collected and how it is protected) but hadn’t had any interest other than that. For these residents, however, smart meters represented a threat to their health. They brought lots of information supporting this position and urged me to read it – and to ask for a moratorium on DTE’s plans to install smart meters.

I could easily support an opt-out requirement – that folks could opt out of hosting a smart meter. I wasn’t immediately prepared to do more. But these residents were persistent. They met with the mayor. They came to Caucus again. They spoke in front of Council. The mayor asked the Environmental Commission to look into the issue – and the residents came to the Environmental Commission.

The number of residents concerned about the issue grew, too. They held a public meeting about smart meters. They encouraged others to look up the information on line.

What’s on the Internet must be true, right? But the information on smart meters seems to be as conflicted as one could imagine. Some data comes from scientists and governments; some grows out of other studies; some comes from physicians and individuals. Because I like data, I tend to rely on measurements and experiments. But in the end, it all comes down to trust. Some sources of information just work for me and other just don’t.

Who do you trust?

The members of Environmental Commission asked the staff some questions about smart meters; staff members provided some data from other municipalities. The staff also presented information from DTE about opting out and about the effect of resolutions in other Michigan communities that had placed a moratorium on the installation of smart meters. At this point, the staff have not offered an opinion about health issues or privacy issues.

A variety of national governmental sources (i.e. NIH, OSHA, FCC and others) and state governmental sources (i.e. California, Vermont and others) have researched health issues. A number of Universities and research hospitals (notably, the Mayo Clinic) have also looked carefully at radiofrequency and health. All of those sources are available on the Internet, too.

The residents who spoke at Council and the Environmental Commission presented other information – information about alternative medical care, the effects of radiofrequency on health, the risk of one’s privacy being invaded. The residents – a group that includes medical professionals – assert that smart meters damage DNA and cells; cause issues related to sleep and heart rate; cause cancer; tell everyone when you are home and what you are doing. One speaker even described using tinfoil to turn her living room into a Faraday cage, to keep out the radio frequencies.

Who do you doubt?

In making decisions, it’s important to think about whether the information is objective. Figuring out how much bias underlies someone’s research and conclusions is the challenge.

A passionate belief in the dangers of smart meters can be countered by the presentation of information from seemingly unbiased sources.

According to Popular Science (3/4/2010) electro-hypersensitivity (EHS) means severe physical reactions to the electromagnetic radiation produced by common consumer technologies, such as computers, televisions and cellphones. Symptoms range from burning or tingling sensations on the skin to dizziness, nausea, headaches, sleep disturbance and memory loss. In extreme cases, breathing problems, heart palpitations and loss of consciousness can result. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) advises that some folks avoid EMF and RF. Environmental Health Perspectives asserts that there’s no consistent or convincing evidence of a causal relation between RF exposure and any adverse health effects, although they acknowledge that there just isn’t enough data yet.

If I were to seek guidance on colorectal cancer, I’d believe the Mayo Clinic – although they clearly stand to benefit from patients selecting their services. If I were to seek guidance about EHS, should I trust the Mayo Clinic’s report?

Information and transparency

There are literally hundreds of articles on EHS and radio frequency. There are also hundreds of articles on smart meters. Even if I could read all the articles, I’d still have absorbed conflicting information that I’d have to sort through in order to reach a conclusion. And smart meters are a fairly simple item – especially as the City installed smart meters for water some time ago, and the City has little clout with DTE that would discourage them from going forward with their program.

What I’m really trying to illustrate is that there’s a lot of information about nearly everything. Each issue – even those ideas seemingly obvious to thee and me – has points and counterpoints. And interpretations of the data, for that matter. Specific issues – how much a truck costs, for instance – can be very clear. But whether to buy a truck, how to maintain the truck, what type of truck to buy, when to buy the truck – each decision point along the way requires information. Elected officials expect that information to be distilled by someone else, because elected officials have to be good generalists. If they try to know everything about everything, their heads might not explode, but they could easily become overwhelmed.

And that means they have to be able to trust their advisors. They have to believe that those folks who care about trucks, or sewers, or public health, or – yes – smart meters will objectively research, be honest about the agendas they are forwarding, and provide the pros and cons that will help elected officials make the best possible decision. Those advisors don’t have to be members of the staff; they do have to be trusted by the elected official, though.

As a member of Council, I meet with individual staff members from time to time to discuss an issue. Depending on the issue, I may also meet with people who don’t work for the City and who have an opposing or tangential viewpoint. I consider this hunting and gathering – hunting information and gathering data. Then, I have to prune. (Yep. That’s a mixed metaphor!) I have to trim the information to make it understandable for me and for those I represent. In doing that trimming, I try to find the underlying structure of the information and reach a conclusion that will illuminate my decision.

I keep a record of the folks with whom I meet, and the reasons for those meetings. And when I hear something from one trusted source that’s in opposition to what I hear from another trusted source – well, I always make my own decisions. That’s about as transparent as I can get.

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