my new favorite word: “hedging”

Framing in the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Debates —

Dr. Lillian Lee, a professor of Computer Science at Cornell University, recently contacted me to share her recently published study. She had out-of-the-blue read about my research interests on the Internet, and wanted to share this unique, interdisciplinary spin on my interests.

A researcher in the areas of natural language processing and information retrieval, Lee studies the ability for computers to use human language as a communication medium — accurately, robustly, and gracefully. She studies the empirical and theoretical problems that arise in the pursuit of this goal. She felt I would be interested in learning more about her research, which is incredibly welcoming as I would have never considered how my interests parallel that being done in engineering.

Lee’s paper, titled “Hedge detection as a lens on framing in the GMO debates: A position paper,” puts a computational spin on my interests in the rhetoric surrounding the GMO debates.

Definition (Hedging):  “expression of a tentativeness and possibility in communication, or, to put it another way, language corresponding to ‘the writer withholding full commitment to statements.’”

In this paper, the position that we are in a time that necessitates more computationally-oriented research on problems involving framing is adopted. For example, in the GMO debates, almost all pieces of scientific literature, popular journalism, and the like, hold a distinct, framed position — whether the bias is intended, recognized or not.

One of the best examples of framing in popular literature is Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” where he provides “data” and “evidence” of the big-business, economic drive behind food technology, and lack of humility in the industry. What Pollan fails to make clear, and why he is so convincing, is that he is indeed not a scientist — he is a journalist with the charismatic ability to write in a convincing, at times unintended-yet-successful, frame.

There are social and scientific researchers and writers who also work within this frame. For example: bloggers!

According to Lee’s paper, understanding the ways in which participants in public discussions frame their arguments is vital to understanding the process of forming public opinion. For the purpose of furthering the use of computational linguistics in analyzing these positions, Lee’s team raises the following question: In the controversy regarding the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture, do pro- and anti-GMO articles differ in whether they choose to adopt a “scientific” tone? 

Prior work on the sociology & rhetoric of science suggests that “hedging” distinguishes popular-science text from text written by scientists (professional). Lee’s group proposes a detailed approach to studying whether hedge detection can be used to understand scientific framing (and thus framing in popular-science and journalism) in the GMO debates.

Some preliminary analyses suggest that hedges occur less frequently in scientific discourse than in popular text, contradicting prior literature’s assertions.

According to the paper, the issue of framing is of great importance when trying to comprehend how public opinion is formed. Framing is described as occurring “when (often small) changes in the presentation of an issue or an event produce (sometimes large) changes of opinion.” Having the ability to understand this opens the doors to studying communication, especially in regards to reaching people in politics and media.

In media coverage of transgenic crops and the use of them in food, Lee asked if pro-GMO vs. anti-GMO articles differ — not solely in regards to respect to word choice, but in regards to chosen “scientific” discourse (inclusion of fewer emotionally-laden words and more uncertainty). For example, phrases often found in popular and scientific literature, including, but not limited to: it seems that, implies that, we wish to suggest

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