My new favorite word: “Hedging”

Dr. Lillian Lee, a professor of Computer Science at Cornell University, contacted me at the end of the summer to share her recently published study, Hedge detection as a lens on framing in the GMO debates: A position paper. She had out-of-the-blue read about my research interests on LinkedIn, 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 of computers to use human language as a communication medium. 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 in agriculture, particularly genetic engineering, parallel that being done in engineering.

Lee’s paper puts a computational spin on my interests in the rhetoric surrounding the GMO debates. She focuses on the concept of hedging, defined as:

“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, Lee argues that more computationally-oriented research on problems involving framing is needed. 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 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, 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.

Unexpectedly, their 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. For example, by inclusion of fewer emotionally-laden words and more words that indicate uncertainty. For example, phrases often found in popular and scientific literature, including, but not limited to: it seems that, implies thatwe wish to suggest …

This begs the questions, then: Who “hedges” more — pro or anti-GMO individuals? Can it exclusively be said that one type of media, be it popular journalism, blogging, Twitter, or even scientific journals or politics, tend to hedge more? It appears that Lee was unable to isolate one answer, but I’m sure everyone has an opinion. What “hedging” have you encountered in the GMO debate, and where do you think it occurs most or has the most impact? Do you think it is intentional? Are you a culprit of it?

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Becca is an undergraduate in animal science and international agriculture at Cornell University. Her interests lie in writing, rhetoric, and the social side of science. She is particularly interested in how the public and consumers view, communicate — and respond to — technology used in food agriculture, and how such study can be used to influence effective policy, increasing accessibility of this food domestically and internationally.