Decision to Disclose Information Can Enter Gray Area

Edward Lotterman, Decision to disclose information can enter gray area,, October 24, 2007. Excerpt:

NASA made news this week when it was reported the agency had conducted a major study of aviation safety, interviewing over 20,000 pilots, and then sat on the data. An official defended that decision because the findings could damage the public’s confidence in airlines and affect airline profits, according to an Associated Press story.

Similarly, the Minnesota Department of Health recently sat on information about deaths of mining workers from mesothelioma. Then-Commissioner Dianne Mandernach said the delay in releasing the data was necessary while the department designed a research program to study them.

The question of what information should be available to whom – and when – is a knotty one. Information is valuable to an economy. More information generally lets people and businesses make better decisions. Markets function more efficiently when information is plentiful for buyers and sellers than when it is scarce.

However, personal privacy rights and legitimate needs of business confidentiality dictate that much government information be withheld from the public….

In both the NASA and state Health Department cases, an administrator decided that because the pubic might not interpret information correctly, it should not be released at all. This is patronizing to the public. Mining workers exposed to asbestos can make better decisions about their own health care if they know the full risk of their past exposure. The public can make better decisions about flying if they have more information about safety. If there are serious concerns about data being misleading, that can be addressed when the data are released.

Moreover, public disclosure of data allows others to analyze them. They can announce findings that confirm, refute or alter initial impressions created by the raw data. Open access to data that permits others to replicate research is a key aspect of modern science….