Information manipulation a good idea? I think not

Fuhai Hong and Xiaojian Zhao have an article forthcoming in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics entitled Information Manipulation and Climate Agreements.  They write:

It appears that news media and some pro-environmental organizations have the tendency to accentuate or even exaggerate the damage caused by climate change. This article provides a rationale for this tendency by using a modified International Environmental Agreement (IEA) model with asymmetric information. We find that the information manipulation has an instrumental value, as it ex post induces more countries to participate in an IEA, which will eventually enhance global welfare. From the ex ante perspective, however, the impact that manipulating information has on the level of participation in an IEA and on welfare is ambiguous.

The authors seem to to want to rationalize information manipulation, even making it a part of the acceptable "tool box" of policy levers.  They conclude:

In addition to other approaches for dealing with the free-riding problem, including taxation, quota systems, privatization, etc., this article introduces a novel mechanism, “information manipulation.”

The authors construct a mathematical model to suggest that exaggerating consequences can have positive impacts by getting people to "do the right thing".  But, this can only be true in the narrowest of senses.  How does one know that exaggeration will cause the "right" amount of public response, rather than causing a diversion of resources away from other productive uses?  More importantly, what happens when people find out they were misled?  How will the public respond to the next information/manipulation campaign? Degrading the public trust is surely not a long run beneficial strategy.  

And, what can we say about a group of citizen that now have biased beliefs relative to the true state of the world?  Jo Swinnen and colleagues have written on this issue arguing that activist organizations often try to slant information to acquire more donations, and in the process can lead people to have biased beliefs (even if people started out believing the truth).  In one paper in the European Review of Agricultural Economics, they write:

we review the analysis and communication of organisations active in the food policy arena and review a series of hypotheses to explain their apparent change of views as reflected in their public statements. In particular, we analyse how communications to potential donors in fund-raising affects the overall communication strategy of the organisation. We explain how policy organisations’ (POs) competition for donors’ funding may lead to ‘bias’ in their policy communications. Bias in policy communication may draw in larger revenues through fund-raising, but it may have negative welfare effects if it induces suboptimal behaviour by various other agents who use this advice for their decision-making.

For scientists to have any long-run credibility, we need to tell the truth as best we know it: uncertainties and all.