Akos Rona-Tas. Knowing What We Don’t: Food Risk Analysis in the United States and the European Union

Monday, November 23, 2015 - 2:00pm to 3:30pm
Blumer Room - 402 Barrows Hall

Akos Rona-Tas, Monday, November 23, 2-3:30pm in Barrows 402

Knowing What We Don’t: Food Risk Analysis in the United States and the European Union

The relationship between scientific knowledge and uncertainty in science has been a central question in risk analysis. Conceptualizations of uncertainty have centered on normative efforts to construct a theoretical ontology. There have been few empirical attempts to build and test such an ontology through textual analysis. In this project, we develop an empirical ontology to investigate uncertainty in risk assessment in food safety, comparing the EU and the US, and the two main domains of food safety: biohazards and contaminants over the period 2000-2010. The ontology gauges expressions of uncertainty in two ways: one classifies the content of the uncertainty expressed in the documents, the other looks for stylistic clues of judgment. Next, we build a large database of English language risk assessment documents issued by the agencies responsible for food safety, double coded by humans using our ontology. We also create a machine-learning algorithm to reproduce and correct our coding and to test its internal consistency. We then compare the US and the EU, the subfields of contaminant and biohazard research, and documents over time, and contrast the results of human coding and machine learning. Finally, we discuss the implications for the method of mechanized and human classification --pointing to the limitations of both.

Akos Rona-Tas (Ph.D. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and was a Senior Research Associate of Met@risk, in the Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA), Paris (2007-2014). He is the author of two books. Great Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and Rise of the Private Sector in Hungary (University of Michigan Press) explored the economic roots of the peaceful collapse of communism and the subsequent market transition. Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (Stanford University Press with Alya Guseva) published in 2014 is a comparative historical study of market creation in Europe and Asia. His articles have been published in the American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, Theory and Society, Socio-Economic Review, Social Science Research, Research on Sociology of Organizations, Journal of Comparative Economics, Research in the Sociology of Work, and elsewhere. He is currently working on the problem of rationality and uncertainty in two different contexts: credit assessment and the use of science in risk management.