As far as superstars for Canadian science communication go, there is only one candidate and that would be Timothy Caulfield, professor of Health Law and Policy a the University of Alberta.
Not being Caulfield’s biggest fan, I stumbled onto some of his latest work by accident in a Tweet from Canadian Science Publishing (@cdnsciencepub). It sent me on a search that resulted in an open access paper (a pretty good one too or so I thought), a description of the research project that resulted in the paper, and more.
This story begins in 2020 with the research project description, from an April 15, 2020 posting on the Alberta Innovates (a provincial research entity) website,
Timothy Caulfield may be the most well-known face of scientific myth-busting. He is the host of Netflix’s The User’s Guide to Cheating Death and the author of multiple bestsellers on science and misinformation, including Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? and The Vaccination Picture. He’s also a law professor at the University of Alberta, the Research Director of its Health Law Institute, and a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy.
In March , Caulfield and his team received a $381,708 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Alberta Innovates to research the spread of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and recommend ways to counter it.
Q: Are you seeing any types of themes around COVID misinformation?
A: In the early days a lot of the misinformation was about the source of it. It’s a bio-weapon, right? Or even the idea that it was a hoax. Now what we’re seeing is a lot of the misinformation, not surprisingly, is about cures, is about prevention, about things that people can do in order to avoid getting it. That’s problematic.
The other thing we’re seeing is a lot of marketing, which is infuriating. A lot of people taking advantage of the fear and the uncertainty to push products.
Q: Why don’t people trust science?
A: That’s actually a topic that we’ve been exploring for a long time at the institute, looking at it in different contexts. Of course it’s complex. I think that there is a conflation between science and scientific institutions. Obviously a lot’s going on here, but things like the misbehaviour of the pharmaceutical industry have an impact.
The other thing that we’ve done research on and we’ve found that anytime industry is involved, trust erodes very quickly. You can say, “Do you trust the university research?” People say yes. If that same university researcher receives industry funding, the trust erodes, that’s part of the story.
There’s also this erosion in trust with the health-care system. Because many people feel like it hasn’t treated them well. …
A May 30, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news item fills in a few more blanks about COVID-19 misinformation,
As new science emerges, rapid changes in information and health advice have created fertile ground for conspiracy theories and misinformation to flourish, says Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor of health law and science policy.
“When things are uncertain, when there’s a lot of fear, when the science is still moving, people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories,” Caufield said. “That’s certainly the situation that we have now.”
A recent Carleton University study found that half of Canadians believe at least one conspiracy theory around the novel coronavirus, including 26 per cent who believe it was lab-created bioweapon.
That’s the kind of data that Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health law and policy, is looking at as part of an ongoing research project into the viral spread of misinformation during the pandemic.
In a wide-ranging Q&A with Nancy Carlson, host of CBC Edmonton’s News at 6, Caulfield said sorting good information from bad is as simple as thinking like a scientist, a skill that only requires a healthy degree of curiosity and internet access.
Where is it all coming from?
“It’s really coming from all over and that’s why it is so difficult to battle,” Caulfield said. But there are a few notable trends.
Celebrities and prominent individuals are the source of about 20 per cent of misinformation, but their posts have extraordinary reach, making up more than 70 per cent of what is shared online, Caulfield said. “That really gives you a sense of the power of pop culture.”
Bots, particularly on Twitter, play an important role, while the role of social media in general — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and more — can’t be underplayed. “This really has been a social media-driven infodemic,” he said.
Changing course a ‘badge of honour’
Should the border be closed? Do masks make a difference? Is hydroxychloroquine the answer? If science is so good, why do public health officials keep changing their minds?
While public frustration is understandable, Caulfield urges people to applaud health leaders for staying on top of emerging science and changing public health rules accordingly.
“If you are a science-based decision-maker, like a public health authority … it is a badge of honour that you’re changing your mind. It’s a badge of honour that you’re willing to look at the evolving evidence and reframe a recommendation,” he said.
Changing the dialogue
Here is one more fact about the COVID-19 infodemic: The mind of a conspiracy theorist will not be changed. At least not easily, said Caulfield.
“They may go to an idea or a belief for one reason … but once they start to embrace it, it becomes part of who they are, it becomes part of their personal identity, it becomes part of their personal brand,” he said.
“What you want to do is stop their rhetoric, their belief systems, from infecting the rest of the community, [emphasis mine]” Caulfield said. “We don’t want the hard-core deniers to impact the rest of the community in a way that’s not rational. That should be the goal of science communication.”
Interesting, eh? In that last paragraph, you’d think Caulfield was talking about a virus.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Let’s do better: public representations of COVID-19 science by Timothy Caulfield, Tania Bubela, Jonathan Kimmelman, and Vardit Ravitsky. FACETS 25 March 2021 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2021-0018
This paper is open access.
If COVDI-19 science communication interests you, this is a very good paper. I am particularly taken with their section on the ‘Hydroxychloroquine’ story from the first whispers that the medication might help to claims that it does to the research rush to prove/disprove the hypothesis to the entrenchment of belief in some quarters.
My reservations lie in problems that permeate science communication, (1) top/down communication, (2) disagreement means you are wrong, (3) you have to change (4) experts/government organizations are never wrong; they’ve simply gotten more data and, accordingly, have had to change course. Note: Experts/governments often pretend that they haven’t changed course due to their belief that the public has a short memory.
It’s very easy into the traps and, with that said, there’s much value in this paper.