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.
Alberta Innovates had the opportunity to sit down with Caulfield for a recent episode of Shift, our podcast on research and innovation in Alberta. Read on for some of his answers to our most pressing questions about scientific misinformation and the coronavirus. You can listen to the full episode here.
[The following is an edited and condensed transcript.]
Q: Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your grant proposal and the work that you’re going to be doing?
A: This research project is really focused on the spread of misinformation in the context of the coronavirus. Holy cow, there is just so much misinformation out there around the coronavirus. We thought it was important to get a sense of what kind of misinformation is out there, where that misinformation is coming from, and in addition to that, how people are responding to that misinformation.
Ultimately what we want to do is produce recommendations for how to respond to misinformation, not just in the context of the coronavirus, but really about misinformation more broadly. Because let’s be honest, we’re living in the era of health misinformation, it’s absolutely everywhere. We view this project as both an opportunity to help with the current issue, but also to inform long term what we can do about the spread of misinformation on social media, with search engines, in the news.
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.
There has been genuine misbehaviour by the pharmaceutical industry. But that creates distrust writ large of pharmaceuticals. You certainly see that play out in the anti-vaccination community. That you can’t trust pharmaceuticals – ‘why should I trust vaccines?’ That’s part of it.
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. “It hasn’t taken my problem seriously. You’ll listen to me. I feel that I have to wait to go before I see anyone in the system.” So, you have that kind of erosion and it makes room for these alternative voices. I think we need to remember that. We need to remember how important trust is and how important having a trusted science-informed voice is.
Q: What are good sources of information about coronavirus?
A. You’ve heard this again and again and I’m going to repeat it. Go to those trusted sources, go to the World Health Organization. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada, go to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in the United States. It’s not perfect and it’s changing. But those entities are populated by scientists who are trying to do the best they can.
I think our provincial government has done a good job. Their website is updated frequently and they’re doing a good job. I think you want to go to the entities that are aggregating the scientific information in a way that’s digestible.
The World Health Organization has a great myth-busting website. There’s a great infographic that you can share. That’s exactly what you want to do, right? You want to have good information that people are interested in that’s science-informed and it’s easily shareable.