Krishana Sankar – Science Advisor, Science Up First
Patrick Sullivan – Senior Research Assistant, Morning Star Lodge, University of Saskatchewan
Timothy Caulfield – Chair in Health Law and Policy, Canada Research
Jia Hu – Medical Officer, Alberta Health Services; 19 to Zero
Moderator: Marianne Mader – Executive Director, Canadian Association of Science Centres
Context: Throughout the pandemic there has been a significant increase in misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding public health and science that threaten the health and safety of Canadians. Misinformation has greatly contributed to vaccine hesitancy and distrust in public health measures, and has led to anti-mask, anti-lockdown rallies. More importantly, underserved and marginalized communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to inequities in our healthcare system. Therefore, it is important that we dispel misinformation around vaccines and create trusting environments in a culturally sensitive manner. Science Up First presented this panel on tools and strategies some experts use when tackling misinformation.
During the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in misinformation and conspiracy theories in public health. This has threatened the health and safety of Canadians. Misinformation has contributed to vaccine hesitancy and distrust in science, leading to anti-mask and anti-vaccination rallies.
There has been a 437% increase in misinformation since the first wave of the Delta variant. The volume of misinformation is steadily increasing.
Medical information has become about ideology and politics. Most of the general public cannot interpret data well, regardless of their beliefs, and people have even more difficulty interpreting information if it challenges their ideology.
A significant amount of misinformation comes from social media. The University of Alberta found that 85% of misinformation had origins in social media.
Underserved and marginalized communities have been more affected by misinformation due to inequities in the healthcare system.
Debunking works. A number of organizations are dedicated to debunking misinformation, including ScienceUpFirst (a social media movement) and 19 to Zero (a coalition which encourages the public to listen to health guidelines). There are a number of ways to approach misinformation, and not all approaches will work on everyone.
Transparency is important. A lack of transparency throughout the pandemic has had negative effects on the public. Giving accurate and transparent information to the public allows them to have agency over their decisions.
It is crucial to build trusting relationships and be understanding of hesitation. Anti-vaccination groups tend to be more willing to discuss and listen to concerns about vaccines. If vaccine hesitant individuals feel alienated, they may be pushed towards these groups which are spreading misinformation.
It’s important to consider cultural or historical reasons for distrust of the medical and public health systems. Providing resources, fact sheets and materials to communities and being empathetic can help break down barriers. Develop community partnerships and have trusted community members help share information.
Algorithms can be used to track where online content originates. This can highlight where intervention should occur. 19 to Zero has utilized this technology.
Ted Hsu – Member of Parliament, Kingston and the Islands
Tracey Brown – Director, Sense about Science
Farah Qaiser – Director of Research and Policy, Evidence for Democracy
Frédéric Bouchard – Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences., Université de Montréal
Moderator: Stan Kutcher – Canadian Senate
Opening Remarks: Rachael Maxwell – Evidence for Democracy
Context: How is evidence used in policymaking? Who stewards it through the structures of government? While we all benefit when governments make decisions informed by the best available evidence, conversations on evidence-informed policy rarely prioritize the public’s ability to understand what goes into complex decisions. This is especially important amid uncertainty when trust in government is mission critical. Throughout the pandemic, stakeholders everywhere have sought to understand decisions that have impacted their livelihoods. Transparency is the persistently missing link.
Panelists from academia, government and civil society examined Canada’s ‘transparency gap’, and discussed pathways to improve the accessibility of evidence.
Governments can be evaluated on their ability to implement evidence in policy making through the proposed Transparency of Evidence framework (as described and used by U.K. organization Sense about Science):
Testing and Evaluation
In politics, what is considered evidence, and who is considered an expert? It’s important to be transparent about how terms like evidence and expert opinion are defined. Scientific evidence is not the only aspect factored into decision making.
Sociologists and political scientists have shown that scientists are considered the most trustworthy in society. However, the general public is not comfortable with scientists making decisions; they prefer an elected official to do this. This means there is a need for two levels of transparency: where does evidence and advice come from, and who is deciding what to do with it?
The Canadian non-profit Evidence for Democracy uses the same framework as Sense about Science to analyze policy in Canada and advocate for transparency in decision making.
Transparency is crucial in the conversations between a government and its citizens. It plays a huge role in establishing trust and respect.
In light of the pandemic, tough decisions from the government can be easier for the public to digest if there is clearly communicated evidence/open source data. This helps the public better understand why decisions are made.
Having public discussions can help gauge where the public sits on an issue.
The level of transparency required changes depending on the level of trust one has with the body/person that is making the decision.
It’s important to approach transparency as a good faith conversation with the government.
Canada is capable of more. Strides in transparency have been made, but we can still go further. New government has a lot to tackle and science is going to help provide the basis for policies.