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Is misinformation killing us? Author Timothy Caulfield tackles the infodemic in 2022 Snider Lecture

Shauna Rempel

In March 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic due to the coronavirus, WHO officials were also discussing a different scourge: an infodemic.

According to the WHO, which popularized the term infodemic in recent years, “an infodemic is too much information, including false or misleading information, in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.”

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(Photo by Curtis Trent)

The term isn’t new to 2022 Snider Lecture guest speaker Timothy Caulfield. The author, professor and researcher has been writing about misinformation for years – in all its forms. Two of his books focus on health and wellness myths.  

“When I first started working in this space, it seemed like a fringe topic,” Caulfield says about misinformation. What was once considered niche has now become front and centre, the University of Alberta Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy says. Caulfield is also a professor in the Faculty of Law and School of Public Health and research director of the U of A’s Health Law Institute.

“I think more and more people are taking this topic very, very seriously. Whether you’re talking about the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the federal government – this topic matters.”

Caulfield will be tackling the multi-faceted topic of misinformation during the Sept. 22 Snider Lecture, an annual event hosted by U of T Mississauga.

Everyone registered to attend will have a chance to win a copy of Caulfield’s latest book Relax: A Guide to Everyday Health Decisions with More Facts and Less Worry. (See Contest Rules and Regulations.)

In Relax, Caulfield delves into a common misinformation trap: equating causation with correlation. That is, expecting one event to cause another, when in fact there’s only a correlation linking the two events. For example, while there have been studies indicating a correlation between cancer and stressful lives, as the Canadian Cancer Society notes: “research has not proven a definite cause-and-effect relationship between stress and cancer.”

So why does the misconception persist?

“It’s just so intuitively appealing to people,” Caulfield says of the phenomenon of correlation/causation confusion. “We're all sort of psychologically hard-wired to see connections when maybe they don’t exist.”

It’s important to note that correlation data does matter, Caulfield says. For example, early on it helped show the detrimental effects of smoking and added to the body of research that eventually included evidence of causation.

Avoiding correlation/causation confusion is just one way we can help combat misinformation in our lives. Caulfield also recommends asking yourself what kind of evidence is being used to support a claim, especially one that sounds outrageous or too good to be true.

And he recommends taking a beat. Pause before reacting.

“With such a chaotic information environment, we have a tendency to react emotionally to headlines. If you just pause, there’s this growing body of evidence that tells us that you’re less likely to believe misinformation, that you’re less likely to spread misinformation.”

We need to arm ourselves, Caulfield says, because he predicts the infodemic is going to get worse.

Caulfield says increasingly sophisticated technology such as deep fake videos will continue to pose a challenge for all of us as we go about our busy lives.

But the good news is, we’re going to get better at responding to it. “We have more and more research into how to respond, what the nature of the misinformation is and how it spreads,” he says. “So it’s getting worse but people are taking it more seriously and I think the response is going to get better.”

Register for the Snider Lecture at https://www.utm.utoronto.ca/snider-lecture/infodemic-misinformation-killing-us