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How to tackle pseudoscience and misinformation in an age of COVID

Healthcare professionals can and should play a key role in countering the torrent of misinformation and lies about medicine and science that are circulating on social media and among populations, according to Professor Timothy Caulfield.

In his Stewart Cameron Lecture to the opening session of WCN’21 entitled, “Battling pseudoscience in the age of misinformation,” Prof. Caulfield will define what misinformation or pseudoscience is, describe its spread and the effects it can have, and highlight ways to combat it.

“There is just so much misinformation out there right now. I will be making several points in my presentation: misinformation is everywhere; it is having a tangible impact on perceptions and behavior; we need to do something about it, and the good news is that we can,” says Prof. Caulfield, who is Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health, and research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.

“Misinformation can take many forms, including overt attempts to deceive, which are often framed as ‘disinformation,’ and more subtle forms that are still harmful, such as pushing concepts like ‘immune-boosting.’ While the problem is complex, there are evidence-informed strategies that can help everyone see and counter the spread of misinformation, and research tells us that healthcare professionals are key.”

If health professionals take action against misinformation, it will not only help to educate people but also help healthcare providers too.

“We know that the pandemic has made the clinical experience more difficult for everyone, and misinformation can heighten the stress for healthcare providers. A recent Canadian study found that 25% of people believe healthcare workers shouldn’t be allowed out in public, and a third say they don’t want to be near a healthcare provider. Helping to change these public perceptions will ultimately help us too,” he says. “In the field of nephrology, there are also misconceptions and misinformation around treatments such as kidney transplantation.”

Misinformation is a particular problem in the age of COVID, with lies rapidly circulating about whether or not the coronavirus is a dangerous illness or “just like having ‘flu,” and whether vaccines can really help against it. However, it has been a problem for far longer than the current crisis, going back decades to the pre-social media era; an example being Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study in the 1990s wrongly suggesting that there could be a link between the MMR vaccination and autism. This had a severe impact on the uptake of vaccinations and, consequently, child health, and it still lurks at the bottom of many “anti-vax” rumors.

Prof. Caulfield says a range of tools are needed to tackle misinformation, including action from regulators such as the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and Health Canada, as well as action and policy reform by social media platforms. The teaching and use of critical thinking skills and comprehensive counter-messaging are all vital as well.

“We need to flood social media and pop culture with good, engaging, shareable, science-informed content.”

To help this effort, Prof. Caulfield is leading a Canadian initiative launched in January this year called #ScienceUpFirst: Together Against Misinformation “It’s designed to spread good content about COVID, and we would love the nephrology community to be involved,” he concludes.

Professor Timothy Caulfield: “Battling pseudoscience in the age of misinformation” (Steward Cameron Lecture), Opening plenary session, Chair: Vivekanand Jha

Friday 16 April, 08.00-09.00 hrs Montréal (Canada) time:

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