'Misinformation is killing people': A Q&A with misinformation expert Timothy Caulfield

Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, was among six Albertans named to the Order of Canada. (Sam Martin/CBC - image credit)
Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, was among six Albertans named to the Order of Canada. (Sam Martin/CBC - image credit)

Six Albertans received the Order of Canada on Thursday, recognizing their contributions to the country.

Among them was Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor and a Canada research chair in health law and policy at the U of A.

A prolific author and science communicator, Caulfield wrote four books for the general audience that take aim at pseudoscience, quackery, and scientific disinformation, and presented the documentary series A User's Guide to Cheating Death. 

Caulfield spoke to CBC News about his newly bestowed honour and his ongoing work on countering misinformation.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your reaction to becoming a member of the Order of Canada? 

It came as a shock and I actually got the news when I was in Los Angeles.

I was in a crappy strip mall coffee shop and I'd had a tough week. I was at the end of my rope and so it was a really nice surprise, and it kind of really came at a good time in my life.

Your work on countering misinformation was cited as one of the reasons you were given this honour. What does this tell you about the state of public discourse? 

Misinformation is a defining issue of our time. I think it's good news that more and more people, including governments, are taking this battle against misinformation really seriously, because that's what's required.

Misinformation is killing people, it's destroying our democracy. It's leading to stigma and discrimination.

So, this is, I think, another element, another dimension, another layer, to this award.

How can experts and researchers counter misinformation without appearing snobbish? 

There is growing recognition that it's really important to engage with the public in a constructive and respectful manner.

In fact, I've seen a real shift throughout my career, my three-decade career, in that regard.

There really is this appreciation now that it's important for academics to translate the work that they do to the public to make their work meaningful.

Also, I think it is really important to listen to the public, to get a sense of what their concerns are.

What kinds of counter-misinformation strategies would we be wise to adopt? 

We've got to come out to this problem from every direction, right?

We've got to do pre-bunking – in other words, letting people know that misinformation is out there, we've got to debunk, we've got to use regulatory strategies, we've got to teach critical thinking skills, we've got to get the social media platforms involved.

That's how we're going to solve this problem. It's not going to just be one tool.

How can everyday people be taught to spot misinformation? 

We need to teach critical thinking throughout the life course - from kindergarten to elementary school to middle school to high school.

And I think it should be taught regardless of what degree you take at university.

In some capacity, we need to give people the skills to use critical thinking and media literacy.

It's just become so fundamental to our society right now, especially in this incredibly chaotic information environment. And I also think it needs to be available to adults.

What role does pop culture play in the spread of misinformation, especially when it comes to scientific and medical subjects? 

I'm fascinated by the role pop culture and celebrities play in this space. And it may sound frivolous, but it's not.

We know that people like Joe Rogan and Gwyneth Paltrow and Jenny McCarthy, and I can just go down the list, have a huge impact on public discourse.

Gregory Payan/The Associated Press
Gregory Payan/The Associated Press

People like Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson, they legitimize fringe views and that's why sometimes I just have to shake my head when people say, "Oh, we're being silenced and we're being cancelled."

Can somebody who is deep down the rabbit hole be persuaded that their beliefs are a result of misinformation?

Once something becomes part of your personal identity, it becomes much more difficult to change people's minds.

You want to promote that we're trying to contain the influence of harmful lies and there is evidence that we can do that.

The studies tell us that there are strategies that work. We do need to listen. We do need to be empathetic.

We can give people a path to the truth and we need to be patient, and I've seen this play out. I've seen individuals change their minds on these topics.