Science North episode addresses misinformation during a global pandemic

·3 min read

The way our brains operate may be one of the reasons why misinformation about COVID-19 spreads and comes to be believed, say Sudbury researchers.

“Understanding how we think and how our brains process new information is actually part of our tool kit to protect ourselves against misinformation," said Chantal Barriault, the director of the Science Communication Graduate Program at Laurentian University. "Our brains actually like to take mental shortcuts, and we are all like this.

“Our human brain wants to make things easy. It’s easier to click, to read just the headline, it’s easier to latch onto something that conforms or fits in to what you already believe or think you believe.”

Barriault made the comments as Science North and Laurentian University wrapped up their COVID-19 seminar series this week with a live-stream event that addressed the prevalence of misinformation during the global pandemic.

If something is easy, she added, it becomes familiar, then accepted.

“If we keep seeing (certain information), even if we’re not consciously consuming it, it becomes familiar, and unfortunately, for our brains, familiar feels true,” she said.

Becoming more aware of how our brains take shortcuts is one of the ways we can “inoculate” ourselves against misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking the extra step to verify the information we find online is another way to protect ourselves and make sense of what is happening around us.

Barriault and other panel members joined Amy Henson, staff scientist at Science North, to discuss how our social circles influence the ways in which we receive, believe, and understand misinformation, how it spreads, and how it can be identified.

“Let me ask you a quick question: what colour is COVID-19? I bet what you’re thinking is that COVID-19 is red,” said Dean Millar, interim dean of Science, Engineering, and Architecture at Laurentian University.

“We’ve all seen the pictures on TV news, arriving in our social media inboxes, even in brochures at walk-in clinics or in GP surgery – the spiky, red ball. But is COVID-19 really red or is it just someone’s interpretation of the virus’s colour?”

Turning to a few of Laurentian’s scientists and researchers, Millar discovered that there is no conclusive answer to that question.

The best guess is that the virus is so small that it would not even interact with the wavelengths of light that correspond to colours.

“In other words, it would be transparent – not red,” he said.

Millar’s question introduced a host of panelists that included Barriault and Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta.

The panelists weighed in on conspiracy theories about the pandemic, how to talk to friends and family members about misinformation, the need to empower users of social media to “tease out” what’s real and not real, and learning to pause before sharing information online.

“Let’s Talk About COVID-19” is a seminar series that engages local researchers for live discussions about the work they are doing to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Science North and Laurentian University have collaborated on the project since May 2020.

For more information or to view the most recent episode, visit www.sciencenorth.ca/covidtalks.

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

sud.editorial@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @SudburyStar

Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star