The Good Science

Photo of Tim Caulfield
Courtesy of Timothy Caulfield

Timothy Caulfield, professor of Health Law & Science Policy at the University of Alberta and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, recently presented UVic’s 2020 Lipson Lecture, “Infodemic! Is Misinformation Killing Us?,” to answer questions such asHow does misinformation spread? Why do people believe it? What can we do to fight back?” Caulfield’s compelling talk, given virtually this year, touched on the problem of people being drawn to celebrity over science (such as embracing the fleeting fad and unproven practice of receiving “vampire facials”).

A Pew Research study from April found that nearly three in 10 Americans believe that COVID-19 was made in a lab. An alarming 46% of Canadians believed at least one of four conspiracy theories and myths about COVID, a survey by Carleton University researchers found.  

Prof. Caulfield kindly shared some follow-up tips with us on being savvy news consumers—and revealed why he still shaves his legs—but won’t be booking a vampire facial. 

Q: What are four things to look for when critically approaching a news article, perhaps like kicking the tire of a used car?


  1. What is the nature of the evidence being used to support the premise? That’s kind of cheating, a little bit, I admit, because it’s a big basket. But it’s important.

  2. Is the claim/story based primarily on a testimonial, a single narrative, or is it based on a good body of evidence?

  3. Is extreme language being used? Is it being presented as a cure, a breakthrough, a revolution? Are they talking about a catastrophe? Any time there’s extreme language, that should be a trigger.

  4. Is someone trying to sell you something? An ideology, a product, a brand?

Q: You mentioned during the Lipson Lecture that we have an incredible appetite for pseudoscience. At the same time, the public shows a growing lack of regard for media. What is the connection between our perception of media and our vulnerability to misinformation?

TC: “We have all of these forces, unfortunately, coming together. We have the rise of social media. We have the erosion in trust in traditional sources of media. Those two interact. 

“It has created a lot of space, a lot of room for conspiracy theories and misinformation…it adds to the chaotic information environment. You have all of these forces working together to create almost a perfect environment for conspiracy theories and misinformation. All of these things are hard to tease out because they all work together. We have an incredibly polarized discourse now, and social media plays into that—and again that also invites the acceptance of misinformation and conspiracy theories.”

Q: You mentioned in the lecture that the more stressed out we get, the more we post. Can you expand?

“Studies have shown that constantly being on social media, ‘doom scrolling’ as they call it, stresses us out. Stressing us out might erode our ability to think critically about the content we’re watching and may also cause us to post more—and around and around the cycle goes. It really is a problematic ecosystem.” 

Q: You note that compelling narratives and presentation styles can help pump blood to mistruths. How did this idea shape your path as a scientist and the way that you present information? 

TC: “One of the ways that misinformation is spread is because the people spreading it seem to be quite adept at communicating. They use narrative…. They use creativity and we’ve got to do the same thing. That’s something I’ve tried to do in my career and I know other people are doing it, too. Try to use creative communications strategies in order to get across the good science.” 

Q: Have you ever fallen for a dubious claim or narrative?

After spending the past decade researching misinformation—Caulfield is now skeptical of claims. But before that, sure. He was really into sports and “got sucked in” to fitness and diet myths. People want to have answers and they want tricks to work, he says. Caulfield says our beliefs become part of our personal brands. 

“The ridiculous example I use is that I’m really into cycling. I still shave my legs. Why? Why would I do that? It’s not making me any faster. I’m a middle-aged old guy, I’m not in the Tour de France. But it’s become part of your brand—you want to signal to the world that is this who you are—and we do this with ideas, too.

“We all need to recognize that we all have the cognitive biases, and we need to guard against the impact it may have on the way we see the world.” 

Q: How should we approach a friend or relative, say who is against vaccines, who needs to be steered to better sources of information?

Caulfield says there are different levels of approach at play. “On the broadest level, the macro level, try to have engaging content that is based on fact. Things like graphics can be meaningful; good clear data can be meaningful—in some way that’s going to be engaging.”

On a micro level, a person-to-person level, he advises to start by listening. Ask “What are your concerns? 

“Once you listen, you are able to have a conversation and provide information that is meaningful to that person.”

Not everyone is a hard-core conspiracy theorist, he notes. Research into people who hold anti-vaccine beliefs show that a multi-pronged approach by providing facts; a story that is relevant to them—and an image can be effective, but it starts with understanding. “Listening is so important,” he says.

 - Jenny Manzer, BA ‘97