Episode 64: The Infodemic with Timothy Caulfield

In today’s episode of Healthy Habits Happy Homes podcast, we are delighted to have Timothy Caulfield, a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health, the Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, and Canadian Research Chair in Health Law and Policy.

Tim delves into challenging myths and misconceptions in health and science, drawing on his extensive research in ethics and public representation of science, and his award-winning work, “Relax Dammit: A User’s Guide to the Age of Anxiety.” He offers invaluable insights into navigating the current infodemic, tackling misinformation, and promoting scientific literacy in an age of abundant yet often conflicting information.

Discover more about Tim’s insights and follow his journey on Instagram and X( formerly Twitter) @caulfieldtim.



Healthy Habits, Happy Homes Podcast

Season 6, Episode 10

Guest: Timothy Caulfield


Marciane Any 00:05

Hello, welcome to the Healthy Habits, Happy Home podcast hosted by the Guelph Family Health Study.


Tamara Petresin 00:14

If you’re interested in the most recent research and helpful tips for healthy, balanced living for you and your family, then this podcast is for you. In each episode, we will bring you topics that are important to your growing family and guests who will share their expertise and experience with you.


Marciane Any 00:31

Our quick tips will help your family build healthy habits for a happy home.

Welcome back to the Healthy Habits, Happy Homes podcast.  I’m Marciane.


Tamara Petresin 00:45

I’m Tamara.


Marciane Any 00:52

And, today, we’re excited to have Timothy Caulfield join us. Timothy is a professor in the Faculty of Law in the School of Public Health and Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. He was the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy for over 20 years, from 2002 to 2023. His interdisciplinary research on topics like stem cells, genetic research ethics, and public representations of science and public health policy has allowed him to publish almost 400 academic articles. He has won numerous academic, science, communication, and writing awards and is a member of the Order Canada and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He contributes frequently to the popular press and is the author of two national bestsellers. First one is “The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness,” published in 2012. And, “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash,” published in 2015.

His most recent book is “Relax, Dammit! A User’s Guide to the Age of Anxiety.” Caulfield is also the co-founder of the Science Engagement Initiative #Science First,” and was the host and co-producer of the award-winning documentary TV show, “A User’s Guide to Cheating Death,” which has been shown in over 60 countries, including streaming on Netflix in North America. He has a combined following of over 100,000 on Instagram and Twitter.

You can find him on both these platforms at CaulfieldTim. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Timothy.


Timothy Caulfield 02:44

Thanks so much for having me on. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.


Marciane Any 02:48

Same!  To get us started, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your current role, and how your education and experiences led you to where you are now?


Timothy Caulfield 02:51

Sure. So, my main job is still professor. I’m a researcher at the University of Alberta, and I continue to do research with an amazing, amazing interdisciplinary team, exploring really public representations of health and science. It’s something I’m really passionate about. And, so we use a bunch of different methodological methods to do that. And, I don’t have the methodological chops, so I’m lucky that I get to collaborate with amazing scholars all across Canada to do that. And, I really started as more of a traditional law professor decades ago, I’m embarrassed to say. But, very, very, very quickly, I transitioned into really more of an interdisciplinary scholar. And, I’ve loved it. I haven’t turned back from there. I’ve worked on big research teams, exploring everything from genomics to stem cells, to the microbiome, to precision medicine. But, really, I’d say over the last 15 years, my passion has been how science and health and public health is represented in the public sphere, including tackling misinformation, health misinformation, which has really been my focus lately.


Tamara Petresin 04:20

That’s amazing. Yeah, we’re so excited to have you on.Obviously, you come with a wealth of knowledge and expertise. And, so let’s jump right into this misinformation conversation. So, your work often challenges the myths and misconceptions surrounding topics like nutrition, fitness, and aging. What are some common misconceptions in these areas that you believe have the potential to significantly impact public health? And, how can individuals and families navigate through the noise to make informed decisions?


Timothy Caulfield 04:47

Oh my God, you know, where do I start? You guys buckle up. Here we go. You know, first of all, right off the top, and I know I don’t have to convince you guys of this, but the spread of misinformation, and I use that term, you know, sort of, as a blanket term that includes, you know, disinformation, you know, fake news, you know, bad representations of science. So, let’s use that as an umbrella term. But, misinformation, it’s killing people now. I mean, it’s killing people. Very recently, it was recognized as the single biggest threat to humanity, and right now,  so, you think about climate change, and you think about the conflicts that are happening around the world. Misinformation was picked as number one. And, there’s been, you know, surveys, international surveys that have been done. There was one done, a large one, almost 20,000 respondents. And, they rated misinformation, spread of misinformation, right up there with climate change as a threat to humanity. I could go on and on and on. This is a real, really one of the defining issues of our time. And, to just give you one more example, in the United States, the head of the FDA, really over the last 18 months, has consistently said that he believes the spread of health misinformation has contributed to the decline in life expectancy in the United States, which you guys probably know is at a 25-year low, right? So, this is where we’re at. So, this question is a big one, and it’s an important one. So, what are some of the themes out there? Obviously, vaccination, obviously, right? We know that the spread of misinformation is resulting in more hesitancy, and in many, I think it’s really important off the top to say, in many jurisdictions, it’s not just misinformation or vaccination hesitancy, right? It’s access. It could be things like, you know, needle fear. It could be the inequitable distribution of vaccines. All of those things really, really matter, right? So, the infrastructure, et cetera, that really matters. But, in most of the OECD countries, the spread of misinformation is core, right? It’s absolutely core to this, and so as I said, it’s killing people. It’s killing people. Maybe we can circle back to that, because you often hear people say, well, we’ve lost trust in institutions.

But, a lot of that distrust has been created by those spreading misinformation. But, let’s talk more about, you know, in the area of healthy lifestyles and wellness and nutrition. I’m going to cheat a little bit and talk big themes, as opposed to particular things. One of the things that I think is happening now is the use of fear-mongering, right? And, we definitely see that with food. We see that with, you know, toxins, and I’m putting that in air quotes, as you guys know. We definitely see that, and I think that leads to a lot of misconceptions about, you know, you guys know this better than I do, what a healthy lifestyle, what a healthy diet actually looks like.


We also see, I think, the increasing noise in the health and wellness space, and what do I mean by that? Well, it’s just such a chaotic information environment now. Often filled with fear-mongering about things like what causes cancer. And, we know research pretty consistently tells us that that can cause people to disengage, to not listen to experts and create the belief that a healthy lifestyle is much more complicated and more expensive than it needs to be.

And, you guys know this well. What is a healthy lifestyle? You know, it’s what works for you. You know, a healthy lifestyle, the best diet. Let’s pick that. The best diet is a diet that’s healthy, sustainable, and works for you, right? There’s really no magic, but the information ecosystem, right, they don’t want that to be the conclusion. It has to be complicated. It has to require new products. It often is infused with fear. And, research, I think, consistently tells us it does, you know, that does real, real harm.


Tamara Petresin 09:08

Yeah, definitely. I mean, that is, I think, what you said, that it’s like the single biggest threat to humanity, like, that really puts it into perspective, just how prevalent all this stuff is. Like we all come across it in our day to day lives all the time, right? And, it is making it just so much harder to even digest, like even talking about a healthy diet, like, you know, it’s like, well, what is a healthy diet? Like we forget about those, like, core kind of basic fundamentals, like, how you, kind of, broke it down, you know, it’s a healthy diet. It’s what works for you. It’s what’s accessible to us, like, all those things. But, it just gets so complicated so quickly. And, I kind of, want to circle back to what you were saying about, you know, the distrust in all of this, because I am a bit curious, you know, obviously, I think that the misinformation comes from a lot of different sources. So, I was wondering if you could just speak to a bit about where this misinformation is coming from and where is it found?


Timothy Caulfield 10:02

Yeah, unfortunately, it’s everywhere now. It’s in the ether now. Look, there’s no doubt social media has changed. You know this, right? Social media has changed everything. You know, I’ve been I’ve been working in this space for decades. And, I, you know, I started researching how does popular culture represent, you know, diet and science and exercise and public health measures? How, you know, how is that represented in newspapers and in magazines? Do magazines even exist anymore? I don’t know. Right? And, so now, you know, we’ve really, of course, it’s become about social media.

And, you know, that’s an obvious, obvious response. But, it is so, so true. And, studies show this again and again and again. So, first of all, on social media platforms, they’re just filled with misinformation. Right? So, that’s the first obvious point.

There’s been studies that have shown, like, TikTok has as much as 20 percent of the content is misinformation. And, for some topics like vaccines, it’s as high as 50 percent. So, just the degree to which social media platforms have misinformation on them is problematic.

Secondly, social media platforms, of course, their algorithms play to our fears. That word again, it plays to our cognitive biases. That’s a problem. And, these platforms also help to create echo chambers. You know, on the good side, they can also help to create communities that people can feel part of. And, you know, we actually we shouldn’t forget the plus side of this equation.Right? It can be empowering. Right? Where maybe you feel alone and you feel like there aren’t people that look like you, are the same size and shape as you. And, you can find those, you know, warm communities on social media. That’s a good thing. But, we also know social media can create these echo chambers that again play to our cognitive our cognitive biases. And, the other thing, of course, what’s happening now, and I think this is a trend that’s really happened really over the last couple of years, is the degree to which these echo chambers are about ideology. And, unfortunately, that is a real problem, because the more misinformation becomes about ideology, the more difficult it is to debunk it, to change people’s minds, because it becomes part of who they are. Right? It becomes part of their community and it becomes part of their personal identity. And, so that part of the story is more important than the facts.

Right? You believe something because that’s what your community believes. And, we’re starting to see that occur more frequently, I think. And, by the way, we all live in echo chambers. It may feel like I’m pointing at certain communities. No, we all live in echo chambers and we need to remind ourselves of that.


Marciane Any 12:42

That’s so true. I know we’ll get to it later. But, you know, you just speaking about the spread of information, the prevalence of it, the you know, the dangers that can come from it.

It’s just sad how our fears are played on a lot of the times. And, then I’m just thinking of, like, myself and I have younger siblings. Just I can’t imagine now growing up where you have social media and it’s just in your face so much more than it was when I was growing up.

So, it’s just you know, it really is something that we really need to take seriously.


Timothy Caulfield 13:17

For sure. And, I’m assuming you’re quite young. And, so even hearing that from you, you know, I have four kids and there’s a difference between my youngest and my and my eldest. Right? And, their exposure to social media and studies. One question I’m often asked is who’s most susceptible to misinformation? Look, we’re all susceptible to misinformation. I’ve fallen for it. You’ve fallen for it. We’ve all fallen for it. But, yeah, there are individuals that are more susceptible. But, there has been very recently interesting research showing that the younger demographic, maybe surprisingly, because you would think that they would be more tech savvy, more maybe a little more skeptical. They are often more likely to fall for misinformation. And, it’s not because that younger demographic is not as smart. You know, they don’t necessarily have the cognitive tools. It’s because of exposure. Right? They’re just constantly bombarded, constantly bombarded. Their information environment is so chaotic that it can become very difficult to get the truth, you know, from the noise, so to speak.


Tamara Petresin 14:25

Yeah, definitely. I mean, we’ve all fallen into those rabbit holes, right? On social media and Instagram and TikTok. And, then, you know, like you mentioned with the algorithms and then they know and then you keep seeing this stuff. And, I think at a certain point, for sure, it’s just so hard to distinguish between what is you know, what is evidence based and what isn’t, especially once, you know, you as an influencer attains a certain following. It’s like, oh, well, I like them. So, I trust what they say. You know, even if it’s not necessarily evidence based. So, it gets very tricky. It’s very interesting.


Timothy Caulfield 14:55

You’re so right about that. And, you know, the thing about social media is that they’re putting this content in front of you so incredibly quickly. And, this is something we can come back to at the end that research is, you know, again, consistently shown that that is an important factor in the embrace of misinformation. If you’re exposed to something enough, it gets a truthiness to it, right? Pretty consistently, it’s one of those cognitive biases, right? If you see something enough, it starts to feel true. And, that’s why I often say, you know, we’ve got to we’ve got to debunk and we’ve got to pre-bunk even the stuff that seems absurd. You know, like, don’t drink urine. Seriously, don’t drink your own urine. And, that seems absurd. But, if you see enough on social media and if you see, you know, some influencers say it, all of a sudden it feels like maybe there’s something to it, right? So, yeah, it’s a good reminder not to. It’s a good reminder to debunk even the absurd stuff, because social media can be filled with that noise.


Marciane Any 16:02

That is so, so true. Thank you for sharing those points. And, one of your projects, The Science of Pop Culture, examines the portrayal of science and health in entertainment media. Can you share some insights into how these portrayals influence public perceptions and attitudes towards science? And, what role do entertainment industry stakeholders and even social media networks play in promoting accurate representations of scientific concepts?


Timothy Caulfield 16:35

Yeah, I am absolutely fascinated in the role of pop culture.And, it’s interesting when I first started working in that sphere. You know, really, it was years ago. And, I remember colleagues would say, oh, that sounds like a fun project.And, I think people kind of thought it was frivolous and maybe not really that important. You know, maybe it’s fun and it has a niche application. They’re not saying that anymore.There’s full recognition that, you know, pop culture has a massive impact. And, by the way, not just in the context of, you know, healthy behaviours and public health initiatives, but even in the context of how we think of science more broadly. You know, think about the role of pop culture, framing how we thought about human cloning.Right? We have, you know, I worked a lot in that space. So, that’s, like, you know, the early aughts.

We had Dolly and we had the Raelians, which was a sex cult from Montreal that claimed that they cloned the first human. All of this stuff had an impact on how the public thought about cloning. But, not just the public politicians, too. And, I really believe that’s one of the reasons that we ended up banning human cloning was more as a result of the pop culture portrayals of cloning, you know, in movies, you know, in science fiction books than the reality of human cloning, which, you know, somatic cell nuclear transfer might have been a useful scientific method. And, I think there’s empirical evidence to back up that speculation. You can also think about something like genetic discrimination. You can’t talk about genetic discrimination without the movie Gattaca coming up. I don’t think I saw Gattaca, but it’s always referenced, right? It’s like this touchstone regarding what genetic discrimination would look like in the future if we didn’t impose laws. And, I don’t think that’s the best way, the most rational and most sort of thoughtful way of of creating creating laws.But, we also know that pop culture can have a dramatic impact on on human behaviour, you know, suicide, smoking. Certainly, certainly diets, extreme diets. But, one of my favourite examples is the Jolie effect.Have you guys heard of that?


Both 18:55

No, no.


Timothy Caulfield 18:57

So, the Jolie effect is something that even our team researched, in fact. So, Angelina Jolie, I’m sure you know who she is. And, this is she’s married to Brad at this time. So, cast your memory back to, you know, 2013, 2014, 2015, that zone. Angelina Jolie writes two very thoughtful Op Eds in The New York Times.They were short, they weren’t sensationalistic, and they were basically just describing her decision to get genetic testing, to find out if she had the BRCA1, BRCA2 gene, right, predisposing her to cancer. And, her decision to get a mastectomy, you know, prophylactic mastectomy and uvulectomy. Those two Op Eds resulted in the Jolie effect. Basically, this spike in uptake of both genetic testing and prophylactic surgery, which these are not, you know, frivolous decisions. Right? These are pretty big, pretty big decisions. And, that was a robust finding. Right now, we can have an interesting debate whether that was good or bad. Right? Did that lead to iatrogenic injury? Did all those individuals really need to get genetic testing? Did it create more anxiety? Lots of interesting conversations we can have around that. But, there’s no doubt that the Jolie effect is real. And, by the way, it was quite sustained. It wasn’t a short-lived phenomenon. Another really, really good example, and one that I think is more clearly in the negative column, is Jenny McCarthy, right, Jenny McCarthy. And, and the ridiculous idea, the completely fraudulent, often proved to be wrong idea that vaccines cause autism. Of course, that flows from the fraudulent study in “Lancet” by, in 1998, by Andrew Wakefield. Got to emphasize it again and again a fraud study has been shown to be fraudulent. He has been shown to be a fraud. He’s been stripped of his license. Despite all of that.Right? Jenny McCarthy goes on. Larry King talks about how her son has autism and she attributes it to vaccination.And, on that Larry King show, there’s Jenny McCarthy. And, I think there was two or three, you know, experts who have spent their entire life studying vaccines. You know, these are experts.Who do we remember? Like here I study this and I can’t remember who the experts were. And, I remember Jenny McCarthy was there. And, oh, my gosh, she just she completely normalized this incredibly harmful myth.And, we remember Jenny McCarthy because, you know, she’s saying these dramatic things and she’s a celebrity, but she’s a mom telling a story. And, even as she’s saying it, I think there’s the banner under her, under her on CNN and on the TV says autism warrior. Right? So, she’s being, you know, valourized for basically spreading, spreading lies. So, whenever someone says, oh, does pop culture have an impact on health? Holy cow. Yes, it does. And, then you enter into the social media era and we’ve just supercharged everything that I just mentioned. And, it’s only going to get more intense in the future.


Tamara Petresin 22:18

Oh, absolutely.


Marciane Any 22:30

Thanks for sharing all that. Like this, the thing that keeps running through my mind is, like, wow, like, you really have to be careful what you say. You know, it’s something that my parents always tried to instill in me just in general.But, especially if you’re on a platform where, you know, thousands or millions of people are watching you or viewing your content, you know, you want to make sure you’re actually giving important information because like you pointed out, there’s some positives. Like I’m originally from the States, and I know that there were some shows that I watched specifically that had, like, a majority African-American cast that was trying to promote, like, get a physical and or, you know, just take better care of yourself in certain aspects where we know our communities, there’s a stigma there. So, you know, that was positive.But, then there’s other things like, you know, the Jenna McCarthy interview or these extreme diets, things like that. And, it’s just, you know, there’s very serious negative consequences that could come from spreading misinformation that’s preventable. And, that’s the sad part.


Timothy Caulfield 23:30

I agree with everything you’ve said. So, it’s so true. And, we should remember about the positives, right? Because it is easy to dump on a technology and be enraged at the impact it’s having on culture. But, it’s not going away. Right? It is not going away. We’re not going to wave a wand and there’s not going to be social media and the Internet and search engines are going to disappear, nor would we want them to. Right? So, it is important to reflect on the on the positive. You know, we’ve done research on, for example, on TikTok, on its impact and how TikTok represents transplantation in the organ space and donation in the organ space, right, organ donation. And, we kind of thought it would be our hypothesis when we first went in.

It was going to be a lot of misrepresentations and sensationalistic content. And, it was kind of doing harm to the area. And, we found the opposite. We found it to be quite positive. You know, a place where people can talk about donation, where it raises awareness about donation and people talked about their transplantation journeys. And, so, yeah, it was very, very positive. And, then if you also think about it in the context of body positivity, I think for a while, you know, I think social media was terrible. You know, the “fitspration,” as I say, that whole movement, you know, just ridiculous. But, I do think we started I’m curious if you guys agree with me. We started to see more body positivity. It’s still terrible, by the way. I don’t want to make it sound like the problem has gone away. But, I do think we’re starting to see a breadth of representations of individuals, you know, exercising and living a healthy lifestyle. And, I think that’s good, too.


Tamara Petresin 25:16


Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think a big part of it, too, is like when you start engaging with some of that positive content, too, then you start seeing that more as well.

And, I think it’s nice that there are, especially in the context of body positivity, like, I can think of a few influencers to name off even. And, it’s just nice seeing them focus on movement just for pleasure, like, just for joy, like moving in a way that makes you feel good versus like that “fitspiration.” You must move your body and do this and work out and eat, you know, very minimally, right, like, all those kind of strict ideals. So, it’s nice to see a bit more of that.


Timothy Caulfield  25:51

And, if you don’t do that, you know, it’s, sort of, like, “shame on you and you’re lazy,” you know, and and working out like a maniac and not eating except for one meal a day is , noble and virtuous. So, you know, all that messaging is just terrible.


Tamara Petresin 26:00

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, obviously, it’s, like, a multibillion dollar industry, too. Right? So, it’s there’s plenty of that messaging still out there as well. But, it is nice to see a bit more of the positive stuff.


Timothy Caulfield 26:12

Yeah, I agree. And, what’s interesting is how can we how can we somehow heighten that, right, that content? How can we incentivize that that content? Because the algorithms are just so, you know, they’re not our friends.


Tamara Petresin 26:28

They really aren’t. They really aren’t the algorithms. They work hard, those algorithms, and they’re good at it.


Timothy Caulfield 26:33

They really, really do. And, then and then those with the biggest platforms. And, I’m thinking  of the Joe Rogans of the world. You know, I wish, you said that earlier. I wish they would more internalize that idea that they have a responsibility. You know, I you know, I I know they don’t view it that way. But, you know, he’s got a hundred million followers or something. And, you know, and it’s just, wow, he marches through his studio just a sea of misinformation mongers that he must know. He must know are not science informed or are fringe in a not a good way. I’m not saying there aren’t controversial views out there that need to be heard. You know, they’re disproven ideas that we know are harmful. But, I think that he must know this.


Tamara Petresin 27:18



Timothy Caulfield 27:20

And, I think I think what happens is the information ecosystem is incentivized to bring on those voices because he knows it’s going to create rage, which creates, you know, clicks and views and more people talking about him. And, and that’s what the information economy wants. So, somehow we have got to figure out how we can tweak the machine to incentivize, you know, just science informed content.


Tamara Petresin 27:54


Yeah. And, it just continues to drive that, too, right? Like you get stuck in that trap. And, I’m curious, actually, what responsibility do you think influencers and I use this term very loosely, right? But, anybody with a following on social media and stuff, what do you think their role is in sharing and promoting evidence based information?


Timothy Caulfield 28:13

Well, I do think they have that responsibility. And, you know, I have to be careful because I don’t want I don’t can’t presume what they what their motives are. You know, and, you know, I think they probably falls on a continuum where there are some individuals that know that they’re lying in there and they’re lying because they have a particular agenda what they want to put forward. And, then there are some that maybe are, you know, a little bit further down that misinformation continuum where they may be suspected. This isn’t true, but, I put Gwyneth Paltrow in this.


Tamara Petresin 28:45

Yeah. Right?


Timothy Caulfield 28:47

She’s just she must have a good idea that this stuff is nonsense. But, she has a brand to build, right? She has a brand to build. Yeah. And, you go further down that big trend and then you go further down that continuum. And, and you have people that I think they probably believe it. Right? You know, they really think that their supplement works. And, then others are just, you know, trying to find what’s best for them. And, they’re mistaken. So, there’s this whole entire continuum. But, I do think we know that that influencers play an important role in the spread of misinformation. So, I think they clearly have an obligation to do what they can to. And, when I say obligation, I don’t necessarily mean legal obligation. I mean, more of a sort of soft moral obligation to not spread content that’s going to do real harm, especially in this era of misinformation. You know, maybe there was a time when, oh, you know, and I used to hear this when I first started, you know, down this road, you know, the Dr. Oz, early Gwyneth Paltrow, people said, “Well, you know, what do you care, Tim? You know, people don’t really take them seriously. And, if they want to spend a thousand dollars on magical crystals, what harm is that doing?” Not that I totally agree with that, but I kinda get that perspective. I don’t agree with it but I kind of understand where they are coming from. First of all, the problem is taht just creates this toleration for psuedo-science, but more to the point, I think it is more difficult to make that argument today, when we know, we clearly know that the spread of misinformation, even frivolous stuff as I said earlier, does harm and I think that kind of heightens the moral obligation to do what you can to, at least, signal in the direction of science-informed content. 



Tamara Petresin 30:38

Yeah. For sure, I mean it is a responsibility for hte good of humanity.


Timothy Caulfield 30:40

Yes, I totally agree with you.


Tamara Petresin 30:44

So, in this era that we are in, this information is so chaotic, so overwhelming, social media, there is so much stuff everywhere, how can families recognize and combat misinformation in their everyday lives.



Timothy Caulfield 30:57

It is, it is getting more difficult. There’s no doubt about it. You know, we went back a couple of years, let’s say four years, i.e. pre-pandemic it, you know, it’s still, it was still tough, but I think it was easier to say, okay, go to trusted sources, you know, look for this, look for that strategy. It is getting more, more complicated and then enter AI too, right? I mean, that’s just changing everything also. So, I think, I think what you, one of the first things you need to do is, is, is actually get a sense of what this content is, is trying to do. Is it playing to your emotions? Is it playing to your ideological leanings? If it’s doing that, you should be doubly skeptical. And, I once asked Kate Starbird, she’s a superstar in this field. She’s at the University of Washington. And, I actually asked her this question and I thought she’d say, you know, this, give me this list of strategies, you know, critical thinking skills and watch for this kind of representation of a study. And, she actually said that she said she, what she actually said was, you know, if it feels like your team just scored a touchdown, that should be a signal to double check the content. What would I mean by that? Like, so if it feels like, “Hey, I always thought that,” or, “Oh, I knew they were evil.” Or, “Of course those people are, can’t be trusted.” If the content is playing to your emotions, that’s the signal that you should double check the content. I love that advice. And, it’s not really intuitive. The second thing I think everyone needs to do, and I am going to roll out that, that trope of checking your sources and going to trusted sources, but I’m going to put another wrinkle on it because of things like AI, because there is so much distrust, go to multiple trusted sources. And, if you’re hearing the same message, then I think it can be, it can be relied on. It might also take a little bit of patience, especially if it’s a big event. Think about, you know, the information that was flowing from the Middle East during that crisis, right? I think it’s a little bit of patience on information is important. The other thing that I’m obsessed about right now is to think about the scientific consensus. And, I think this is particularly important for the areas where you guys work in public health. There’s a growing body of evidence that tells us that referring to the scientific consensus can be an important tool in, in fighting misinformation. And, and that involves also describing exactly what the scientific consensus is. Cause a lot of people think that’s, “Oh, it’s just group think. It’s about being overly conservative.” No, no, no. The scientific consensus, it’s always evolving, right? It’s always evolving, but there is generally a scientific consensus out there. And, it also respects, you know, scientific consensus also respects emerging controversial ideas, as long as the evidence, you know, is there to support those ideas. Let me give you one example. If I may, I’m going to talk about vaccines. And, again, I know everyone’s sick of vaccines, but there was a fascinating study from Europe where it found that it, it, it asked the general public, what do you think the science, the clinical community and the scientific community thinks of the COVID vaccine? And, and most people thought, well, I think experts are split. It’s kind of 50/50. Some thinks it’s, you know, the COVID vaccine is safe and effective and another 50% are, are concerned. Which is a complete misrepresentation of the reality, right? It’s 99% of experts, of clinicians, of physicians, of researchers think the COVID vaccine is safe and effective in a small minority. And, in this study, it was more of the, the, the small group that didn’t agree with that just were uncertain, right? And, if you represent what the scientific consensus actually is to the public, it can have an impact on their behaviour. So, that is really, really important. So, I think we need to do a better job representing the scientific consensus, but you know, entities like Joe Rogan and other influencers often rely on false balance, right? Elevating these fringe scientifically unsupported positions to the level of a reasonable alternative to the scientific consensus. And, we have to kind of push back against that, that again, always leaving room for controversial ideas that, you know, will maybe be proven to be true in the future. And, and we see that by the way, they’ve, they’ve tested this idea of scientific consensus in the nutrition space too, with things like GMOs. I’m sure you guys know this. The biggest difference between the scientific consensus and the public perception is in fact GMOs, right? It’s more so than climate change, more so than vaccines. The idea of GMOs being safe is widely accepted, right? By the scientific community, but very few in the public actually believe that or know that. And, so that’s another good example of, of the impact it can have. And, by the way, that’s a good example of a belief that can have an adverse impact on those from lower income communities. So, there was a one study, I’m sure you might be aware of this study that found that, you know, really emphasizing organic food and non-GMO led those communities to eat less fruits and vegetables because the thinking was, well, if I can’t find non-GMO or organic, there’s no point, which is a horrible outcome. It’s a good example of, you know, that noise, that wellness noise having an adverse impact.


Tamara Petresin 30:31

Yeah, definitely. And, contributing to the stigma, too, especially with that example, with the fruits and vegetables, like that, which, you know, creates a whole slew of other issues as well. And, I just really like what you said too, about, it can be a bit hard to get to the science, right? And, so I think that’s, that’s one of the opportunities that science and academic, the academic community has for knowledge translation, because, you know, journal articles are hard to read, right? There, a lot of them are hidden behind paywalls, not a ton of it is open access. And, sometimes it’s honestly just hard to understand too, right? Like, I’m a PhD student, and sometimes I reread an article three times. So, I’m, like, what are they saying? Right? And, so, it’s hard for the general public to get that information and that evidence. And, so, there’s definitely an opportunity, I think, for the scientific community, for a bit more like knowledge translation there, which would hopefully help a bit with some of the misrepresentation that’s going on.


Timothy Caulfield 37:20

I think so. And, I think it’s, it’s, when we talk about critical thinking skills, you know, I think this needs to be part of it, right? Explaining a little bit, you know, that science is not a list of facts, right? Science is a process. And, if we, if you’re looking at a study, you know, think about a few things, you know, was it a, how big was the study? Was it just a small study? Was it just a case study, which is barely, right? That’s barely evidence. Was it a qualitative or quantitative study? These are really basic things that I think most people can, you know, internalize and use to scrutinize a paper. How big was the, the sample size? Was there a comparison group or is this just an anecdote? In fact, our own research has shown that anecdotes, testimonials are used so often to push misinformation, especially in social media. I mean, social media is an anecdote machine, right? And, you know, telling kids, you know, children, young adults, that you just cannot rely on an anecdote. That’s, of course, one of the reasons pop culture has such a big impact. No, that’s very true. I feel like that kind of eases into our next question really well. And, this is, you know, I’m at full disclosure. I’m asking for advice here with this next question too. But, with the rise of conspiracy theories and anti-science movements, how do you approach engaging with individuals who may be deeply entrenched in these beliefs? And, are there effective communication strategies for fostering a productive conversation and promoting scientific literacy? Yeah. So, I mean, this is a tough one. And, unfortunately, I think it is getting tougher talking, you know, referencing back to that comment about ideology and echo chambers. You know, once someone becomes part of a community, it can be very difficult to pull them out because they almost feel like they’re being disloyal or that they’re going to lose the community that they have if they don’t embrace these beliefs. There was a fascinating study that came out, I’m going to say a year ago, maybe not even. And, it sounds like a silly study, but it’s not. What they found was that those that are in, and by the way, they controlled for all the obvious variables that you’ll think of immediately, those that are in loving relationships are less likely to fall for conspiracies. And, again, they controlled for, and it’s hard to study this well. So, you know, I think we need to be careful not to over-interpret this data. But, I agree with the spirit of their conclusions. What they speculated was that you’re drawn, often drawn to conspiracy theories because you are looking for a community, right? So, you have that need. And, once you’re there, you may feel like you have a home now. So, it can be very difficult. And, I think that should invite some empathy, by the way, when dealing with people that have fallen into these, you know, conspiracy theory communities. So, I think you need to recognize that, you know, off the top. And, then the other thing we need to recognize is the power of those echo chambers. And, I’m going to refer to another study. This was a study that was done at Yale University, and I think it’s a hilarious study. But, what they did, and it was a pretty big end, by the way, they paid Fox News viewers to watch CNN, right? And, the reason they did that, and it’s hilarious, right? Because everyone knows what’s up. You’re paying me to watch, you know, Anderson Cooper. It’s not going to work. But, it did work. If they had, I think it was seven hours a week, they had to pay them to watch seven hours of CNN. And, it worked in the sense that it did have an impact on their perception, their beliefs around particular issues. Now that, I’m sure they regressed to the Fox News perspective when they went back. But, the important thing here is exposing people to different perspectives matters. So, how do we respond to these individuals? We’ve got to recognize why they might be in these communities. We have to recognize the power of the echo chamber that they might be residing in. We have to remember that there may be other forces that are driving them towards these beliefs. Maybe it’s economic strife. Maybe they’re in a tough position from a mental health perspective. We have to be empathetic for all those things, right? Having said that, what we want to do is we want to figure out ways that we can introduce new perspectives to them in a non-threatening way. So, there’s, again, been really interesting research to suggest that we can do that by trying to find voices that are from within that community or adjacent to that community, right? So, voices that share many of the individual’s values. And, you know, those voices are out there. They’re often not easy to find, but they are out there. And, research suggests, hear from someone from your own community, right? You’re more likely to be influenced by that perspective. And, we should do that in as respectful way as we can. And, by the way, I think that that’s also really why it’s so important to fight misinformation, when you’re trying to counter misinformation, to invite as many communities into the tent as possible. So, I think that that’s really important. And, of course, patience is important. People don’t change their mind overnight. No one ever goes, you know, now that you mentioned it, Tim, you’re right. That never happened. And, so, you know, patience, I think, is really, really important. And, I’m not a mental health expert. So, I’m just talking about, you know, when you’re thinking about this, when it’s extreme, you should almost think of it like a cult, right? And, so, you’ve seen some mental health experts draw on the cult literature here, the cult research. And, why I think that’s important is what they recommend is often your relationship is more important than trying to debunk this person, right? So, if you get too aggressive, you’re going to lose that relationship. And, that relationship is more important than trying to get them to change their mind on this particular topic. So, always remember to back away. You know, when the heat gets too hot, you know, you back away a little bit and re-engage when you can have a more constructive conversation. I have other suggestions, but those are a few points there. And, kind of obvious, you probably could have thought of all those yourself.


Marciane Any 43:40

No, they’re good reminders because, honestly, that, especially in the moment, goes out the window, right? Like, for example, I love my family. And, I won’t say which members, but there’s some people closest to me who, you know, I got my master’s in nutrition and I think I know some things. You know, I think even with getting a master’s degree, I realized how much I don’t know and how much they’re still out there for me to learn. But, with the knowledge that I do know, you know, I can come in and be like, actually, this is what the research says. And, you know, going through the scientific process and seeing how much it takes to run a research study and like do all these things. It’s like, no, this is from repetition, you know, not from article on Google or from a social media post. It’s a body of evidence. There’s a body of evidence. Like, in that moment, it’s, just listen to me. But, I think your reminder for empathy and for patience and even just the relationship with that person is so much more important than just hearing, you know, like, you’re right. I should change my mind. Like it’s so much more than that. And, so that was a great reminder, honestly, because and especially to remember before, especially holidays to remember this beforehand when those conversations tend to come up that was really helpful.


Timothy Caulfield 44:59

You know, the other thing I think is so important, which you reminded me of is intellectual humility. Right? And, you know, you have a graduate degree in this topic and what you find out is the evidence does evolve. And, you know, oh, my gosh, we don’t really know about this. And, you know what, studying nutrition is hard. It’s hard. It’s hard to get definitive answers.

And, so, you should always ask yourself, you know, what have I changed my mind on when the evidence evolved? And, I often find that’s a good way to engage a conversation. And, so actually I have this list of things I’ve changed my mind on as the evidence evolved. And, you know, some things are big things and some things are little things. But, if you don’t have that list and if you can’t do that, there’s probably something wrong with how you’re approaching evidence in these kinds of topics, because it should be a badge of honour to change your mind on a topic when the evidence evolves. And, one of my favourite examples, we talked about it on the top. I’m a little bit of an exercise fanatic. And, I used to, kind of like, I’m embarrassed to say this now, but I used to, kind of, almost say mock, you know, walking or dancing or yoga. That’s not real exercise. I know, isn’t that terrible? And, so, I’ve totally changed my mind, you know, not just because now I love walking, I totally get it. But, you look at the evidence, right? The evidence, just freaking move, you know, find something you love and move. It doesn’t have to be, you know, Olympic weightlifting and super intense intervals. Just do whatever the hell you enjoy and get out there and move. That’s just one example, right? And, I have a long list, you guys, to keep my mind on as the evidence evolves. And, that’s a good thing. And, we should all have that list.


Tamara Petresin 46:48

Yeah, definitely. I’m going to start building my list because I agree. That is an awesome thing to be aware of, especially because things do evolve. And, that’s normal. And, that’s part of this world that we’re in. I mean, yes, with nutrition, it’s very hard to do nutrition research for numerous reasons, you know, because there are so many factors that do influence our eating beyond just what we’re physically putting in our mouths. No, it’s so applicable to like every aspect of our lives. So, I’m going to get going. That’s my goal for the long weekend. I’m going to make a list. Now, as we’re approaching the end of our podcast, I’m going to ask you to share some tips with our families here that are listening. So, first off, if you could just share some tips on parents, you know, some strategies for them to teach their children critical thinking skills and digital literacy, because we did talk about how the younger generation is increasingly more susceptible to misinformation. And, then also just kind of, like, three take-home tips that you can give families on navigating the infodemic and overcoming all these challenges that we’ve been talking about with the influx of information that all of us are taking in on on a daily basis.


Timothy Caulfield 47:53

Okay, I’m going to cheat a little bit. How about I mush those two together a little bit? Because there’s so many tips you can give with critical thinking skills, right? There’s so many elements to it. But, let’s focus on, you know, reminding kids and really everyone what good evidence looks like. And, we’ve already touched on, I think, one of the big things, right, that an anecdote is not good evidence. It might be an opportunity, it might invite inquiry, but that’s not good evidence. You always want, you know, you always want to turn to what the body of evidence says on the topic. Also, one study does not a body of evidence make, right? You got to watch that, you know, single study syndrome, right? Even a big study is just one study, especially if it runs counter to a body of evidence, right? So, I think those are two, just implementing those two strategies, I think, can really make a big difference. And, the other thing, other tool that I think is so useful, and there’s a growing body of evidence to support this, is this idea of just pausing, right? Just taking a break. So, I mean that big and small. We’ve talked over and over again about how chaotic our information environment is, and there is some evidence that that is one of the reasons we fall for misinformation. There’s just social media fatigue, there’s information fatigue. So, just taking that break, again, both big and small. So, the big break is step away from the noise periodically, you know, maybe put your phone down at eight o’clock every night and don’t go back to it, don’t have it in your bedroom, you know, just step away from the noise. And, not only is that good for your mental health, and there’s research that backs that up, also there’s some evidence that suggests it’s good for your critical thinking, because then when you re-engage, you’re fresh. And, then in the small sense, just take a beat, just pause when you see content. And, research by people like Gordon Pennycook at Cornell and David Rand at MIT, they’ve found that even a short pause and reminding yourself to just think of accuracy, embrace the concept of accuracy, just a short pause when you see content makes you less likely to believe misinformation, less likely to share misinformation, right? Because our information environment is so chaotic, if we can get people just to pause. And, I love that recommendation, because it’s something we can remind ourselves to do. We can remind our family and friends to do that. And, it might be scalable, it might be the kind of intervention that’s scalable, that just might have an impact on slowing the spread and embrace of misinformation.


Marciane Any 50:34

That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing those tips with our listeners. I know I took a lot of notes. Is there anything you’re currently working on or looking forward to in the near future that you’d like to share with our audience?


Timothy Caulfield  50:48

Yeah, I’m working on right now on a new documentary, where we’ve already started filming it.

And, we’re going to be hopefully filming most of the shooting before the end of next month. And, we’re looking at all of the health myths around this new masculinity push, right? The Liver King. Joe Rogan. You can imagine the kinds of things that we’re tackling. And, I’m going to, you know, I’m experiencing a lot of them. And, I also think this, this whole masculinity push does real, real harm to, to teenagers, you know, to young adults, you know, inappropriate pressure on them, you know, body image issues, too. So, we’re going to explore, you know, explore all of those things. And, does this push towards more masculinity do more harm than good? So, I’m really excited about that. And, the filming has gone really well already. So, I’m quite hopeful. I have a new book coming out. And, we are continuing to do some really interesting research with my amazing, amazing research team on a range of topics, including microbiome and gut health. We’re looking at bogus stem cell therapies. We’re looking at how algorithms twist and misrepresent health. So, lots of exciting empirical work on the go too.


Tamara Petresin  52:09

Yeah, that’s amazing to hear. But, there’s a lot of cool work that you’ve got coming down the pipeline. And, I can’t wait for it. I’m very excited for this documentary. I will definitely watch it when it comes out. That sounds fascinating. Thank you so, so much, Timothy.


Timothy Caulfield 52:20

Thanks for having me on you guys. I  really, really enjoyed the conversation.


Tamara Petresin 52:26

Yeah, this conversation about just, like, misinformation and science and everything has been so fun and insightful. So, to our listeners, don’t forget to follow Timothy on Instagram and Twitter / X at CaulfieldTim.


 Marciane Any 52: 34

And, we hope our listeners can try some of these useful tips that you’ve shared and that they enjoyed this episode. We’ll see you all next time.