People are divided: you are either pro-vaccination or against it, and there seems to be no middle ground. Whether around the dinner table or on social media, people are entrenched in their positions. A deep-seated mistrust in science, despite its contributions to the flourishing of human life, is being fuelled by online misinformation. For the first time in history, humanity is in the midst of a pandemic with communication tools of almost unlimited reach and potential benefit, yet social media and the information economy appear structured to promote polarization. Take the case of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast on Spotify: Rogan, a comedian, is able to engage millions of listeners and spread, unchecked, misinformation about COVID-19 “cures” and “treatments” that have no basis in evidence. What responsibility does Spotify have as the platform enabling Rogan to spread this misinformation, and is it possible for the scientific community to break through to skeptics?
In this episode of Big Tech, host Taylor Owen speaks with Timothy Caulfield, the author of bestselling books such as Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? and The Vaccination Picture. He is also the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Caulfield has been outspoken on Twitter about medical misinformation with the #ScienceUpFirst campaign.
What we have learned though the pandemic is how critical it is to have clear public health communication, and that it is remarkably difficult to share information with the public. As everyone rushed to provide medical advice, people were looking for absolutes. But in science, one needs to remain open to new discoveries, so, as the pandemic evolved, guidelines were updated. As Caulfield explains, “I think it’s also a recognition of how important it is to bring the public along on that sort of scientific ride, saying, Look, this is the best advice we can give right now based on the science available.” When health guidelines are presented in a dogmatic way, it becomes difficult to share new emerging research; misunderstood or outdated facts become weaponized by those trying to discredit the public health sector who point to what was previously known and attempt to muddy the discourse and sow doubt. And that doubt leads to mistrust in institutions, the rise of “alternative facts,” the sharing of untested therapeutics on popular podcasts — and a convoy of truckers camped out in the Canadian capital to protest COVID lockdown and vaccine mandates.