Caulfield has hope for critical thinking in the age of misinformation

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You need only read the titles of his books to know Timothy Caulfield is no stranger to calling out misinformation.

Caulfield is Canada’s Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health, as well as research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. He’s also an author of numerous books including two national bestsellers, and participated as the host and co-producer of the documentary TV show A User’s Guide to Cheating Death.

In January, Caulfield was a keynote speaker at FarmTech at Edmonton, Alta., where he sat down with RealAgriculture to discuss the rise of misinformation, in everything from goop to coronavirus.

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Gwyneth Paltrow and GOOP

American actor Gwyneth Paltrow launched Goop in 2008, as a weekly newsletter. It has seen incredible growth since then, now touted as a “wellness and lifestyle community.” But it’s not without controversy.

Besides seeing criticism over recommendations unaffordable to most, and claims that their products contain chemicals the site encourages people to avoid, Goop stirs up controversy in endorsing and in some cases selling products with claims not backed by science.

In 2015, Caulfield published a book partly inspired by Goop, entitled Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash

“I’ve been following it really since it started, and she’s accelerating — the nonsense, the pseudoscience is accelerating. And look, she’s just one part of a broader social phenomenon, and that’s why I think she’s interesting to follow, because this is the age of misinformation and Gwyneth is such a great example of that.”

When will this era of misinformation end?

On the “age of misinformation,”Caulfield says it’s a good news/bad news story.

“So the good news is…more and more people are taking this seriously. More and more people are recognizing the adverse impact that misinformation can have, whether you’re talking about infectious disease…the food that we eat, or the exercise we do.”

And while people may be recognizing this discussion  — social media, celebrity culture, and the spread of misinformation — matters, the reach of pop culture is incredible.

“The bad news is that it’s a really tough fight,” says Caulfield. “I think there should be a call to arms — all of us need to get involved.”

Plant-based meats

While the popularity of plant-based meats may change, Caulfield doesn’t believe we’re ever going to go back to people not considering plant-based alternatives.

“But, I also think that, hey this turned out to be way more complex than people anticipated,” he says, adding that claims around plant-based meat being healthier and better for the environment are among the complicated topics.

But, people will seek out what they believe is right, whether that’s a claim about the environment, or a company endorsing a certain movement or trend.

“Increasingly, people want products that align with their personal brand, and I think that that’s often what’s going on,” says Caulfield. “We know that from research — people make food decisions based on ‘does it reflect who they are’, and so I think that that is going to happen more and more.”

Coronavirus

In current events, the spread of information around coronavirus has shown itself particularly susceptible to misinformation. Caulfield says we’re seeing it in information about the severity, spread, and even treatment options (with people trying to make a profit).

“I think it’s a great idea to be very careful about the information that you access,” says Caulfield. “So go to World Health Organization, CDC in the U.S., Public Health Agency of Canada. Go to these trusted sources for the information, and try not to spread misinformation.”

Will science come back?

Caulfield is optimistic science-based facts will draw us back.

“I think the thing that people need to realize is that science — it’s not an institution, science is not a person, science isn’t an industry. Science is a process, and I think that we need that critical thinking skills, we need that science literacy to help us see the light.”

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