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Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries. Let’s Talk Science offers a number of fun activities to get youth engaged in STEM.

Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, CM, FRSC is the president and founder of Let’s Talk Science.

The phrase, straight from the horse’s mouth, gained popularity in the 1920s and refers to the practice of examining a horse’s mouth to determine its age and health. Direct access to this information helped the potential purchaser make an important and expensive decision. As we dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic, daily briefings from top public health officials offered the opportunity for everyone to hear directly from experts in real-time, with the goal of helping people make important decisions regarding their own health. However, despite access to excellent, informed sources, incorrect information about Covid-19 pervaded social media.

Over the past two years, the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ have entered our daily vocabulary thanks, in large part, to the rise of social media and the changing nature of how people consume news. Misinformation is the unintentional sharing of wrong information while disinformation is the intentional sharing of information intended to misguide. Both can have dire consequences.

Misinformation spreads very quickly when people innocently share incorrect information into their personal social network bubbles. In their annual trust barometer, the global communication firm, Edelman, has consistently found that we have a strong tendency to trust people who are close to us – in geography, philosophy, culture, or interest – regardless of their level of expertise related to the topic in question. Youth can be especially susceptible to popular culture influencers who make unsubstantiated claims well beyond their area of expertise. This position of trust is powerful and must be used carefully, especially in times of crisis, to halt widespread adoption of wrong information.

Halting the Spread

So, how do we build mis/disinformation detector capacity? Be media savvy and use critical thinking skills. Validate the source. Is the source a blogger or podcaster with neither training in the field nor a transparent validation process? Is it a person or organization with proven expertise in the field or a reputable media outlet with systematic fact checking processes? Does the article or video give supporting links to good source data (note that a single study with a handful of people who tried a product is NOT good source data)? Can you find corroborating evidence in other places? Do not share any post until you can confirm the information or you could be adding to the problem.

For the first time in history, we watched science happen in ‘real time’ as the coronavirus emerged in people, was isolated and its genome sequenced, and several highly effective vaccinations developed – all in about 12 months. As a trained scientist, I watched in awe as the global scientific and public health community collectively choreographed a stunning effort to save the world. As president of Let’s Talk Science, a national organization that connects the STEM community with Early Years to Grade 12 education, I watched with concern the public reaction that included suspicion, denial and rejection of the evidence. It validated my ongoing worry that too few people understand the nature and processes of science. Many people and organizations stepped up quickly to address the challenge through excellent communication campaigns. Public health officials gained celebrity-level recognition with daily media activities that attempted to debunk misinformation and bring clarity to the science as it evolved. Early vaccine uptake was strong but too many eligible people continue to refuse vaccination, often entrenched in believing incorrect information.

Communication Lessons

Covid-19 is not the only global, science-based issue we must tackle. As we face the climate crisis, what can we learn from information sharing during the pandemic? Access to reliable and verifiable information and sound recommendations is critical. The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers robust scientific evidence about the current state of the environment and important calls to action but it is a huge document and unlikely reading for most people, who will turn to others for insight and advice. It is critical for communicators to focus on giving accurate information in ways that are clear and understandable. Furthermore, as climate data and interpretations circulate, we must all strive to halt the spread of wrong information by seeking and sharing only verifiable sources that will aid good decision-making.

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

During the pandemic, Let’s Talk Science launched a series of virtual symposiums that connected high school students with experts to explore leading-edge scientific topics, including the science of Covid-19 and vaccine development. Starting October 5, 2021, we have another high school symposium series planned with the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Space Agency and Genome Canada. Sessions will address climate change, the moon mission, anti-microbial resistance, One Health (a concept that refers to the inter-connectedness between people, animals and the environment) and more. Everyone is welcome to join and engage with experts to learn about these fields and their impact on our lives. These sessions will offer students the opportunity to hear ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

In Our Hands

Modern science took root with Galileo in the late 1500s and the word ‘science’ now encompasses a broad array of processes developed by people to gather evidence about how the world works. This concept of systematically gathering evidence to guide decision-making was intended to move us away from acting on uninformed opinions. With the rise of social media and the ready ability to share any information through our phones, the path forward (or backwards) is literally in our hands.