Misinformation Matters

A good friend of ours, originally from Canada, left his faculty position in Indianapolis and moved to Ottawa to assume a position as President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, or CCA.

Knowing my preoccupation with media and misinformation, he has shared some intriguing research from an expert panel appointed by the CCA. That research delved into the effects of misinformation on science and health, going beyond the typical hand-wringing over the extent of misinformation and its potential harms, and looking instead at the nature and extent of quantifiable damage done by widespread dissemination of patently wrong information.

As a news release explained

Considerable and mounting evidence shows that misinformation has led to illness and death from unsafe interventions and products, vaccine preventable diseases, and a lack of adherence to public health measures, with the most vulnerable populations bearing the greatest burden. The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation estimates that misinformation cost the Canadian healthcare system at least $300 million during nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

While combatting misinformation is a complex and long-term challenge, the report details several measures that have shown promise. Ensuring that accurate health and science information is widely accessible and is communicated honestly, understandably, and by trusted messengers can help insulate people from misinformation. Identifying, labelling, and debunking misinformation can also be effective, as are measures that better equip individuals to sort through the increasingly complex information environment, particularly the promotion of critical thinking and media and science literacy in school curricula.

You can access the entire report here.Some of the findings struck me as particularly significant, especially the description of when, why and how people come to accept what the panel calls “misinformation” and I would probably label conspiracy theories and lies.

Misinformation is designed to appeal to emotion and–as the report notes–intended to exploit our “cognitive shortcuts.” We are all susceptible to it, especially in times of crisis.

Science and health misinformation damages our community well-being through otherwise preventable illnesses, deaths, and economic losses, and our social well-being through polarization and the erosion of public trust. These harms often fall most heavily on the most vulnerable.

The research found a number of outcomes directly attributable to the spread and acceptance of misinformation; they included: Illness, poisoning, and death from unsafe health interventions and products; Illness and death from communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases; money wasted on disproven products and services; susceptibility to further and potentially more insidious forms of misinformation; increased healthcare and societal costs; and Inaction on or delay of public policy responses.

Misinformation contributes to a lack of adherence to public health measures and to vaccine hesitancy, which can result in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, increased healthcare costs, and elevated risk to the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. Misinformation also amplifies social divisions, which have resulted in overt conflict and violence, often directed at racialized communities. Furthermore, the consequences of science and health misinformation are not borne equally — for instance, negative health impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic have been found to disproportionately affect the well-being of racialized and other underserved communities, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Where possible, panel members put numbers to these generalized descriptions, estimating that widely circulated misinformation about COVID-19 had cost the Canadian healthcare system “at least $300 million in hospital and ICU visits between March 1 and November 30, 2021.” That number did not include the costs of outpatient medication, physician compensation, or long COVID.

And for obvious reasons, the panel was unable to estimate what it called “broader societal costs.” Those included such difficult-to-quantify effects as “delayed elective surgeries, social unrest, moral injury to healthcare workers, and the uneven distribution of harms borne by communities.”

The negative consequences of misinformation are–obviously–not confined to citizens of Canada. In the absence of credible, trustworthy information that is widely trusted and accepted, it proliferates. In the U.S., political data confirms the harm: the MAGA folks who rejected vaccination (evidently believing it to be some sort of nefarious liberal plot) died of COVID in far larger numbers than the independents and Democrats who trusted the science.

The question is: what can be done to counter the confusion and reduce the damage sowed by purveyors of propaganda and inaccurate information? One answer is clearly education, especially science education.  (That conclusion supports concerns over the metastasizing  voucher programs that are sending students to private, predominantly religious schools–many of which have been found to teach creationism in lieu of science).

When citizens don’t inhabit the same evidence-based reality, both individual and social health are compromised–sometimes fatally.


  1. If you are interested in the history of misinformation and the rise of the MAGA movement I would recommend reading the book “Mindf*ck” by Christopher Wylie. It tells the story of Cambridge Analytica and the manipulation of data and meta-data, and how Steve Bannon recognized its power and subsequently weaponized it, which brought forth the orange one and his movement. It is helpful to look to origins as a way to begin understanding.
    And, there was an article in the NYT recently about how school systems in one of the Scandinavian countries is teaching school children from K-12 grades how to distinguish misinformation on social media. I hope that someday America will follow suit.
    I appreciate your post today and how you included some remedy to the problem, even if it is not likely to come any time soon.

  2. From personal experience and observation I note that the anti-vaccine folk I’ve known all have the same strong personality trait. They are all “in your face / anti-establishment / look at me” outliers. Their anti-vaccine stand was only one of many defiant stands against any and all conformity. It was never about the “truth”; it was about being “against” and getting a lot of attention doing so.

  3. Wish I could edit my post above; I meant to say :school systems ‘are’ teaching”, not ‘is’. Sorry for the error.

  4. The nonprofit Media Literacy Now has been working hard to get media literacy classes in K-12 schools around the country for the past few years. They have been working with volunteers in states to help them convince legislatures to mandate media literacy in schools.

    If interested in knowing more about their platform and successes, you can check out their website here: http://www.medialiteracynow.org

  5. Theresa. Those in fire-breathing, in-your-face types are simply bullies just like on the playground. The best cure is still a punch in the nose, not so much literally as figuratively.

  6. Disinformation has a long history, beginning and continuing with Russia as the source of disinformation and tactics for dissemination. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disinformation

    Another article pointing directly at Russia: https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE198.html

    Anyone who thinks we’re not at war with Russia world-wide, not just in Ukraine, is deceiving themselves. Russia is at war with us and even admits to it on Russian propaganda television.

    Unfortunately for us and our 1st Amendment, way too many of our citizens gullibly swallow what appeals to their personal agenda. In a very real sense, aiding and abetting our enemy.

    These people need to be ‘punched’ in their noses at every opportunity.

  7. The solution to the spread of misinformation may involve science education, but not as science is taught today, which consists of facts learned in different kinds of studies. Factual information does not penetrate the barriers constructed by misinformation – which proliferates because it involves things people want to hear, so data alone will not convince many people to reject the bulk of what spreads around the internet. The only solution is to change the way science is taught in the secondary school systems and in college. Students have to learn about how data are collected and analyzed. They have to understand the significance of a particular experiment. Then, perhaps, they will recognize the importance of data.

    Today I posted something on Facebook about a debate between Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson about vaccinations (prior to the 2016 election). Dr. Carson discussed the fact that the data show that vaccinations protect against several important diseases. Trump just referred to the anguish when parents learn that their children have developed autism (implying a cause and effect relationship, which many parents will accept). In a sense, Trump “won” the debate.

    People are not conditions to accept the results of the best-conducted experiments, so it will take, perhaps, a generation of attempts to change that before any substantial changes can occur.

  8. “The negative consequences of misinformation are–obviously–not confined to citizens of Canada. In the absence of credible, trustworthy information that is widely trusted and accepted, it proliferates.”

    This did not begin with the vaccine/autism misinformation and hasn’t ended with the vaccine/Covid misinformation. The LACK of information needs to be addressed before we can claim misinformation on illnesses or treatment. I read an article on a well known medical web site referring to the fact that doctors have virtually stopped prescribing penicillin and it’s many “cillin” forms to treat infections and replaced them with expensive mixtures of drugs. Full testing is required to establish the need for the additives but penicillin still works as it did when it began being prescribed years ago. Full information used by doctors to prescribe medications often miss the contraindications for their use and side effects; full information of patient and the drugs is necessary. I have had to throw out a number of expensive prescriptions which contained drugs which caused additional health problems due to side effects and at time worsening the original problem which one of the “cillins” cured once it was prescribed. Only using the prescribed drugs and researching worsening problems provided the information after the fact. Big Pharma is directly connected to the health care system and at times rewarding physicians for prescribing their newer, more costly creations or drastically increased the cost of tried-and-true treatments. Insulin and epiPens and penicillin drugs are prime examples of qualified treatments; replacements with added drugs are often a problem.

    Remember the thalidemide (sp?) babies? Women ordered that “sleeping pill” from abroad; learning too late the truth of fetal defects. Here we have Terbutaline which was approved to treat asthma and other breathing conditions in humans and dogs but used to prevent early labor in pregnant women; too late they learned prescribing it to prevent early labor in pregnant women was the source of heart problems in the mothers and later the fetus. Even later they discovered the direct effects on the fetus causing birth defects in forms of autism, autonomic dysfunction and dysregulation as well as developmental neurotoxicity. One of my grandsons, age 22, is a victim of this combination of lack of information and misinformation resulting in a combination of problems. Covid vaccines and childhood disease vaccines caused him no additional problems. Is Terbutaline still prescribed to pregnant women to prevent early labor?

    “When citizens don’t inhabit the same evidence-based reality, both individual and social health are compromised–sometimes fatally.”

  9. James and Nancy, I have no doubt that incorporating education in media literacy and how to identify misinformation would be strongly opposed by legislators in deep red states like Indiana, who likely would claim those to be too woke, and thus “indoctrination”. After all, it’s tough to push loads of BS when your targets are able to spot it for what it is.

  10. Reality has a way of catching up to the misinformed. Case in point, here in Indiana the reality of what is happening to our rich farm lands as development has paved over much of the most productive soils in the state has Republican politicians in a state of alarm. Re. Kendell Culp has a bill pending, House Bill 1557, that will inventory the developed acreage that we no longer have for food production. It’s a start…even if it is too late to save much of Boone County.
    Just as it is too late to save the thousands of people who died from Covid because they refused to get vaccinated, it is too late to undo so much of our so called progress … but not all. First step is understanding the extent of the damage. House bill 1557 will start that information gathering.

  11. From Sheila, “…Democrats who trusted the science.”

    Remember, the most significant swaths of Democrats in this country are black/brown people, and many do not trust science for apparent reasons (history lessons galore).

    As a journalist/publisher, “misinformation/disinformation” is what I call propaganda. Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) came over from Austria and used his uncle’s new science on the mind to create particular propaganda. His first major client was Big Tobacco.

    One of his last projects was developing a program for the US government called the Central Intelligence Agency.

    Our oligarchy and the government have used propaganda against its people since day one. They’ve only perfected the art/science.

    Mainstream Media owned by the oligarchy censors those who push or advocate for the truth. The government’s intelligentsia does the same.

    Poor Terry above has fallen for the worst of propaganda – “Russia did it!” If you look at Wikipedia more closely, it has become a significant source of propaganda. Sensitive subjects are altered by folks in and around Langley, VA. The FBI is a well-trained source of propaganda. However, they call it “overseeing social media.” Really??


  12. IMHO – two keys here: 1. “trusted sources” – check out what institutions the populace “trusts” and 2. teaching critical thinking – for both, today and growing, none and none.

  13. Misinformation sounds so benign. It’s like a forgivable error, but most of this is NOT forgivable. Let’s stop with euphemisms and just start calling out the lies and damned lies.

  14. James Todd. The country you refer to is Finland. It could serve as a model for improving education in the U.S. Higher level thinking skills, including how to identify propaganda, can be built into all parts of the curriculum, including but not limited to, science. Parents with these skills usually teach them to their children. Since most schools don’t teach them very well, we wind up with two classes of citizens, those who think at a high level and those who don’t.
    I’d like to emphasize that the dividing line between these classes crosses other categories such as race, income, and even level of education. This explains how there can be rich, college educated white folks who seem to be total idiots.

  15. James Todd, I am glad you mentioned Steve Bannon. A story about Brexit, calling it the best example of self harm in recent history, came about because of Boris Johnson’s commutations director was a ardent student of Steve Bannon. He was able to use misinformation to weaponize all of the communication about Brexit to the point that any truth was drowned out and lost in the noise. I would call this censorship by obfuscation, but the end result is the same. People act against their own self interests because somebody is pushing a false or harmful political agenda.

  16. Many people have commented today, that misinformation is too tame a label. Just calling it lies is too easy to dismiss because most good lies have some, albeit, twisted truth at their kernel and people are quick to dismiss that label.

    Censorship through obfuscation is little stronger.

  17. What Sharon wrote. The successful teaching of critical thinking skills can root out the effects of misinformation (aka propaganda) and thus leave one’s mind open to alternative solutions to the ones proposed by those who purposely misinform for effect. Thus armed with such thinking skills, one can resist the Goebbels plan that creates a stampede effect among the gullible, a plan we see at work by the captors of the Republican Party today.

  18. It is nice to see that Canada, at least, has a group that is, if I read it rightly,
    dedicated to the issue of misinformation, and its consequences. In our clearly
    “exceptional” country this would not happen until, at least, Florida freezes over;
    not some little frost, but serious freeze, like that melting one on Greenland!
    Why is Bannon not yet in prison??????????
    A very quick, minimal search about CA, found this:
    Founders: Alexander Nix, Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer, Alexander Oakes, Nigel Oakes.
    So, with Bannon and Mercer in that mix, (I know nothing about the other fellows)why would
    anyone, with half a brain, have given the company the slightest credit for the plausibility of its
    Well, of course, my bias is evident…but, who stood to gain?

  19. Mitch asks, “…but, who stood to gain?”

    That’s why I keep recommending that we all stop focusing on the clown show out front, on the TV, and on every topic, and ask, “who stands to gain from this?”

    Sometimes it’s apparent, but most of the time it requires a lot of digging due to lies and propaganda used by the dark networks moving behind the scenes.

  20. True, Todd; but it has become easier to figure and harder to cover up just who stands to profit from the clown show circus since Trump gave them permission to publicly state their racism, greed etc. Indeed it has become quite fashionable to be at ease in publicly stating such positions – gives one a seat at the maga table charged with creating delusionary issues based on alternative facts in need of solution as a cover for power grabs.

  21. Pascal is right. We don’t teach science to engage and we don’t teach science to teach “crap detection”, although a “science for non-majors” course would benefit from both.

    I have to second Peggy’s call. Enough euphemisms. It isn’t “misinformation”, which sounds like a minor mistake. It is outright lying!

    Dan, I have to stick with lies. “Censorship through obfuscation” reminds me of that old tongue-in-cheek phrase, “eschew obfuscation”. It sort of obfuscates the message. Keep it simple.

    Pascal’s comment about Trump and Dr. Carson reminds me of a clip about autism that I saw on the Internet (Sorry, I don’t know what I did with the link) the podcaster looked that the original autism/vaccination link paper (since retracted, I believe). In short, four parents said that their child began to act strange shortly after receiving a vaccination (simply a non-scientific “observation”). From that, the author divined a connection between vaccinations and autism, as well as with a previously unknown gastrointestinal issue. That meant that the British government had to fund two studies (the conclusion of the first study was unacceptable to the anti-vaxxers), and today too many people still believe it.

    Lester points to a significant caveat – “trusted sources”. How do you help those who only trust Fox? That, I think is the crux of our problem.

  22. Steve Bannon, master of language, had a much more pithy
    description of misinformation by obfuscation:
    “Flooding the zone with shit.”

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