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.