An Alberta Professor's Job Is To Debunk COVID-19 Myths & He's Heard Some Wild Ones
Rumours are contagious, too.
There is no denying that the pandemic has changed up the news cycle in recent weeks. Due to the continuous stream of information, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds and not know what to believe. That's why an Alberta professor has made it his mission to tackle COVID-19 myths and get people to consume and share information responsibly.
Narcity spoke to University of Alberta professor Tim Caulfield, who is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy.
The professor, who's also the host of docuseries A User's Guide to Cheating Death, is a bit of a specialist in busting pseudoscientific myths and medical nonsense.
Being the Research Director of U of A's Health Law Institute, he's been researching false claims and unproven theories in the health industry for nearly 25 years now.
Caulfield received a grant of nearly $400,000 from Alberta Innovates and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to tackle the state of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the purpose of his research isn't simply a long-term, scholarly project. He's collecting data that will inform him on how best he and his team can respond.
As you may expect, there is a lot of false information floating around during the pandemic. In fact, the amount of misinformation that normally surrounds sectors of health and medicine has spiked in the past month or so.
"There's just so much uncertainty and when there is a gap in knowledge or understanding, it's often filled with things like conspiracy theories and misinformation," he said.
He said that there are a number of individuals exploiting the fear around the disease for their own gain. A lot of people use the global health crisis to market their own ideologies and business ventures through fear-mongering and myths.
He also cited thatplays a huge part in perpetuating the misinformation. "You have people who are uncertain, who feel like they want to do something, and they're spreading misinformation."
So naturally, Caulfield knows how to navigate fake news during these ever-changing times. When asked what sort of bizarre theories and myths he has come across recently, he chuckled and said, "Oh my gosh! There's just so many."
The most recent one he cited was the "5G myth." For those who want a quick rundown, a bunch of different groups across the world believe that 5G radio signals, the very technology that gives you high-speed internet on your smartphone, may be responsible for spreading COVID-19.
The myth has well and truly been debunked by many scientific organizations but that hasn't stopped individuals in some parts of the world from vandalizing their local mobile towers, as stated by the Guardian.
Caulfield said that it's not even a new theory. He explained that 5G theories have been around for a while now but only recently have they morphed it into a "coronavirus story."
Another myth that Caulfield's come across recently has to do with the idea of boosting one's immune system.
"You can't boost your immune system. The whole concept is wrong," he said.
"In Canada, there have been a lot of chiropractors that have been pushing the idea that chiropractic adjustments will boost your immune system and protect you against the coronavirus," said Caulfield.
He also shared that naturopaths in Alberta have gotten in trouble for marketing supplements to allegedly boost the immune system to fight the disease.
So it's fairly safe to say that a number of alternative practitioners have been going around and pushing their own products and therapies, and this, in turn, affects the public, who often fall prey to these.
So when there is such a massive and unending overload of information about the disease, it's certainly not easy figuring out who we can trust.
"First of all, set your skeptic meter extremely high. Be very suspicious," he told us.
He also explained that we should be looking to trusted sources to get our fill of information. The World Health Organization, the Centre of Disease Control, The Canadian Public Health Agency, and the regional public health authorities were some of the organizations that Caulfield identified as "trusted sources."
More importantly, as consumers of information, we need to pause and think before going for the "share" or "retweet" button.
While there is a lot of absurdity out there in terms of misinformation, Caulfield said that people shouldn't be frustrated when their leaders seemingly "change their minds."
For example, multiple health authorities have changed their, but that doesn't mean we can't trust them.
In fact, we should want our science-based health authorities to change their stances when new evidence is brought to their attention.
As an academic, Caulfield knows that there is quite a bit of work to be done in combatting misinformation.
"This is a now problem. We want to get out advice as quickly as we can," he told us.
Caulfield and his team are also working with other entities in the industry, such as Media Matters, an NGO that are also dealing with monitoring and correcting false information in the media.
So here is hoping there is an end in sight for the dump of misinformation that follows COVID-19 news coverage.