January 19th, 2021

Misinformation impacting agriculture, conference told


By Lethbridge Herald on December 2, 2020.

Author Timothy Caulfield is seen in a screen shot as he delivers his keynote address "Infodemics: Food, Fear and Agriculture" on day one of the virtual Farming Smarter 2020 Conference and Trade Show, Wednesday. Herald photo

Tim Kalinowski
Lethbridge Herald
tkalinowski@lethbridgeherald.com
Farming Smarter’s virtual 2020 Conference and Trade Show welcomed author Timothy Caulfield as its keynote speaker Wednesday morning to deliver a lecture entitled “Infodemics: Food, Fear and Agriculture.”
“I am going to speak to you about a topic I am very passionate about,” he told conference attendees, “and that is, of course, the impact of misinformation on all of our lives. But particularly on food and agriculture. I think this is becoming an increasingly hot topic.”
Caulfied drew parallels between some of the misinformation being spread about agriculture to that which is being spread around masking during the COVID-19 pandemic — thus the title of his lecture “Infodemics.”
“We do live in interesting times where fear, and stress, and misinformation is having an incredible impact on so many aspects of our professional lives, but also as individuals,” Caulfied explained. “I want to empower everyone involved in this event to become part of the solution to get out there and fight the spread of misinformation, and fight fear.
“People think the world is getting horrible, and who can blame them, right? They are constantly told that red meat is killing them, that GMOs are killing them. They are told their cellphone is killing them. They are told fluoride is causing cancer, and there are even fruits and vegetables you are not supposed to eat. Who can blame people for being freaked out?”
“But the reality is very different,” he added. “If you look at the measurable facts, in almost every measurable way, this is the best time ever to be alive. Yes, I know there are huge challenges that we have in front of us, including the climate, including things like equity and diversity; there are big issues there. But, in general, the world is not a dystopian, post-apocalyptic wasteland.”
Caulfield said in spite of many of these fears being without basis or evidence there are still many who believe them. It’s all about perception rather than reality, he stated.
“COVID has just made this worse,” he confirmed. “In the context of agriculture this kind of fear, this kind of worry, has had a huge impact on a whole bunch of different dimensions.”
Caulfield went on to call out unscientifically supported buzzword diets like “gluten free” or “all natural” and other trends in food consumption driven by celebrity endorsers and social media influencers which have no basis in proven medical or scientific fact.
“We hope we can drive this ship toward science,” he said. “We want our decisions and our policies based as much as possible on science and evidence. At a minimum, we want to make sure the science is right, and that we debunk messages that aren’t rooted in good science, that twist the science, and misrepresent the science.”
Caulfied acknowledged fighting the persistent flood of misinformation out there can be a disheartening challenge at times, and it is important to note you are not going to change everyone’s mind; particularly those most dedicated to spreading the misinformation in the first place. That being said, he still felt it was important to challenge those misinformation spreaders, any way in whatever public platform may be applicable, by relaying good information. This is not for those individuals’ sake, Caulfield explained, but for those out there in broader society who are uncertain one way or the other.
Caulfield said it was also important to keep three principles in mind when countering misinformation. First, correlation does not equal causation. Just because Tom Brady, for example, Caulfield said, is successful, and he has recently endorsed a particular diet or exercise regime, does not mean his career success has been caused by that diet or exercise regime. Brady does not have scientific evidence to back up his assertions, said Caulfield, just his own story or opinion, like any other guy on the street — regardless of the fact he is a celebrity.
Second, statistics are often misleading, Caulfield said, because they are based on relative rather than absolute data. He gave the example of a fictional new pill which is said to reduce a person’s chance of heart attack by 50 per cent. That might sound great, he said, but what that might really mean is it has the potential to reduce the risk of heart attack from two cases in 100 to one case in 100: To say 50 per cent makes it seem like a miracle pill when it only represents, in reality, a marginal statistical improvement to the underlying odds.
And third, it is important to present objective, scientifically proven facts to debunk misinformation, quack or pseudo science, and other conspiracy theories of all sorts, Caulfield stated, without being sucked into negative or personal confrontation with the misinformer — again remembering your target audience is not them. He encouraged Farming Smarter conference attendees to become part of the “debunking army.”
“Too often we shy away from countering it,” he said, “whether we see it on social media, or whether we see it in the news, or even among friends and family. I think it really is becoming increasingly important to debunk misinformation, and debunking really does work.”
Farming Smarter will wrap up its two-day virtual conference and trade show today.
Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter

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