Anthony Morgan looks at the camera in an engaging way.
Anthony Morgan has questions about how to talk about science in an age of disinformation and complexity. Photo by Wade Hudson


How to talk about science in an increasingly polarized world

Disinformation puts everyone at risk. How can we bust myths and empower people to think critically?

By Dan Falk

Anthony Morgan looks at the camera in an engaging way.
Anthony Morgan has questions about how to talk about science in an age of disinformation and complexity. Photo by Wade Hudson

On a spring afternoon in 2014, dozens of people gathered to watch as Anthony Morgan was blanketed neck-to-toe in garbage bags with the edges duct-taped to a glass window on a storefront on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto. With the tape ensuring an airtight seal, a vacuum cleaner was used to suck the air out of the bags, vacuum-sealing him to the window.  An assistant pulled away the step-stool that Morgan had been standing on; still, he stayed firmly in place.

“It was easily one of the best days of my life,” says Morgan, who has been enthusiastically bringing science to the public for the past 15 years. He’s currently completing his PhD in TMU’s Department of Chemistry and Biology. “I figured, if you go to a really busy intersection in downtown Toronto at five o’clock on a Friday and do something interesting enough, people will probably stop and look.”

doodle of a microscope.Morgan is now reaching an even larger audience as a part of the long-running CBC TV series The Nature of Things, sharing hosting duties with Sarika Cullis-Suzuki. Cullis-Suzuki, a marine biologist and science communicator, is one of long-time host David Suzuki’s five children. After hosting the show for 44 seasons, Suzuki announced his retirement last year.

In some ways, it was just luck–being in the right place at the right time,” Morgan says of landing the gig at The Nature of Things. On the other hand, he’s been doing science on TV for about a dozen years, working on shows that have aired on the CBC, TVO and the Discovery Channel (where he hosted a regular segment on Daily Planet). Through all of that, one question has kept him going: “How do you engage the public with science in ways that are unexpected and entertaining?”

In 2014, Morgan also founded Science Everywhere, a science-focused media and events company that was incubated in the TMU Science Discovery and Transmedia Zones. “We were doing pop-ups on the street, lots of weird science, designed to catch people’s attention and get them asking questions,” he says.

Hand lettering reads "How to talk about science"

Hand lettering by Hannah Browne.

Communication challenges

Morgan is keenly aware that science lies at the heart of many of the issues that affect our lives most deeply, from climate change to artificial intelligence to pandemics. Yet science communication has faced enormous challenges in recent years, especially with the rise of mis- and dis-information, the growth of online echo chambers and the tendency for just about every issue to get mired in divisive politics. The spread of misleading information puts everyone at risk. Without a shared notion of what’s true, a shared reality, democracies themselves are at risk.

doodle of a beaker and some textbooks.“And the timing couldn't be worse, because some of the challenges we're facing are existential,” says Morgan. “Climate change is the most obvious one. But there’s also developments with biotech and with artificial intelligence (AI) that are concerning.”

And with misinformation comes polarization–something Morgan explored in his PhD research which examines how polarization happens, especially in the context of controversial issues in science. Polarization is also something Morgan has witnessed over and over with the people that he meets. “More and more, if I know how you feel about climate change, I can predict how you feel about a bunch of other topics,” he says. “And you can pick any other range of controversial topics where that will be the case.”

Morgan’s research shows that polarization blocks cooperation as people get stuck in cycles of unproductive conversations. Better conversations can be nurtured by identifying shared values, practising curiosity and increasing the amount of informal contact.  That doesn’t mean everyone has to see eye-to-eye on everything–Morgan welcomes a diversity of viewpoints–but where science is concerned, he would love to see more consensus building.

I’m concerned about our inability to reach a shared understanding of what reality is,” says Morgan. “That makes it really challenging for us to move forward in a cooperative manner, as a species.”

Jessica Mudry wears a black jacket and cool glasses looking at the camera.

Talking about issues such as climate change in a responsible manner involves more than just journalists, says Jessica Mudry, professor and chair of the TMU School of Professional Communication. Photo by Wade Hudson.

The rise of mis- and dis-information are just one facet of a media landscape that’s been turned upside down by the Internet and, more recently, by the rise of social media.

“People don’t go to the library anymore; they go to Google,” says Jessica Mudry, professor and chair of the TMU School of Professional Communication. “We just assume that the first thing that Google spits out, at the top of the page, is somehow the most important or the most veritable piece of information out there. But that’s not necessarily the case.”

And then there’s the problem of bad actors intentionally disseminating fake news–which is compounded, says Mudry, by the fact that technology now makes it relatively easy for anyone to spread “news” that looks like the real thing. “Someone can present something in a scientific-sounding manner, with ‘data’ to back it up, and it might look just like a paper that’s been peer-reviewed in a scientific journal. If a bad actor can figure out how to present material in what looks like an objective way, then anything can look like a fact.”

doodle of a lightbulbOur news consumption habits have also been evolving. Today, about one in four Canadians gets their news primarily from social mediaand the information they find there is not necessarily reliable. In another survey, more than two-thirds of Canadians reported encountering COVID-19 misinformation on at least one of the social media channels that they use.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially challenging for those trying to ensure that ordinary people have access to accurate, authoritative scientific information, says Craig Silverman, a reporter for ProPublica and a visiting lecturer in the TMU School of Journalism, where he holds the title of verification expert in residence.

“There was a huge communication challenge inherent in something like COVID-19, which was a brand new virus that was deadly, fast moving and global,” says Silverman. “And so we have a volatile cocktail in that sense, when it comes to communicating about COVID with the public.”

Public health officials, for example, were anxious to get the best science out to the public–but the “best science” evolved over time (with masking protocols as a prime example), which sometimes left the public confused.

Social media and fake news

Rapid access to varied public opinions through social media added another layer of complexity.

“It’s become incredibly difficult for the average social media user to recognize what’s credible and what’s not,” says Anatoliy Gruzd, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Privacy Preserving Digital Technologies in TMU’s Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management. “You may assume that if a platform like YouTube is recommending a video about, say, how bad vaccines are, that it’s credible information.”

doodle of a pen and pencil.To compound matters, those who put fake news on the Internet know exactly what kinds of materials will hold our attention. On YouTube, for example, fake-news videos “tend to be very engaging,” says Gruzd. “They appeal to your emotions, and you spend more time looking at them – and so they get ranked higher in the recommendation algorithms.”

While our desire to consume news in short video clips might seem like bad news, there’s also an upside, says Gruzd. His research has shown that some of the most-watched pro-vaccine videos were actually snippets from popular U.S. late-night TV talk shows–old-school media that was being circulated in abridged form in a new format.

pullquote by Anatoliy Gruzd "It's difficult for the average social media user to recognize what's credible"

Hand lettering by Hannah Browne.

Still, the power of large companies like Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram), Google (which owns YouTube) and Twitter (now known as “X”) has left scientists and science communicators struggling to adapt. “This information environment is heavily dominated by some very large companies that run very big digital platforms with a profit motive,” says Silverman. A lot rests “on what those companies do or don’t do, how they build their systems, and what they choose to promote or to remove.” (Gruzd points to a study that showed how, in 2020, a single tweet was able to spiral into a full-blown conspiracy theory about COVID-19 on Twitter, based on supposedly empty hospitals.)

Still, there have been positive steps. Silverman points to the European Union’s Digital Services Act, which went into effect last year. The legislation holds tech giants accountable for the content they host. However, the major social media companies hold a lot of power, and there’s “a real battle over what to do about it,” says Silverman.

Navigating the information channels

Members of the public, meanwhile, might not be in a position to judge between competing scientific theories, or even to follow the details of a technical argument in a scientific paper. “We can’t expect the average person to read a research paper about climate change, or see the difference between two papers,” says Silverman. “That's not reasonable to expect. And so we have this challenge of how do we, as the media, and as experts in the scientific community, find ways to effectively communicate what can be very technical, evolving knowledge, and do it in a way that is not talking down to people; in a way that respects them.”

doodle of a beaker.Even so, there are things that can make science, and the media landscape it inhabits, easier to navigate. An easy starting point is to be more careful about what we consume and disseminate on social media. Education and media literacy training can play a role, Silverman says, but that may not be enough. “Recognizing and fighting against false and misleading information is important–but those things are a symptom of this new, different, rapidly changing and easily-manipulated information environment.

“The best route for equipping people to navigate this information environment is not to tell them, ‘here’s a list of good websites; here's a list of bad ones’–it’s to help them gain the skills to read and think critically,” says Silverman. “That’s not a new idea–but figuring out how to do it in the digital environment, where the signals of credibility can be very easily fabricated or manipulated, creates new challenges.”

Education for journalists, meanwhile, is particularly important. “We need to focus on educating journalists so they can produce good quality work, and be trusted guides for the public in this environment.”

Anthony Morgan looks at the camera, hands outstretched.

Anthony Morgan, PhD student and new co-host of The Nature of Things. Photo by Wade Hudson.

Morgan, meanwhile, is eager to start this new phase of his career with The Nature of Things, which will air beginning in January 2024. And while he recognizes the power of television, he also believes there’s no substitute for getting out into the real world and meeting people face to face. He appreciates that different people bring different experiences to how they navigate the world–and that’s okay.

doodle of an atom.“I think our primary concern should be how we think, rather than what we think,” he says. “We all have blind spots in our thinking that are, by definition, invisible to us. We don't know that they’re there. And the best way to find your blind spots is to talk to people who see things differently than you.”

For Morgan, science communication is about more than mere facts. It’s about actually getting to know people – to make connections, and, especially, to meet those outside one’s electronic “bubble.” While social media platforms like X and Facebook can be divisive, “most people are actually pretty reasonable, when you talk to them,” he says.

dan falk
After earning his BAA in journalism in '92, Dan Falk went on to write three popular science books and contribute more than a dozen Ideas documentaries to CBC Radio. He also co-hosts a podcast called BookLab, that reviews popular science books.

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