Panel 1: Conspiracies of Communication (in the Age of Disinformation)

9:00 - 10:30 am October 23, 2021

Moderator: Dr. Masood Zangeneh

Summary: This wide-ranging panel explores various conspiracies and misinformation movements in the fields of science, medicine and the environment, with a particular focus on social media. Topics explored include distrust of science, marginalization of views by commercial interests (such as pharmaceutical companies), and how poor messaging by even well-meaning scientists on social media can foster denialism. 

Shelley McCabe, M.Sc: .  

Bio: Professor of Science in the Department of Liberal Studies at Humber College. She is a biogeochemist whose intellectual interests include the cycling of elements through living and non-living parts of our ecosystems, and the role that physics plays in promoting biodiversity. Professor McCabe has been involved in biodiversity research projects in Algonquin Park, Peterborough, Muskoka, Hamilton, and the Experimental Lakes Area, as well as Resolute (Nunavut) and Lizard Island (Australia). Professor McCabe’s research publications appear in the journals Freshwater Biology, Environmental Entomology, Water Research, and Oikos.

Abstract: Truth and Relevance in Environmental Decision-making

What happens when The Lion King’s “Circle of life” and Stephen Colbert’s “Truthiness” are both accepted as philosophies in the same society? There appears to be a genuine desire to live a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly life. But what does that actually mean? You may have heard that we should be eating a plant-based diet; that cows are worse than fossil fuels; that cows use four times as much water per kg than do chickens; or that we can use fossil fuels if we offset our emissions by planting trees. While it is fairly straightforward to determine whether these statements are based on facts, it is much more difficult to determine whether these facts are ecologically relevant.

Furthermore, by its very nature, science can never prove anything, it can merely disprove. Many people, on the other hand, want to be sure that their actions are the most correct in a given situation, and feel betrayed when science disproves the evidence that they were relying on to inform their choices. Social media and other internet sources can now provide a constant newsfeed of “disprovings” to the general public, whereas in previous generations, it would primarily be expert scientists who had access to each shift in paradigm. This barrage of perceived betrayal may be a contributor to the rise in distrust of science and scientists.

When we combine this growing distrust with actors that have ulterior motives, but can provide simple, direct messaging, we have the recipe for campaigns that encourage lifestyle choices that may not be helpful, and might even harm the environment. The concept of biogeochemical cycles may be the most appropriate environmental framework to inoculate the public and policymakers from misinformation.

Alexander Shvarts, Ph.D

Bio: BA in Russian/Sociology with Honours in Sociology at the University of Western Ontario. MA and Ph.D. in Sociology at University of Toronto where he earned the Open Fellowship from 1999-2002. Shvarts has done extensive research on Russian Entrepreneurs, the Russian Mafia, and Russian Jews. He is a Professor at Humber College and teaches on Race and Ethnicity, Crime and Deviance, Social Entrepreneurship, and Sociology of Health. He has presented at both national and international academic conferences and published a book based on his dissertation, Russian Transnational Entrepreneurs: Ethnicity, Class and Capital. Shvarts has also published in Contemporary Justice Review, International Review of Modern Sociology, and Michigan Sociological Review as well as articles on Russian Jews in Diasporic Ruptures: Globality, Migrancy, and Expressions of Identity and Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism.

Abstract: Can We ‘Cure’ Cancer?

Pharmaceutical companies, governments, and health care institutions have formed and tried to reinforce the dominant narrative that “if we invest enough money in allopathic medicine that we will be able to eventually find the cure for cancer.” The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that this dominant narrative not only has major flaws, but also marginalizes alternative views which can actually help lead to the prevention and reduction of cancer rates all over the world. Although we know how to reduce the cancer incidence rate drastically, dominant narratives have inhibited our ability to achieve this goal. There is an alternative narrative about the ‘cure’ for cancer that is being marginalized, which claims that, “If environmental carcinogens cause more than 90% of the genetic mutations resulting in cancer, then we can cure cancer by eliminating the offending substances or at least drastically reduce their prevalence and our contact with them.” The structure of our society makes it difficult to win the war on cancer because many people lack the resources that would allow them to take preventative measures, and, moreover, the pharmaceutical and health industry and government resist change. Powerful commercial industry interests and governments benefit economically from a bias toward finding cures rather than taking preventive action.

Allison Durazzi, BA, AA

Bio: Allison Durazzi transitioned her career in marketing and policy to doctoral studies in rhetoric and professional communication at Iowa State University. She researches technical editing with a focus on conscious language and she teaches technical and business communication courses. Durazzi served on the board of numerous literary arts non-profits including UNECSO Seattle City of Literature and she co-directed the 2001 National Poetry Slam. She holds a BA from Antioch University Seattle and an Associate of Arts Degree from Seattle Central College. She is an alumna of the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts.

Abstract: From Unraveling to Empowering: Science Communication on Twitter in the Age of Disinformation

Allison Durazzi explores how scientific controversy about COVID-19 was manufactured (Ceccarelli, 2011) and how medical professionals responded on Twitter. Three U.S. doctors rose to national prominence specifically for their Twitter presence in the last year: Claire Rezba, an anesthesiologist who called attention to COVID-19’s toll on U.S. healthcare professionals; Cleavon Gilman, an emergency room physician who sounded the alarm over lack of available intensive care unit beds; and Craig Spencer, an emergency room physician and public health advocate who was a prominent critic of the U.S. national response to COVID-19. Durazzi’s analysis of these accounts builds on Mehlenbacher and Mehlenbacher’s (2020) claim that Twitter’s vernacular discourse is at odds with the scientific community’s professional discourse. Durazzi will discuss how this misalignment resulted in Tweets and replies that, while accurate and well-intended, were unsuccessful in persuading denialists. Durazzi’s findings are not entirely surprising, since as Brownell, Price, and Steinman (2013) note, “scientists are thoroughly trained . . . to communicate with other scientists,” but “usually receive no explicit training in communication of scientific concepts to a layperson audience” (p.6). Moreover, scientists often do not receive the training needed to communicate with public audiences across varying rhetorical situations. In terms of higher education, this lack of focus on science communication is problematic. After all, poor communication between scientists and the public has the potential to contribute to “widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientists and their research” (Brown et al., 2013 p. 6).