People have always lied. The ability to distinguish fact from fiction empowers citizens to make the right choices and promotes health and safety. For centuries, falsehoods and propaganda have been used for political power or economic gain. Today, some people believe that fake news threatens democracy. Others claim a recent surge in public distrust in science has contributed to increased mortality during the pandemic.
At the same time, parents, teachers, professors and school administrators are concerned about the amount of time young people spend on social media. In a complex digital world, young adults everywhere have to make informed decisions about health, social and environmental issues. They must be able to distinguish fact from fiction and be aware of antiscience influencers. Ensuring the next generation has a positive view of science is vital to their future. For this reason, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) surveyed 1,500 18- to 24-year-olds from every province across Canada to better understand where Canada’s young adults get their scientific information and how they feel about science. The survey also probed their opinions on COVID-19 vaccines, climate change and sustainability—issues that affect the futures of young people everywhere.
The results of our survey, which focused on a single age group and nation, tell us that most young Canadians trust science because it is based on fact instead of opinion. They also think science is a good career path for people in their age group to pursue. However, the survey results also reveal that 84 percent of youths are not sure that they can distinguish true from false content on social media. Some 40 percent of survey respondents use social media for four or more hours per day, and 73 percent follow at least one social media influencer who has expressed antiscience views. To illustrate the effect, in 2022 there were about 3.9 people from the ages of 18 to 24 in Canada. If these results were extrapolated to the entire population of the country, it would mean that almost three million young people are following an influencer with antiscience views.
As the CEO of an organization that supports innovation in Canada, I am reassured by the fact that the majority of youth in Canada support science, but I am concerned about their ability to detect dis- and misinformation. My concern grows as we know that social media are “used extensively by youth around the world,” exposing them to mis- and disinformation on a daily basis. This is not only a Canadian problem but one of international magnitude. While I am surprised at the amount of time youth are spending on social media, this information offers us important insight into the ways in which we might reach out and help youths promote science and where we need to reach them.
A recent study by the Council of Canadian Academies reinforces these results and reflects an international trend: misinformation can erode trust, distort public policy and increase social divisions, resulting in conflict and violence around the world. Similar studies that look at the gullibility of young Europeans with regard to fake science news, the reasons behind antiscience views in various countries, the perceptions from 142 countries of the risks associated with being exposed to fake news and how and why Americans become (and remain) misinformed about science—among many others—highlight various aspects of this global phenomenon.
After publishing the survey report, the CFI held an open online national roundtable to delve at some depth into the results. Participants came up with two promising avenues for progress.
The first approach is to take science outside the lab. For example, to help demystify some of the information swirling around about vaccines during the pandemic, the United Nations looked for a way to reach out to young people on TikTok. Recognized as an excellent communicator from her student days and through public outreach and her highly successful participation on AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) for Reddit, Anna Blakney, a University of British Columbia biomedical engineer, was asked to join the U.N.’s initiative. Gaining more than 265,000 followers, Blakney posted hundreds of videos with a lighthearted touch on topics mostly related to the pandemic and vaccines. As a participant in the roundtable, Blakney highlighted the role researchers can play if they are willing to get out of their comfort zones to transmit information that helps young people understand how science works.
Second, everyone in our roundtable agreed that education is crucial for enabling the next generation to learn how to discern false statements—starting from the first days in elementary school. Instead of receiving science through set experiments with known outcomes, students should learn to apply deductive and inductive reasoning to weigh information before blindly accepting results. Educators must introduce students to a variety of credible perspectives and diverging points of view and encourage discussion of them. One participant, Timothy Caulfield, a professor in the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, emphasized how teaching critical thinking provides children with “neutral thinking skills that can be deployed throughout a lifetime”—an idea he backs up with international research.
Around the world, students’ math skills (as reported by the OECD) stand to be improved. In Canada, math skills are relatively high compared to other countries, but many of the young adults we surveyed who were not in STEM studies said they lacked confidence in their math skills, their ability to understand science and their ability to make decisions on science-related issues. We must therefore double down on providing students not only with the skills that are necessary to pursue careers in science but with the self-confidence they need.
There are other factors to consider as well, such as the role of peers and cultural differences. In our survey, young adults indicated that they were strongly influenced by family and friends. In this context, access to publicly funded education is critical to ensure that as many people as possible have access to STEM studies so they can gain understanding of basic science concepts.
All of us, youth included, can recognize truth by carefully weighing information using logic and rational thought. We can discern truth by asking questions. Books like Cindy Otis’s True or False are filled with illustrations, examples and exercises. However, with young adults spending so much time on social media, it behooves us to view this as an opportunity to reach out to those who may not read entire volumes on the subject. Looking at the reviews youth have given Blakney, we know this is an avenue to develop along with the excellent blogs and podcasts that are widely available today.
At the CFI we shared the results of our survey and roundtable through the media and others in the research community who are all grappling with these issues. We learned a tremendous amount from our survey and roundtable—information that is helping us more effectively reach out to the next generation on their ground, and, with their participation, develop activities that engage them actively in conversations about the value of science in their daily lives, and for their future. We are a single, small organization, but hope that through communication, we will inspire others to join us in contributing to solutions to this global issue.
Now is the time for solutions and action. The scientific community needs to engage with all sectors of society in a thoughtful, energetic campaign in support of educators, researchers and communicators so that the ability to discern the truth becomes part of our children’s DNA. The future belongs to the next generation, but the responsibility for ensuring their success lies with us all.
Roseann O'Reilly Runte is president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, an organization that invests in the research infrastructure needs of researchers at postsecondary institutions across Canada. Runte has previously served as president and vice chancellor at Carleton University, president of l'Université Sainte-Anne, principal of Glendon College, president of Victoria University and president of Old Dominion University.
Reproduced with permission. Copyright © 2023 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, a Division of Springer Nature America, Inc. All rights reserved.