Caulfield brothers fight COVID-19 misinformation with art and science

Two brothers — both professors at the University of Alberta — are meeting at the intersection of art and science to tackle misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tim Caulfield, a professor of health law and science policy who is known for debunking pseudoscience, is working with his younger brother, Sean Caulfield, a printmaker and professor of art and design, to share a series of images and words about COVID-19.

Pandemic-related misinformation has been rampant in North America. The president of the large anti-vaccination organization Vaccine Choice Canada recently claimed COVID-19 was no more lethal than influenza. An American doctor’s video claiming the pandemic was caused by 5G technology went viral. Other false claims proliferate in the cures and remedies category, such as smoking nicotine to prevent getting the virus or gargling certain liquids once infected.

The deluge of misleading and dangerous advice is so strong the World Health Organization has called the phenomenon an “infodemic,” a term that appears in the Caulfield brothers’ project.

“We wanted to create creative communicative strategies,” Tim Caulfield said Thursday in an interview with CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active.

“What better way to do that than use fine arts?”

A unique art project that will hopefully make you stop and think before you share misinformation about COVID-19. It’s the brainchild of pseudo-science debunker Tim Caulfield and his printmaker brother Sean. 8:04

Sean Caulfield said the images in the series are influenced by his longtime interest in the history of anatomical illustration and speak to the body in an abstract way. 

They are designed to make people stop and think, he said.

A pair of lungs and a megaphone feature in this print by Edmonton artist Sean Caulfield. (Sean Caulfield)

“It may seem like this is some kind of esoteric, fringey way to approach misinformation but there’s empirical evidence that this kind of approach can work,” his brother added.

One of Tim Caulfield’s research collaborators, Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina, recently examined why American adults spread false news about the pandemic and tested a possible solution called “accuracy nudges.”

The results of his studies, published recently in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Psychological Science, show that simply reminding people to think about accuracy can improve the quality of what they share online.

“Hopefully we can use these kinds of strategies to battle the misinformation to ensure that the good stuff gets out there,” Tim Caulfield said.

The art is part of a larger federal government-funded research project called “Coronavirus Outbreak: Mapping and Countering Misinformation.”

Hashtags designed by graphic artist Sue Colberg are also included in the project. (Sean Caulfield)

The images will be shared on social media, in an online exhibition and in an exhibition at Binghamton University’s Elsie B. Rosefsky Memorial Art Gallery in New York in the spring of 2021.

The brothers have collaborated in the past on the topics of vaccination hesitancy, stem cells and genetics.

“I just feel very grateful that we can continue to collaborate in this way,” Sean Caulfield said.

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Johny Watshon

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