As Canada navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, science literacy has become more important than ever. This was one motivating factor behind the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Youth Science Survey, which was conducted last fall in partnership with Acfas (an association that represents francophone researchers). The survey examined the attitudes of 18- to 24-year-olds toward science, as well as the conditions and people who shape them.
Overall, the survey findings indicate that most Canadian youth use scientific information to guide their actions. For example, the majority of those surveyed believe that COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Canada are safe (68 per cent); single-use plastics should be banned (63 per cent); curbing fossil fuels will reduce the impacts of climate change (55 per cent); and that Canadian politicians and governments should rely on science in making policy decisions (57 per cent).
That last finding struck Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president and chief executive officer of CFI, as particularly telling. “This illustrates a level of sophistication in their thinking, and reflects their aspirations for society,” said Dr. Runte. “They don’t see [science] as just for them and their careers, but they see it as an important national issue.”
However, it wasn’t all good news. The research separated Canadian youth into five cohorts, representing a spectrum of attitudes from pro-science to science hesitant. When split this way, the survey found that 25 per cent “may ignore science.” This group was least likely to distinguish real news from fake news, and most likely to follow someone on social media who has anti-science views.
“We can’t marginalize the 25 per cent who do not greatly pay attention to science,” said Dr. Runte. “This is actually a challenge for us to reach out […] and figure out how to best equip them so that they’re able to make better decisions based on scientific information.”
Anti-science views on social media
In line with many demographic groups across Canada, young people are relying on social media over more traditional news sources like newspapers and cable television. And, among those surveyed, 73 per cent report following at least one social media influencer who has expressed anti-science views.
“That absolutely does not surprise me,” said Liam Mullins, a fifth-year science student and president of the microbiology student association at the University of Guelph. “I think the information that they’re sharing, I might understand it to be misinformation and others might as well, but the individuals sharing it themselves do genuinely believe that it is accurate.”
Mr. Mullins describes seeing a proliferation of misinformation on some of his social media channels since the start of the pandemic, mirroring an overall rise in inaccurate, false or misleading information about COVID-19 during the last two years in Canada. Anatoliy Gruzd, Canada Research Chair in privacy preserving digital technologies and co-director of the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University, confirmed that the pandemic has exaggerated trends towards misinformation.
“We are living in a period of uncertainty where scientific knowledge can change a lot as we learn about the virus, and information and instructions from our public health officials have also been changing frequently,” said Dr. Gruzd, adding that this feeds into conspiracy theories and undermines trust in the scientific method. Going forward, he said, training at various levels should help students understand that science is not “one directional” and that as scientists learn more, things will change.
Is the medium the message?
While the CFI survey makes clear that there is a multiplicity of influences that could encourage anti-science views in youth – especially their peer group, family beliefs and religion – its authors emphasize that the complex information landscape online poses considerable challenges to science communicators and educators. Dr. Runte urged educators to be flexible and open to new mediums of communication.
“We have to continue trying to reach youth in ways that will be meaningful to them, and in the media that they access,” said Dr. Runte, who pointed to the TikTok account of Anna Blakney, a professor of bioengineering who gained over 250,000 followers by creating videos about vaccine science. “We must be versatile and open ourselves to new ways of communication.”
@anna.blakney There’s also salts and sugar but those are two main ones 😁 #mrnavaccines #sciencetok #umyeah #teamhalo ♬ original sound – kennn 💝
A multi-stakeholder problem
While educators are uniquely positioned to deliver scientific information to students, improving science literacy among youth – and the general population – will require action from several stakeholders. Dr. Gruzd encourages universities to double down on efforts in information literacy, social media consumption and building critical-thinking skills in youth. Still, he admits “there is only so much we can do.”
Read also: How producing videos on TikTok is impacting teaching
Dr. Runte said Canadian youth can be a key part of the solution. “In communicating with young people, [they] are our biggest allies – and we have the majority who believe in science,” she said. “Why don’t we help them have more discoveries and the ability to share it? And they’ll teach us.”
Sorry, the following result is NOT good news, nor does it indicate any level of sophistication in thinking about science: “Canadian politicians and governments should rely on science in making policy decisions (57 per cent).” It should be closer to 100%.
Is this then evidence that perhaps metaphorically that ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ doesn’t apply? The messenger here being social media.
Anecdotally I have had occasions when in science classes I teach when I discussed topics such as climate change or evolution a student challenged what I, and their textbook or peer reviewed science says, based on something the student has read on social media. They are often very motivated and vocal and adamant their information source is correct.
Further anecdotal evidence of the damage being done by social media, as a casual user of a popular video social media app I have found that the more I view videos that support climate change science, or videos on the fossil record, the more likely I am to be recommended videos on climate change denial, flat earth, or creation ‘science’. A claim the same social media asserts is false.
Yes, its the algorithms. But as my computer science learned colleagues say, good computer code can fix those algorithms.
A follow up on my earlier post, but Nature just published today (Feb 10) a piece reporting on research published Jan 19 on how scientists who challenge misinformation on social media – especially on vaccines – are being subjected to abuse and threats and the misinformation is largely unchallenged by the platforms.
The same article offered some examples where some international organizations are seeking to deal with the continuing anti-science / misinformation-rich character of social media.
As a university educator and scientist, I worry about the future for our students.