By E4D volunteers: Sujata Manandhar, Stéphanie B.M. Cadeddu, and Yuan Chao (Tim) Xue
A lack of good evidence undermines our ability to make informed decisions—from what to eat to who to vote for—threatening both our personal lives and the health of our democracy.
With this in mind, Evidence for Democracy (E4D) launched Evidence Matters in March 2023, their first public awareness campaign to empower Canadians to navigate evidence in everyday life.
E4D organized several online events throughout the month of March, starting with a webinar walking through their New Guides to Understanding and Asking for Evidence. Panel discussions were then held every Wednesday, based around the following topics: Bringing Science and Democracy Together in the Classroom, Empowering Citizens with Evidence, and A Conversation with Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. Expert speakers from E4D, Let’s Talk Science, CIVIX Canada, The Global Commission on Evidence, The Samara Centre for Democracy, Science Up First, award-winning journalists, and Canada’s Chief Science Advisor herself contributed to fruitful discussions at those events.
In Part I of our Evidence Matters summaries, we share key takeaways from the first two discussions.
Bridging Science and Democracy Together in the Classroom
Today’s youth are tomorrow’s decision-makers. As such, it’s important to help young people develop strong critical thinking skills so they can make informed decisions, both in their own personal lives and as engaged citizens within our democracy. Providing opportunities to learn and practice these skills is an important first step, and where better to start than in the classroom!
“STEM engagement in classrooms is critical to help kids develop critical thinking skills together with interest in science.”
Isabel Deslauriers, Let’s Talk Science
Panelists suggested that young people need help developing critical thinking skills to better navigate today’s complex information ecosystem. Youth in Canada are increasingly drawn towards online resources, and unlike adults, they have less experience and context to draw from when trying to identify reliable information. While they are aware of misinformation, it is still a challenge for them to keep up with the exceptionally rapidly changing pace of the online information environment. “Epistemic trespassing” is another challenge, where individuals provide judgment on questions in fields in which they lack knowledge, thus disseminating information online that has not undergone a rigorous scientific and peer-reviewed process.
As Isabel Deslauriers (Director of Youth and Volunteer Experience) explained, the organization Let’s Talk Science identified this gap in critical thinking skills, primarily related to scientific literacy back in 1993. Since then, they have been helping students from Kindergarten to grade 12 develop these skills through engagement in STEM-related projects, like TomatosphereTM, a project that inspires students to think about agriculture and space, from asking questions to making a hypothesis to carrying out scientific tests.
In addition to critical thinking related to science literacy, youth also need more opportunities to understand how critical thinking and evidence go hand-in-hand with decision-making on both a personal and a societal level. Soomin Han, Finance Lead from the Youth Climate Lab and recent high school graduate shared, “There needs to be more guidance in the classroom on how you spot evidence and information and how to apply that evidence in decision-making and conversations around developing policies. I carried that frustration with me throughout my university degree.”
Various non-profit and charitable organizations such as the Youth Climate Lab and CIVIX Canada seek to increase youth awareness regarding the importance of using strong evidence for decision-making. CIVIX Canada in particular aims to equip students with the knowledge and skills to become informed and engaged citizens at an early age. Ken Boyd, Digital Media Literacy Program Manager at CIVIX, shared that their Student Vote program offers middle- and high-school students the opportunity to learn about democratic engagement and experience the voting process firsthand, while their information literacy program, CTRL-F, teaches students how to identify trustworthy and reliable sources of information.
“Governments need to make sure civic education programming is present in our education systems.”
Soomin Han, Youth Climate Lab
However, there is a significant gap and room for the government to be more present within educational systems/classrooms to ensure students have the necessary resources and help to find good evidence for decision-making.
Panelists agreed that governments should add more critical thinking and civic education programming to existing school curricula to ensure young people have access to the necessary resources and context—in accessible language—to make informed decisions.
Empowering Citizens with Evidence
According to Maureen Smith, a citizen leader and Commissioner at the Global Commission on Evidence, many people want to engage with evidence but are overwhelmed by the ongoing infodemic and tend to mistrust traditional evidence disseminators, including government. To overcome these issues, panelists suggested several creative ways to share, search for, access, and use best available evidence-based information. These are presented below.
Involving citizens in knowledge co-production and dissemination
A one-size-fits-all approach to evidence communication cannot meet the needs of all communities or be applied in all circumstances. According to Dr. Krishana Sankar, Science Advisor & Community Partnerships Lead at Science Up First, while researchers can guarantee the integrity and rigor of their findings, scientific evidence can sometimes be perceived as irrelevant (culturally, demographically, etc). To demystify evidence for all groups of citizens and make research relevant for specific communities, traditional disseminators of evidence (e.g., researchers, politicians, policy-makers, the media and trusted organizations) should be working hand-in-hand with citizens to both co-produce and disseminate evidence.
“Traditional disseminators of evidence should be working hand-in-hand with citizens.”
Maureen Smith, citizen leader and commissioner, Evidence Commission
The value of such local connections between evidence creators and evidence disseminators would allow for the translation of scientific evidence in local contexts and practices which would help spread accurate information to different communities. For instance, research partnerships in public health should be one form of such co-production process, says Maureen Smith. In her experience within the rare disease community, having access to the right information allows patients to make informed decisions, such as advocating for diagnostic testing, medications, and the relevant care that will result in the best outcomes. Dr. Sankar also emphasized the importance of supporting groups that translate scientific evidence into accessible language and share evidence within their communities. According to the panelists, such a hand-in-hand process would safeguard citizens’ trust towards traditionally trusted sources of evidence and ensure that evidence remains easy to understand, accessible, and addresses issues relevant to all citizens.
Empowering Citizens Through Capacity Building
To ensure citizens are able to access and use the best available evidence, Beatrice Wayne, Research Manager at the Samara Centre for Democracy, stressed the value of encouraging citizens to build their personal research capacities. This means learning how to find, evaluate, and understand evidence in order to use it effectively. Dr. Sankar followed up by suggesting specific ways individuals can think critically about information, such as considering 1) if the author has the expertise to back up their claim, 2) the reliability and credibility of sources from which information spreads, 3) whether a company is involved in the publication process and whether it profits from it, 4) whether authors of an article cherry pick the data to support their narrative, and 5) whether headlines evoke strong emotions to persuade readers to take a specific stance. Beatrice also stressed that governments could invest in digital and media literacy programs and support public libraries to allow for this kind of knowledge dissemination and to provide local communities with the specific tools that they need.
In our next blog, we summarize E4D’s conversation with Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. Stay tuned!
Sujata Manandhar is a Senior Environmental Scientist at Keefer Ecological Services Ltd. in British Columbia, Canada, contributing to various environmental assessment, research, and policy-related projects.
Stéphanie B.M. Cadeddu, PhD in frugal innovation management, is an Innovation Analyst at the Office of Environment and Innovation at Cegep du Vieux Montreal, where she incubates employee-driven innovation projects. She is striving to be a knowledge bridge between research and innovation practices allied with the notion of sobriety and responsibility to fit in the urgent social and ecological transition.
Yuan Chao (Tim) Xue is a Research and Innovation Manager for Genome British Columbia, a not-for-profit organization supporting research and innovation in the life science sectors in British Columbia, Canada and beyond.