In her shoes… #empathy #conversations”

Ruth's sensible footwear

Ruth’s sensible footwear

Last month marked the closing of the Dewdney Players production of The Calendar Girls (Tim Firth). It was a whirlwind few-months of rehearsals leading into three weeks of packed houses and standing ovations. The experience was a brilliant one for all of us (cast, crew, directors, stagehands, and technicians) and the prospect of striking the set after the final performance was heartbreaking to say the least. I reluctantly let go of “Ruth Reynoldson”.

Theatre is a passion of mine. As audience member and actor, I have found theatre both entertaining and therapeutic. Stories that play out on stage provide a lens through which to view life, society and people a bit differently.  Having roles in plays allows for even more introspection. By stepping into the shoes of a colorful character (like “Ruth”), I have had the opportunity to transform into someone whose world views were different than my own. I learned to empathize with that character.

The set of Calendar Girls Rotary Performing Arts Centre Okotoks, Alberta

The set of Calendar Girls
Rotary Performing Arts Centre
Okotoks, Alberta

What is empathy and why does it matter?

It may surprise you to know that the concept of empathy is a relatively new one. In her article in The Atlantic, Susan Lazoni provides a nice overview of the term’s 100 year old history.  “Empathy” is a translation of the German word Einfühlung which means “feeling-in”.  At the time the term was coined, it was defined as not only a “means to feel another person’s emotion…” but to “enliven an object, or to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world.”

And who doesn’t appreciate the idea of empathy? It only makes sense that the better we relate to the plights of others, the more that we respond kindly, ethically, morally, respectfully to them. Nicholas Kristoff suggests, though, that we have slumped into an “empathy gap”; a place where we have lost our capacity to understand another’s troubles. Our cognitive ‘muscles’ have become a bit sluggish, so says Kristoff.

“Even though I do not look like you or act like you, nonetheless I am like you when it comes to the capacity for suffering, and so I deserve to be treated the same as you…” – Denise Cummins, 2013.

The more empathy, the better. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Yale professor Paul Bloom views empathy a bit differently. He qualifies empathy as “narrow-minded, parochial, and innumerate”. Oooh. Ouch. Now, before we all get up in Bloom’s grill over this, it might be best to qualify his perspective a bit more.  Make no mistake, Bloom does value the importance of empathy as part of human-to-human interaction and a basis for mutual understanding. But Bloom states that empathy, in practice, can often be divisive. Especially when empathy is muddied by emotional bias and when that emotional bias leads to bad social policy.

So, maybe society’s struggle is less about an ‘empathy gap’ but, rather, with ‘misplaced empathy’. We need to ask ourselves: Are we unduly influenced by our tribes and by our cognitive biases? (Likely, see Kahan 2012) Are we stuck in echo chambers where we are completely unaware that our empathies may be misplaced? (Yes, and our ‘fast information nation‘ only serves to exacerbate the problem).

I am not advocating for the abandonment of empathy through these musings. Not at all. Rather, I see this as more of a call-to-action for us to better understand how our emotions, biases and behaviours drive our actions. A combination of empathy, self-awareness, AND reason seem to be in order here (see Cummins and Cummins 2013 and Konnikova 2012).

“Feeling in”: What can we learn about empathy from the acting profession

Our first (very human) reaction is to dismiss people, things and messages that run counter to our world views or way of thinking. We are naturally protective of our personal beliefs. We automatically seek out information that informs, supports and validates those beliefs.

Kevin deLaplante hosts a terrific podcast with an episode entitled “What Critical Thinkers and Communicators can Learn from the Performing Arts”.  In order to carry out their craft, actors need to understand the background, the mindset, the limitations and the possibilities of the character they are to portray.  They need to slip into that role with authenticity. They need to “be” the character and “live” the story through eyes that are often very different from their own.

The sunflower figures heavily in the story of The Calendar Girls. It is a symbol of remembrance, forgiveness, friendship optimism and renewal. Photo courtesy: Jenny Dewey Rohrich

The sunflower figures heavily in the story of The Calendar Girls. It is a symbol of remembrance, forgiveness, friendship, optimism, and renewal.
Photo courtesy: Jenny Dewey Rohrich

We spend time having conversations with others about health, food and food production, science, politics, religion and a range of other (often controversial) topics. We constantly struggle to understand positions that are diametrically opposed to our own because that is part of the age-old human condition. In order to overcome this, we need to cultivate communication skills that force us to challenge our personal biases. Take a cue from performers: “[They] cultivate the ability to empty themselves; to forget who they are and totally and completely become someone else.” (Kevin deLaplante)

This is hard work. And having conversations about controversial topics is hard work.  Here are a few things to think about (adapted from deLaplante) as we move forward in those conversations:

  • Acknowledge the importance of background and subject matter knowledge
  • Understand the arguments of both the defenders and the skeptics
    1. Be willing to put yourself in another’s headspace and be prepared to dwell in that space for a while
    2. Understand how the human animal processes information (cognitive biases and intellectual habits)
    3. Identify beliefs, values and assumptions that drive opinions and behaviors (including your own)
  • Commit to reconstructing the reasoning that has led to deeply held convictions/beliefs (including your own)
  • Remember, it’s a conversation, not a conversion
  • Value truth, understanding, the relationship and the person above any ‘conversational wins’

As Iida Ruishalme so artfully asks and answers in her article here:

“…[W]ho do you think might be more effective … someone who is judgemental, appealing to science, or someone he or she perceives as a friend, who is tolerant of his or her viewpoint, who wishes to understand? I don’t know if I could be that understanding friend. But I know I would like to be.”

I aspire to be that kind of friend and conversationalist, too.

Filling and “Feeling in” those shoes

“Ruth Reynoldson”

There is nothing like donning the sensible footwear, a conservative cardigan and the thoughts and emotions of a story’s character. In the world of theatre, exercising empathy is an important process in understanding and adopting a character’s identity and motivation. It’s about building, animating and authenticating the story.

“Calendar Girl” Ruth Reynoldson is a most interesting character, one that I have grown to love since I was given the role this past June. Over the months, I built a relationship with Ruth. Through her eyes, I learned more about the other characters in the play and I have even learned a little bit more about me.

“Walk a mile…” they say ’cause everyone has a story. Understanding the whole story – the ‘bigger picture’ – takes time, commitment, empathy, critical thought and a lot of self-awareness. Mind you, the whole (story) is even greater than the sum of its parts. So, investing in that kind of conversation is worth the effort.

Thanks to Jenny Dewey Rohrich for allowing me to include her beautiful sunflower photo on this blog post. 


The public-private relationship in research: conflict or opportunity?


  • Research objectives need to be linked to markets and society’s needs; that’s innovation
  • Federal funding agencies (like Genome Canada), and their partners, adhere to strict standards in scientific research, ethics, transparency in engaging key stakeholders and in data/knowledge sharing and outreach
  • The private sector can play a vital role as a partner in research, ensuring that innovative solutions to our most pressing problems make it to the people that need them the most

Ah, the halcyon days of public sector research. I loved it. It was a time and place in my career when reading and writing were prioritized tasks; where traveling the world, sharing and exchanging knowledge, speaking at conferences and collaborative publishing were valued currencies of the profession. It was a world where you could pop down the hall, poke your head into a colleague’s office and say, “How about we knock off for a bit, grab a coffee and have a chat about how busy we are?” (‘hat tip’ to @Sh#tAcademicsSay for that last witty bit – I adapted it).

I jest. Rest assured, public sector researchers are some of the hardest working people I know.

Research objectives need to be linked to markets and society’s needs: that’s innovation

Academic research is an honorable career endeavor. There is nothing more gratifying than feeling like you are directing your work for the greater public good. During my “tenure” as a public sector researcher, I got to work with the best-of-the-best; people from public research institutes and universities all over the world. I regularly interacted with farmers, with grower organizations, as well as consumers and other stakeholders representing local, national and international NGOs and governments. And, yes, I connected with individuals from the private sector. But it seems that these public-private partnerships are under attack even though they are governed by high scientific and ethical standards.

Forgive me as I step back into a personal narrative again… My research, for the most part, involved the examination of how networks of scientists are structured, how they perform, and what – in this wonderful world of public sector research – qualifies as innovative performance and valuable outcomes for society. I also dipped my research toe into the sea of literature and research into public-private partnerships. You could say that, collectively, all of this was in my ‘wheelhouse’. Much of my work between 2001 and 2014 was funded through Genome Canada (specifically, through Genome Canada’s GE3LS program).

So, what does a public-private partnerships, under the auspices of Genome Canada, look like? Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization that funds and supports genomics and genomic-based applied research and technologies in Canada. It is an agency with the goal to “catalyze the creation of economic and social benefits for Canada”. And, yes, this means ensuring that the public sector connects and/or partners with appropriate stakeholders, including the private sector.

In the context of agricultural research, the relationship between the public sector and the private sector is an important one. Why? Well, think about it. If you want to ensure that high-quality and relevant agricultural research is conducted in our academic institutions, research objectives need to be linked to market and societal needs. You won’t see any universities doing back-door deals to sell seeds. And I certainly don’t want my tax dollar going towards those kinds of activities in post-secondary institutions.


Federal funding agencies have a vested interest in ensuring that the best research is conducted so that we can all benefit. They want the private sector to be part of the research and development process. What this means for society is that the research is being used to address real-world problems and has impact for people more broadly.  We call that innovation.

“If innovation is the fuel for the regions to reinvent their economies, higher education is a critical source of that fuel.” Mark Drabenstott (2005) (cited in: Bruininks 2005)

Stakeholder engagement and funding

Partnership structures vary from case to case.  It all depends upon research context and which organizations are involved. The Genome Canada funding model, in particular, requires that a portion of the requested funding for eligible costs for any given project be obtained through co-funding from other sources (matching initiatives are not uncommon in public funding models). In fact, Genome Canada will not release funds to a project until there is a firm commitment for co-funding for eligible costs of the project.

“…Genome Canada funds will not be released to a project until there is a firm commitment for at least 75% of the co-funding for eligible costs of the project and a well-developed and feasible plan for securing the remaining 25% of co-funding.”

Sources include (but are not limited to): companies, industry consortia, trust funds, foundations, charities, government agencies/departments. Funds from the private sector to universities often come in the form of ‘unrestricted grants’ wherein funds are freely given with no strings attached.

And there’s no subterfuge here. The identity of partnering organizations, funding sources and the affiliated collaborative arrangements are all public knowledge.

Yeah, but what about ethics?

Good question. Here’s the deal. All Genome Canada-funded projects need to have appropriate ethics approval. Universities are bound by tri-council agreements and cannot allow any research to carry on that does not have formal approval. And this kind of ethics approval does not happen overnight. It is controlled by the universities involved in the research. The real challenge here is that not all institutions are built the same; they have different processes and guidelines around ethics.  So, sometimes it takes a LONG time for these multi-actor projects to move forward, no matter who is involved. It is important to reiterate that Genome Canada funding will NOT flow until the collective ethics approval is in place. Period.


Simply stated, there are lots of boxes to tick off when setting up collaborative research projects.

Leadership and Accountability

Projects are monitored closely both scientifically (in terms of meeting milestones) and financially (to ensure that funds are being spent on eligible costs).  Continued monitoring also includes ongoing assessments that the project is being carried out to the highest ethical standards. Responsibility and leadership of Genome Canada funded projects always fall under the intellectual direction of a publicly-funded, faculty person. That leader ensures that:

  • Funded projects, and affiliated researchers, share what they learn with a broader audience. This is known as “scientific outreach
  • Data and resources are shared with the wider scientific community as soon as possible
  • Results are published. Publications are viewed as an important output of Genome Canada Funded research projects: “…free online access to these publications is paramount…[and] as soon as possible…”

While Genome Canada ‘sports’ its own kind of partnering/funding model, it appears to operate in a similar manner to agencies in the U.S. See this blog post by weed scientist Andrew Kniss from the University of Wyoming.


Public-private partnerships in research are a GOOD thing!

A few years ago, I conducted a study on how university researchers connect with other stakeholders in the agriculture systems. As part of this work, I traveled to Australia and interviewed a number of people in government, academia and the private sector.  One of the most compelling statements came from the Chief Economist for the Department of Food and Agriculture in Western Australia.

“The likelihood for increased public funding in agriculture is close to zero…so the future of agriculture – whether agriculture likes it or not – is going to be more about strategic partnerships.”

Along with farmers, grower groups and other stakeholders, funding agencies and universities play important roles  in facilitating the collaborative development and transfer of knowledge for the public good.

“As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected and a requirement of my position … that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise…to ensure the public benefits from the best and most complete understanding of research and emerging commercial developments of any technology.” – Dr. Bruce Chassy (2015), Academics Review

To be competitive as a country and to continue to provide for people here in Canada and around the world, cultivating and maintaining relationships across the entire agricultural value chain is the right thing to do. During my entire tenure as a public sector researcher, I was never once “sanctioned” by private sector partners (or other stakeholders) in any way. No one tried to delay, postpone, or otherwise influence the publication of study results. Genome Canada would not support this kind of censorship. It would no way serve the public good.

In a time of declining investment in public sector education and research, if we want good quality and relevant research to reach the end-user (farmers and society more broadly) we need to have the right experts involved that are backed with sufficient funding dollars.  Independent academic experts need resources to be able to lead and carry out high quality scientific research. And they also need to be supported (in different ways) by organizations that are in a position to ensure that research and technological outcomes reach the people and societies that can benefit most from them.

PostScript: Genome Canada is now investing in the GAPP program which aims to foster a more productive interface between Academia and Users.  Check it out, especially if you are a fan of cheese and salmon like I am! J

Update (related articles):

Savage, Steve. (2015). “An Important Public-Private Partnership is Under Attack.” Forbes. August 31.

Lipton, Eric. (2015) “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” New York Times. September 5.

(2015) “Biotech researchers concerned FOIA requests could chill public outreach.” Genetic Expert News Service. September 8.

Johnson, Nathanael. (2015). “Are Scientists that Collaborate with Industry Tainted?“.  The GRIST. September 9.

Senapathy, Kavin. (2015). “Misuse of FOIA: Bullying a mother, scientist, nutrition and lactation expert.” Biology Fortified. September 10.
Kroll, David. (2015) “What the New York Times Missed on Folta and Monsanto’s Cultivations of Academic Scientists.” September 10.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2015). “I’ve been FOIA ed.” Genetic Literacy Project. September 11.

Parrott, Wayne. (2015). “Time to end transparency double-standard targeting biotech scientists.” Generic Literacy Project. September 15. 

Select References:

Bruininks, Robert H. (2005). Regional Economies in Transition: The Role of the Land Grant University in Economic Development. Paper presented for discussion to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC). Available online at:

Chassy, Bruce. (2015).”The USRTK FOIA: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault”. Available online at Academics Review at: (2015). “Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies”. Available online at:

Genome Canada. (2014). Guidelines for Funding Research Projects. Available online at: June.

Kastner et al. (2015). The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens the U.S. Innovation Deficit. Report/Cases studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Available online at: April.

Kniss, Andrew. (2015). “Who funds my weed science program?” Blog post in Weed Control Freaks. August.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Karen Dewar (Genome Canada) and Kari Doersken (Genome Prairie) for their insights and editorial suggestions on this blog post.

Narratives in Action: reliable, compelling information about agriculture, food production and health

Cami Ryan:

“…the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative…” Steven Pinker @sapinker

Originally posted on Cami Ryan:

video_clip_artTED/TEDx TALKS:

Will agriculture be allowed to feed 9 billion?: Rob Saik, CEO of The Agri-Trend Group of Companies is a Professional Agrologist and a Certified Agricultural Consultant. Rob is also the producer of the forthcoming documentary Know GMO: an uplifting discussion about food

Can a GMO be natural?: Jimmy Botella, is the Professor of Plant Biotechnology, School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland. He founded the Plant Genetic Engineering Laboratory specialising in the fields of tropical and subtropical agricultural biotechnology. Jimmy has eleven international patents in the field of Plant Biotechnology and is a founding member of two biotechnology companies (Coridon Ltd. and Origo Biotech) a TEDx Talk

Waiter, there is a gene in my soup!: another one by Jimmy Botella. TEDxUQ 

GMO controversies- science vs public fear: – Borut Bohanec is the Chair of the Department of Agronomy, head of…

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Got drosophila?

Cami Ryan:

Well, its that time of year again… drosophila season. Who has tags and a really tiny pellet gun?

Originally posted on Cami Ryan:

August 20, 2011

Well, its that time of year again. House flies are beginning their sleepy descent into fall, inciting them to buzz in an ‘up close and personal’ manner that can be infuriating to say the least. Not sure what the correlation is here (weather, season, quality of produce) but the fruit flies (my scientist-friends refer to them as Drosophila and they are used as a model organism in genetics) have also descended en masse as well…in our house anyway.

My friend Tammy dropped by this morning for coffee (I missed her birthday while I was on holidays and we planned a belated celebration over coffee and Tammy’s yummy home-made scones). She mentioned her battles with the fruit flies in her own home. She had even resorted to hanging tendrils of sticky fly paper (like Grandma used to) in her kitchen to capture what I now call those “…crafty…

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Storytelling and Science Communication


  • Humans love stories
  • We are living in an era of diminished attention spans triggered by the rise of social media
  • The storytelling device can be an important tool for science communicators

Ah… the narrative. Who doesn’t love a good story?

The tradition of storytelling has always been a critical part of social engagement. Myths and stories illustrate simple moral lessons and learning from them can be empowering. There’s a good reason why so many of us read bedtime stories to our children. Stories and myths can act as mirrors to our society; they often are a reflection of social organization.  They are vehicles for connecting society to a nostalgic past or to a more promising future. Most importantly, in this context, stories provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty (Levi-Strauss 1966).

The human brain LOVES stories!

Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life.  We read them, we listen to them, we tell and re-tell them and we watch them (thank you, Hollywood). Stories – the good ones – have “stickability”.

Enter the fascinating work of Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of the book The Love Molecule. Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the  ‘neuroscience of the narrative’.  According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust.  Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin. The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy.  Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.

Storytelling in the “Post-Literate” Era

While we human animals still love stories, our consumption of stories (and associated behaviors) has evolved over time. Our feet are now firmly entrenched in the “Post-Literate Era” and an age of rapidly diminishing attention spans:            


“The evidence is everywhere: we can even draw the graph of sustained attention, from a 19th Century reader willing to read David Copperfield over several weeks, to long-copy magazine ads of our grandparents’ generation, to web pages that are granted 4.5 seconds to show themselves relevant, and ultimately to Twitter’s 140-character limit.” Killianbranding (2015)

The National Centre for Biotechnology Information reports that the average attention span for a human in 2000 was 12 seconds. By 2015, it was only 8.25 seconds.  The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.


The cognitive muscles that allow us to follow a story, complete a task or to learn and create are weakening. In fact, of the people that clicked on and started reading this blog entry, most only have read a third of the preceding  text and several others have already moved onto things beyond this website.

The storytelling device and science communication

How we connect and interact as human beings has fundamentally changed with the introduction of the Internet.  We no longer share our stories on cave walls. We do it on the fast-moving train of social media.  Selfies and sound-bytes have become the proxy for social interaction and exchange.  This has implications for science communication. Here’s the problem. Science is complex. Explaining science in absolutes runs counter to the culture (and methods) of science itself.  Added to that, how we traditionally communicate the science is not how people want to hear about the science.


For example, if we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with (too many) facts or talking points, only the language processing part of our brain gets activated – the part where we translate words into meaning. Other than the unfortunate side effect of lulling a few people into peaceful slumber, nothing else happens beyond that particular decoding process.

Convey your message through a story format, however, and things transform considerably.  Not only is the language processing part of the brain activated, but other areas as well; including those parts that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events of the story first-hand (Gonzales et al 2006)!

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life…”  “Your Brain on Fiction” by Anne Murphy Paul, New York Times (March 17, 2012)

As scientists and science communicators, if we want to capture and retain the attention of our audience, we need to lead with the narrative. The process is more of an art than a science. The personality (likeability) of the storyteller comes into play, of course.  How the story is told matters a great deal as well.  Employing metaphors in an artful way can stimulate an audience’s senses; what brains see, hear, smell, taste and feel.


Stories are powerful communicators. A successful story will draw us in so far that, as Paul Zak states, we will find ourselves mimicking the feelings and behaviors of the storyteller or the character.  The storytelling device is an important tool for the science communicator. In this world where we strive for immediate gratification, a science communicator needs to anchor new symbols around science. We need to create pictures with our words. In doing so, we transform facts and information into meaningful messages that stimulate the human brain and appeal to human values.

Who are your favorite (most effective) science communicators?

[This blog entry summarizes part of a seminar I gave at the University of California Davis on June 3rd, 2015, entitled: The Brave New World of Public Outreach: understanding human behavior, public opinion and the challenges for science communication. Thank you to the staff, faculty and students at the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis for the kind invitation to present and engage in thoughtful discussion.]

Select References/Resources:

Fast ‘Information’ Nation? The social costs of our highly connected world

We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.


Some statistical ‘appetizers’* for you:

  • Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly active users  and records almost 400,000 “likes” per minute
  • Twitter and Instagram each have almost 300 million monthly active users
  • Instagrammers share 70 million photos and videos everyday
  • There are an estimated 350,000 tweets posted per minute
  • YouTube reaches more U.S. adults (ages 18-34) than cable networks
  • Every second two new members join LinkedIn

Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative.  It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information.  The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth.

“Orange” You Frustrated by This One?

While our new ‘meme’ culture  has cultivated a new generation of idea-generators, it has also sowed seeds for ‘online vandalism’. In February of this year, a photograph of sliced oranges with what appeared to be red veining and discoloration circulated on Facebook. According to the originator of the post, the oranges were imported from Libya and had been injected with the blood of an HIV positive person.

Grossly misleading ‘myths’, like this one, are the “virtual B and Es” (break and enters) that can lead to broader damage.  I volunteered with AIDS Saskatoon for years and worked with men, women and children and their families that were afflicted with or affected by this terrible disease. HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted in the manner described in this bit of misleading information.  The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body. You cannot even get infected from consuming food handled by an HIV-infected person.  This ‘myth’ is an example how nefarious information can generate some serious social costs.  People that suffer with HIV/AIDS already deal with social stigmas. Myths like these only serve to perpetuate those stigmas.

The Snowball Effect

So, maybe you and I are not buying into the kind of information that the ‘online vandals’ propagate. Maybe we aren’t even sharing it.  But others do.  There are huge implications of this. When a story hits social media, the effect is much like a snowball rolling down a hill… it gains volume and momentum.


Based on his studies of societies, cultures, and the cognitive capacity of the human brain, scholar Robin Dunbar determined that there was an optimal number of people that one person could effectively manage or carry on meaningful relationships with within his/her social circle (1992). That number – Dunbar’s Number – is “150” (check out this interview with Dunbar on one of my favorite podcasts Social Science Bites).

With the increased carrying capacity of social media platforms, however, other research suggests that Dunbar’s number is much higher now.  According to Barry Wellman (2012), a social network analyst with the University of Toronto, our effective reach as individuals is now in the neighbourhood of 600 people or more. Those additional links may not be as qualitatively strong as our ‘face-to-face’ connections but advances in communication technology do allow us to track people, activities and to share information in ways unlike ever before. While many stories can quite easily get swallowed up and die a quick death amidst the mass of information, others can become almost pathogenic.  ‘Shareability’ is a function of just how provocative, inflammatory or even ‘sticky’ that information is (check out the cockroach/cherry effect outlined here). The reality is that, as human beings, we are hard wired to believe the worst and buy into what the ‘online vandals’ share.



‘Calories In, Calories Out’ or ‘Binge and Purge’?

So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass information and decide what to include on our ‘plate’? It’s not easy, but there are some basic principles that we can apply. Robert Harris (2015) provides a great “CARS” check list (credibility, accuracy, reliability and support) for evaluating internet sources. I summarize Harris’ points below and add a few of my own for context and clarity:

  • “C” Credibility:
    • What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign)
    • Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words?
    • If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.
    • Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information?
  • “A” Accuracy:
    • Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates?
    • Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading.
  • “R” Reliability:
    • Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate?
    • Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven”
    • Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs  “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).
  • “S” Support:
    • Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.
    • Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.

Monitoring Your Information Diet

We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook profiles aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).

But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.

It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.

 “The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb

[This blog post is a summarization of a presentation I was invited to give to a group of dietitians, food writers, media personalities, educators and chefs at Canola Connect Camp on May 1, 2015. The event was hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (May 1 and 2, 2015) and I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such a diverse group of food-saavy individuals!]

*descriptive statistics sourced from

Other good ‘myth-busting’ sources and tip-sites:


Key references:

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 22, Issue 6, June. Pps: 469-493.

Harris, Robert (2015). Evaluating Internet Research Sources.  Virtual Salt. (previous versions dated: 2013, 2010, 2007)

Konnikova, Maria (2014). The Limits of FriendshipThe New Yorker. October 7.

Wellman, Barry (2012). “Is Dunbar’s Number Up?” Commentary. The British Journal of Psychology. 103(2):174-6