Toronto: As scientific and medical discourse plays out in real time online and in the media during the COVID-19 pandemic, observers specializing in science and risk communication say Canadians must be even more discerning in choosing which expert voices they listen to and amplify.

The recent government guidance on mixing and matching mRNA vaccines amid delivery delays is one of the latest issues to stir up public debate, including within the scientific community.

While access to a wide variety of sources and less institutional gatekeeping are positive overall, the sheer volume of information can contribute to confusion, particularly when it is changing so quickly, said Tim Sly, an epidemiologist and risk communication expert at Ryerson University.

“Science itself is doing the best it can, is running as fast as it can, just to keep up to date with the knowledge,” he said.

Over time, “the weight of the evidence changes,” and a clearer message emerges, he said. But in the meantime, “every day, every radio station’s got two or three experts on their phone-in show,” he said.

As well, an emergency room physician’s perspective on the available knowledge will likely be different from that of a virology expert or someone working with vulnerable communities — a distinction that may not be immediately evident to the public, he said.

Doctors themselves are among those highlighting the highly specialized nature of expertise related to the pandemic.

“We’re clearly at a crossroads in the COVID social media world. Lots of different opinions. Lots of experts,” Dr. Shady Ashamalla, head of general surgery at Toronto’s Sunnybrook hospital, said in a tweet earlier this week.

By Paola Loriggio

The Canadian Press