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Research into sugar, fake news, eye-tracking tech, and a national peace initiative receives funding

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: July 8, 2020 2:00 p.m.

Dr. Donica Belisle, associate professor of history, was awarded $91,826 by SSHRC to delve into why Canadians love sugar and the consequences of that love affair.
Dr. Donica Belisle, associate professor of history, was awarded $91,826 by SSHRC to delve into why Canadians love sugar and the consequences of that love affair. Photo: courtesy of Donica Belisle

Research into sugar, eye-tracking technology, stopping the spread of misinformation, and Pierre Trudeau’s 1983 Peace Initiative has collectively received $710,718 from the Social Science and Research Council’s (SSHRC) Insight Grants program. 

The federal program provides stable support for long-term research initiatives that enables scholars to address complex issues about individuals and societies, and to further our collective understanding. 

SUGAR

Sugar is one of the most controversial foods available today. According to health experts, it is the leading cause of Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Sugar has also been linked to heart disease, kidney failure, Alzheimer's, cancer, tooth decay, and gout. 

Dr. Donica Belisle, associate professor of history, says despite these negative health consequences, Canadians show little interest in decreasing their intake of the sweet food. 

“The daily average global sugar intake, per person, is 17 teaspoons. Most Canadians consume an average of 26 teaspoons a day,” says Belisle. “But both of those numbers are dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, adults should consume no more than six teaspoons daily.” 

How did Canadians become such avid sugar consumers? And, what have been the consequences of such consumption? 

Belisle was awarded $91,826 by SSHRC to delve into these sweet queries by exploring the production, distribution, and consumption of cane and beet sugar between 1890 and 1960 to highlight the reasons behind why Canadians, by the 1960s, became among the top consumers of refined sugar, per capita, in the world. 

“By concentrating on the 1890 to 1960 era, this research will showcase the golden age of Canadian sugar, while uncovering the history of Canadian sugar will help to pinpoint the power relationships that have built Canada’s foodscape,” explains Belisle. 

FAKE NEWS

It’s difficult to escape the proliferation of fake news, and the consequences of its spread. But, what can be done to stop the dissemination of disinformation?  

Dr. Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioural science and an expert in reasoning and decision-making, has received $316,160 to better understand why people believe and spread disinformation online and to help find ways to inoculate the public against false and misleading content. 

$20,000 of that funding was part of a partnership between Canadian Heritage and SSHRC to provide supplements to researchers whose research will develop a better understanding—based on empirical evidence—of the impacts of online disinformation in Canada in order to better inform programs and policies; build Canada's capacity to conduct research on and related to countering online disinformation and other related online harms; and help foster a community of research in the digital citizenship and online disinformation space in Canada.

“The apparent increase in online disinformation–facilitated by the rise of social media–is a major cause for concern, and it’s imperative that something is done about this troubling trend of spreading disinformation,” says Pennycook.  

Pennycook says it’s increasingly common for thousands, if not millions, of people to be exposed to content that was deliberately created to be false or misleading. 

“Sadly, through the sharing of content on social media, members of the general public are both the target and the purveyors of online disinformation. And, while it may sound surprising, it’s a threat to modern democracy because fake news attempts to spread false beliefs in the context of political opinion, leading to increased political polarization, and perhaps even changes to political behaviour (e.g., voting intentions). We need to help people to stop believing and spreading disinformation.” 

Pennycook and his team of researchers will conduct a series of studies using both national and international samples. Specifically, they will survey participants who will be given actual false and true content that has been shared on social media and ask them about perceived accuracy and, separately, their willingness to share on social media. 

“Crucially, the research will investigate specific psychological mechanisms that may cause disinformation to spread (e.g., lazy thinking, emotionality, overconfidence, lack of political knowledge). This research will then be used to help the team create interventions against disinformation,” Pennycook says. 

The ultimate goal of the project is to inform public policy and positively impact the lives of Canadians. 

“Our team believes the insights gained from this research will have a major impact on the scientific literature on disinformation, and will also be of immediate and strong relevance to Canadians.”

EYE TRACKER

English professor Dr. Christian Riegel and psychology professor Dr. Katherine Robinson, both of Campion College at the University of Regina and Fellows of the Royal Society for the Arts (UK), received $204,304 in funding to harness the power of eye trackers. 

“Our research team has a long-standing interest eye-tracking technology which allows eye movements to move objects on screens, or to control software programs or wheelchairs and assistive devices,” says Riegel. “Now we want to develop accessible digital art-making tools for individuals with limited mobility.” 

The researchers will use the money to further develop software and hardware solutions they prototyped under a previous SSHRC grant, to maximize accessibility and usability. 

“Our team will also conduct a series of cognitive and end-user studies to gain rigorous data on what aspects of the mind are engaged–and in what ways–when art is created by using eye movements only, creating a novel and strong data set for best practices in art making that employs eye tracking,” Riegel says. 

The researchers will also continue to build an interdisciplinary collaborative model with best practices for technology development, then use this to strengthen understanding of how community-oriented, interdisciplinary, collaborative research practices can engage a broad range of stakeholders in the response to research questions that have social, health, community, and vulnerable population implications. 

“This research also aims to raise awareness of ableism as a discriminatory practice in society and to produce new understandings of disability, the body, identity, health, and well-being.” 

PEACE INITIATIVE

In his final months as Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau launched a Peace Initiative with the laudable goals of improving East-West relations and reviving arms control negotiations between the US and the USSR. 

“It was a high-profile Canadian foreign policy initiative and Trudeau’s interventions captivated Canadians, though most realized that success was unlikely given the heightened tensions between the two superpowers after 1980,” says Dr. Raymond Blake, history professor and member of the Royal Society of Canada. 

Blake and his research team received $98,826 from SSHRC to examine the Peace Initiative from the Canadian perspective. 

“Our team is going to flip the lens through which the events of 1983-84 have typically been understood,” says Blake. 

Blake says the researchers’ objectives are to offer a new approach to understanding the Peace Initiative by arguing that Trudeau believed Canada had a currency more potent than might–the power of ideas and the power of persuasion that (rather than military power) if marshalled in the proper manner might save the world from nuclear annihilation. 

“We contend that Canada's national identity–much of it self-constructed–as a peace-loving nation and the normative behaviour that flowed from such an identity were major elements propelling Trudeau's Peace Initiative. Our project considers how national identity helped to shape and define—both inside and outside the state—Trudeau's Peace Initiative, offering new interpretations of the role of nationalism, identity, and symbolism in public policy formation while exploring how foreign initiatives have affected domestic politics,” explains Blake. 

Blake says this work will bring an international focus to understanding Canadian identity, situating the nation-building project in an event that also occurred outside the nation itself. It will also tie nationalism and national identity to the public policy process in ways rarely before considered, which will be useful for those in policy-making positions. 

“Looking at the Peace Initiative in this light will certainly resonate in the public arena where national identity, spectacle, and national myths have continuing fascination,” says Blake. 

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