Technology & Science

Dousing quackery

An interview with Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society, on the subject of mystification.

Brain Fuel for the enquiring mind

Some people fuel their brain and body with dietary supplements bought on the internet, "energized" water, chi machines, crystals and wishful thinking.

"Nonsense!" says Joe Schwarcz. The real brain fuel — and the way to stop quackery in its fanciful tracks — is science.

Joe Schwarcz, aka Dr. Joe, director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society, says understanding how science works will help us recognize quackery.
Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society, is a tireless author, speaker and educator. "We have the mandate of separating sense from nonsense in science, and we try to demystify it and foster critical thinking and look at scientific issues in the news," he told CBC news.

As a long-time magician, Schwarcz knows a lot about mystification. His latest book, a mix of things useful, important and sometimes just cool to know, is Brain Fuel: 199 Mind-expanding Inquiries into the Science of Everyday Life.

Do lima beans cure cancer? Might some fish play a role in diabetes? Can chewing gum boost your bust? And should you worry about bisphenol A?

Does it really matter what people believe or worry about? That's where we started.

The following are edited excerpts from an interview with CBC News:

JS: What I'm really trying to achieve is that when people worry, they worry about things that are worth worrying about, but they don't squander their worries, because that in itself is dangerous. And that whatever information that they use that determines what is worth worrying about or not is science-based and is not hearsay.

Why does it seem to be human nature to believe what just anyone tells us?

JS: I think it's because people want simple answers to complex problems. And very often the wrong or questionable answers are simple, whereas the scientific answers, especially in the health area, are much more complicated. It is much easier to think that if you have some health issue, drinking goji juice is going to solve it, than that there is no specific solution and that there are all kinds of different things that you have to do in order to have benefits. People want the magic bullet. They want simple solutions, and the scientific world just doesn't work like that.

And often that simple solution involves money.  

JS: Yes. And you know what else we want? We want scapegoats. We want something to blame. We want to know that if something has happened, it's not our fault. It is someone else's fault…

Someone deliberately misled us about bisphenol A leaching out of plastic. Someone is trying to hide the danger of shower curtains. And there is some kind of unholy alliance between scientists, physicians and Big Pharma to hide natural therapies that would cure everything. Why? So they can sell us their expensive but ineffective prescription drugs. Unfortunately, this is a view that I see increasingly today. When you see that a book like Kevin Trudeau's — are you familiar with that cretin?


JS: Kevin Trudeau is the king of infomercials… He has been in jail for credit card fraud. He is the only person ever in the United States who has been banned from making infomercials because the Federal Trade Commission has been after him. However, he is a very clever quack, and now he has an infomercial where he is hyping this book that he has written, which is What 'They' Don't Want You to Know About, the "they" of course being the scientific establishment because we, of course, are trying to hide all of these magical natural remedies. And because of freedom of speech, he can say anything he wants in an infomercial when it's talking about a book. …

And he has been making millions, raking it in. It has been on the New York Times bestseller list and it is one of the most outrageous books that has ever been written.

Some of the things in there are so absurd, I even hesitate to mention it. Things like, it says animals in the wild never get sick. And people just lap it up because we want scapegoats. We want to be told if we are sick, it is someone's fault. The world doesn't work like that.

Can you give me a couple of examples of things that worry you about public beliefs? If people want to go and have their ears candled, it's not the end of the world, but some of the things can be dangerous.

JS: Well, if people want to have their ear candled … it isn't a tragedy, because it's not invasive, although as I've said there have been cases of injuries. But it does invade your mind because if you can believe that nonsense, it means you're not thinking scientifically. You're not following the scientific method, you're not thinking logically, and then you can also believe other bits of nonsense.

That in itself may not be dangerous, but then something else comes up, where a false belief may be very wrong, such as vaccination, the belief that vaccines are harmful … promoted by the same sorts of people who promote things like ear candling. These are your naturopaths, your chiropractors, your iridologists and assorted quacks. And there, we are talking about something that is very dangerous: the avoidance of vaccines.

What role do ghost movies and the second-sight TV shows and so on play?

JS: Oh, don't get me started on that! Because of my background in magic, I am particularly irritated by that, as are all honest magicians. Because so many of the effects that the fake psychics — and that's an oxymoron, fake psychics — use to convince people that they can talk to the dead — and I'm not talking about TV shows, I am talking about in the real world, that is where they are really scary — they use magic tricks to convince people that they have supernatural powers….

The belief in the supernatural is unbelievable. And of course that is aided and abetted by all of these shows on TV, ghosts and talking to the dead. Well, never mind the fictional shows. Look at people like James Van Praagh, the guy who talks to the dead. He's on Larry King often. Or John Edward. He's on Larry King, speaking to the dead.

Not seriously?

JS: Seriously.

I've never heard of either of these people.

JS: Really? They only sell books by the millions. Literally. They are much bigger in the U.S. than here, but they are available here.

Speaking of the U.S., and it's not that I want to get into political commentary, but…

JS: Well, I can get into political commentary. I think that Sarah Palin is a very nice looking lady and she speaks a very good game. But to think that someone is going to be one breath away from the U.S. presidency who wants to teach creationism in school, to me, is an absolutely frightening thought….

If you are going to believe in creationism as she literally does, she believes everything started 5,700 years ago, as is. If you're willing to believe that, that means you have set aside scientific evidence. It means that you do not believe in, or do not understand or do not know about, the fossil record and radiocarbon dating and the hundreds and hundreds of pieces of evidence that show that evolution is not a question of belief, evolution is as much a fact as that the world is round and that gravity exists. And if you can set aside all of that scientific information, then how on earth can you make a judgment about global warming? Where are you going to go to get your facts for that? If you can't understand radiocarbon dating or the fossil record, how are you going to understand the nuances of global warming?

Some people believe that scientists worried about global warming are part of some vast conspiracy.

JS: Well, if you look at some of the ultra-right-wing nuts in the U.S., who claim that it is all a big conspiracy, the fact is that they can cherry-pick the scientific information and convince the gullible. I know that I could do that. I could go and speak in front of an audience and very effectively argue some quack notion by selectively picking from the scientific literature, and I could convince them of something. I could convince them that triply distilled sweat from Himalayan camels is the answer to arthritis.

You mean it isn't?

JS: I don't know. I haven't tested it.  

What is the remedy?

JS: What we really have to do is engage students at a very early level. Start if need be in kindergarten, getting them to think critically and scientifically. The emphasis really has to be not on what to think, but on how to go about the process. You have to get them going on the scientific method.

And by high school, I think there needs to be emphasis on how we know what we know, getting them to understand the peer-review process and why the New England Journal is more reliable than the National Enquirer, what's behind it. And how is it that scientists know what they know, and why is it that someone who has spent their life working in the area of science and scientific controversies, that their opinion is more reliable than that of some housewife who happens to have got involved in some cause.

And all the NGOs and the alarmist groups stimulate that kind of stuff. And they are the ones that foster all of this unscientific activism. And I'm not against activism. There certainly is legitimacy, because we do need watchdogs, because industry will try to get away with whatever it can. As long as it is science-based.